Growing up in a small town in East Texas, Todd Sanders knew he wanted to be an artist.

“I just was confident that that’s what I was going to be when I got out into the world,” he said. “And then I went and graduated high school and lost my nerve.”

Sanders moved to California for a few years to work on hot rods before moving back to Texas to attend college in Houston, where he studied graphic design.

Around this time, Sanders and a friend road-tripped to New Braunfels but ended up in Austin due to a missed turn.

Driving by the old Terminix Exterminators building at Lamar Boulevard and Enfield Road, which had a neon sign atop a three-dimensional bug sculpture, Sanders had a feeling.

“I’m like, ‘Man, this just feels right,’” he recalled thinking. “‘I love this city already. I’m totally in love with the neon signs. I’m going to move to Austin and make neon signs.’”

Sanders left school and found work as an apprentice at a local neon sign shop. A customer requested a vintage-style sign, which Sanders worked on.

“It was made the way that the old signs from the 1940s and ‘50s were made. And [the customer] wanted it rusty and weathered. And I just immediately said, ‘This is the medium I want to work in. This is the style I want to work in.’”

In 1997, Sanders purchased a shop at the corner of South First and Annie streets, where he lived in a trailer in the backyard and operated Roadhouse Relics, a successful business making commercial signs and fine art pieces.

“These [signs] are tributes in a way,” Sanders said. “What I’m trying to convey with these pieces are that the old sign painters and the old neon sign builders were true artists, and they didn’t get the credit for that in their lifetime back in the 1940s and ‘50s.”

In 2005, Sanders chose to focus on his art full time.

He was encouraged by Sarah Thompson, a customer who became his wife, as well as a friend of his who worked in hospice care and often heard from patients that they regretted not pursuing a passion while they had the chance.

“That gave me a lot of strength to embark on this adventure because it was terrifying—and it still is,” Sanders said.

For a few years, the Roadhouse Relics art gallery “didn’t make any money at all.”

But today, Sanders’ signs belong to musicians such as Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert—as well as to many local Austinites—and hang in galleries alongside the work of some of his heroes, including Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.

“There was no guarantee that it was going to be a success, but I knew it was going to make me happy to create this way,” Sanders said, “and I’m just thrilled that it’s been such a success.”