An eclectic mix of punk and Americana music spilling from a stereo, teasing photos by German photographer Ellen von Unwerth and racks of bike frames fill Jason Sanchez’s studio and smooth away the somber reality that the meticulous painter works in the hearse garage of a former funeral home.
His paints are stored in the embalming room upstairs. He moves frames on an elevator that once lifted bodies, and the air filtration system built to remove the smells of a mortuary help dry his latest work-in-progress.
People have a visceral reaction to funeral homes – and to bikes painted by Sanchez. He brings the gray steel, crafted by torch and hand, to life.
“I really like the idea of people on bikes. And people on beautiful bikes that I paint is even better,” says Sanchez, a 43-year-old who lives and works in Milwaukee, his hometown. “You have something that’s functional and beautiful.”
Jon Sotherland, the bike builder from Whitewater, describes Sanchez’ finishes as “the blossom on the plant.” Like the individual pedals, his flourishes and perfectly smooth lines at the joints are almost invisible but complete the artistry that makes the flower and his bikes stand apart.
“For people who want to have top quality, show quality bikes, Sanchez is the guy,” Sotherland says.
His attention to detail is more remarkable than his odd location.
From the first cleaning of a newly delivered frame to the final clear coat on a finished one, Sanchez repeats over and over and over the pain-staking steps that anyone who has ever painted anything comes to loathe.
He sands and buffs away any imperfections in the tubes and joints – the microscopic pits and grooves and bumps left from the building process. He tapes each of the lugs, ensuring the lines separating the paint colors are perfect, smooth. Through each step, from primer to paint to clear coat, he repeats and repeats and repeats the minuscule tasks toward perfection.
A simple paint job – and nobody asks him to do those anymore – takes at least four days of work and costs about $500. A highly-detailed job, one with intricate lugs, multiple colors and logos, will take at least two weeks and upwards of $1,500. His total production is roughly two bikes a month.
“He’s at least as obsessive about the paint as I am the bike,” says Dave Wages, an award-winning bike builder based in Waterford. “Jason is going into every square millimeter of the frame, gets it sanded one way or another. His standards are higher than just about anybody. Most people are stunned when they look at the bike. I know a lot of guys are going to shed a tear the first time they get a chip in the paint.”
Sanchez and Wages have partnered for great success in the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. Wage’s Ellis Cycles, including the stainless steel Modern Classic and a touring version of the same bike, won top awards at the show in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
“I am doing really good work and he puts on really good paint, and the combination is stunning,” Wages says.
Going his own way
Sanchez fully recognizes his obsessiveness. He relates that his former co-workers in a custom vehicle shop called him “Eagle Eyes” to mock his attention to detail.
It’s part of the reason – along with his artistic interests – he never quite fit in as an auto body restoration and paint guy.
That’s where he got his start, though, as a 23-year-old learning the trade at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. He first worked at Mark’s Mustangs in Milwaukee, then painted specialty equipment for trucks and recreational vehicles at Custom Vehicle Supply.
During his repair shop days, Sanchez didn’t even know that custom bike builders existed, much less bike painters. And his passion for bicycles had yet to blossom.
When it did, thanks in part to Jonny Kendziera and Jonny’s Bikes, Sanchez found his palette. He started painting bikes for the Madison-based builder in 2005, moonlighting after his full-time gig painting fiberglass parts. His bicycling muse carried him down the path to opening the shop on Milwaukee’s west side in 2007, and going to work full-time for himself two years later.
“There was no grand opening, it was just ‘get to work,’” Sanchez says. “I would lose sleep sometimes because it’s such a tenuous house of cards, but life in general is a tenuous house of cards. It’s a very modest living, sometimes it’s poverty level.”
But the tradeoff seems worth it, Sanchez says. “I really like bikes and I have some training that allows me to be involved in bikes without being an $8-an-hour mechanic. So, I can be a $5-an-hour painter.”
His rewards are the joys of being his own boss, expressing his artistic talent and producing something that his customers cherish.
“I’ve never seen a bicycle that I think looks better than mine,” says Erin Laine, a New Orleans resident who connected with Sanchez through Sotherland, after she met him at the NAHB show and hired him to build a touring bike.
“One thing I was hoping Jason would do was highlight the great work of the frame build and that’s exactly what he did,” Laine says. “Jason went beyond my expectations with details. For example, he painted the little pump peg that holds the pump in the frame with the primary frame color, while the head tube the peg is installed on is painted in the accent color. No one will ever notice the peg except me, but it’s beautiful.”
The pictures of her bike show an exquisite machine, a gallery-quality work of copper, silver and gold. She rides it 5,000 miles a year and expects it will still look perfect after 50,000.
Part of the extensive process that Sanchez enjoys, with some exceptions, is the interaction with the individual builder and customer, from the initial design to the build to the paint. He suggests the subtle artistry that makes each of his works stand alone in group rides, or propped up in a rack.
“He just knows these little extra touches, and that’s the artist part in him,” says Mike Mikulay, a 48-year-old cyclist from Milwaukee. “He has that impulse to take it somewhere else.”
Mikulay met Sanchez at a backyard party in the Riverwest neighborhood, then hired him to paint a rare Chris Chance road bike that he turned into a fixed-gear. More than satisfied with the result, Mikulay and his wife had Sanchez paint their 1992 Trek tandem.
“At the time, it was a significant expense,” Mikulay says. “But we’re going to have these bikes for a long time, and I just love looking at them. The fixed gear is beautiful and we get so many compliments on the tandem. It’s a conversation starter.”
For Sanchez, the motivation to be perfect is tied as much to the start of a bike build as it is to the finish. In music, art and frame-building, he appreciates quality work, and feels a duty to match or exceed it.
“When it’s evident that somebody spent a lot of time designing and building a bike, it motivates me to continue that level of craftsmanship throughout the job,” Sanchez says. “It’s honoring the work of the builder.”
Tom Held is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and blogger at www.TheActivePursuit.com.