By David Skinner/Arizona Sonora News
Paint is everywhere. It’s on the sidewalk you’re walking on. It’s on the sign that’s directing you and it’s on the building you are walking into.
If you don’t look, you won’t notice, and that goes for the people applying it as well. There is always a story behind the paint, and an even deeper story behind the painter.
Steve Plaisted has lived in Tucson for most of his life and has painted most of his life as well. The 50-year-old graduated from Santa Rita High School in 1987, was a star running back during his time there and decided to settle in Tucson after his parents had moved here from Southern California in 1972. Plaisted met his wife in Tucson and raised his children in the Old Pueblo as well.
He knows Tucson like the back of his hand, which means he knows the best breakfast spots. His favorite? The Bread and Butter Cafe, an unassuming diner with a charm that comes from the regular customers and veteran staff rather than the decor.
“I consider myself a California boy, but I grew up in Tucson,” says Plaisted as he settles into his seat and puts his black coffee to his lips. “I love it here though, man. The weather is awesome, it’s cheap and it hasn’t wronged me yet,” says Plaisted at 7:30 on a cool fall morning with a T-shirt and his customary white painter pants. Elsewhere around the country, other painters are wrapping themselves up with their thick Carhart jackets and heavily-lined with long johns.
Paint is what he’s been doing since he was a teenager. He’s painted probably every possible type of building you can imagine: schools, airplane hangars, warehouses, barns—you name it. Plaisted has done it and done it well.
Plaisted also gets some familial help as his sons work in the business. Paint is personal to Plaisted: it’s what provides for his family, it’s what he is great at, and it also is a family trade.
“My dad was a painter and contractor,” he says, “so I started working for him when I was 14. And I had Andre, my son, working for me when he was about 12 or 13.”
Painting in Tucson, and in the Southwest in general, is something that can wear on a person’s body. The five-month summers, the triple-digit heat and the unrelenting sun take a toll on the people working in a profession in which many of the hours are spent outside without shade or cover.
Painters and contractors often have to wear long-sleeved clothing to protect from sunburns, and when they do happen to catch a break from the unforgiving heat, they are working inside with no air conditioning. This is so that when they spray the paint on the wall there won’t be any interference from the wind flow in the house.
“I started out painting elementary schools in the summer, and we would have 90 days to finish the whole building,” says Plaisted. “They had us working 10 hours a day for the first 50 days or so, Monday through Friday. Those were the longest summers of my life.”
Paint is also personal. The ceiling that you stare at when lying down after a hard day is covered in paint. The color, the tone, it all is unique in order to meet the specific needs for that room. Child care facility? It’s going to bright, durable and easy to wash. Business room? Toned down, more dull and unnoticeable. Distracting business partners with your wall color isn’t usually a sound strategy.
“The biggest thing that has changed since I started out almost 40 years ago is the quality,” says Plaisted. “Back in the day, guys would only buy high-end stuff. They would take their time on jobs and have pride in their work.” People put extra time into their work because word of mouth was the main source of business for many painters, according to Plaisted.
If your product or work wasn’t good, people would let other people know, and it would impact not only your business but also your reputation. In a tight-knit town like Tucson, your reputation could make you or break you. Plaisted, who maintains a crew of just two others, believes in the old-school method of quality over quantity.
“I just saw the quality go down and it was hard to manage that many people who couldn’t even manage themselves,” he says. “It’s just easier to have the couple guys you trust and show up at 6 in the morning on the other side of town and not leave you hanging.”
The smaller crew limits Plaisted to painting mostly houses and industrial offices. But it keeps him in business, as the quality of his work keeps him going from job to job, no matter how small the task.
“Nowadays, almost all of my jobs are fixing whatever mess the (other) painter created before I got there,” says Plaisted. “People are just looking to make a quick buck, and people don’t want to pay for high-end work, and then you end up with me fixing pink cabinets when the homeowner specifically asked for red.”
Plaisted takes the final bite of his breakfast and then shuffles over to the old clients of his who congregate every morning in the corner of The Bread and Butter Cafe.
“I painted that guy’s dealership 20-something years ago,” says Plaisted with a smile that only comes with a sense of confidence of a job well done. “If you ever need a car, I’ll get you in touch. Best car guy in Tucson right there.”
When you’ve been working in and around Tucson as long as Plaisted has, you know just about everybody, and everybody who is somebody knows you.