With an eye for detail and a love for creativity, Austin Polen grew up with a pencil in his hand rather than a video game controller.
Polen recalls that he loved listening to music and doodling or drawing on anything he could get his hands on at an early age. It helped that a passion for creativity ran in the family. His dad had a side gig custom painting motorcycles and helmets, which was a big influence on Polen.
When he was a young teenager he picked up his first airbrush, playing around with designs on t-shirts and other objects to learn and grow his ability. Over time he also expanded his artistic talent to include pinstriping. “The more you do the more you learn, and I’m constantly learning on a daily basis,” Polen said
Out of high school, he even put in a short time as an apprentice at a tattoo shop and his parents supported his dream of becoming a tattoo artist. After a while though, his love of painting won out and he went back to doing what made him truly happy. “My family has supported me through everything,” he said. “They have always encouraged me to use my ability and put it to good use.
In 2011, Polen decided to focus strictly on custom painting and opened Polen Designs in Goodland, IN and in 2017 moved to Winamac, IN. As a GoKart racer with a presence in the race scene he built his clientele so that he could custom paint helmets full time. “I mostly paint NASCAR, Indy Car, Sprint Car and Kart helmets,” Polen said. “I do some for NHRA Drag Racers, I also paint motorcycles, truly a little bit of everything!”
With the help of social media and a core group of people in his life, Polen has grown over the years. He attributes a lot of his early success to other painters in the helmet scene helping answer questions when he was starting out. “They kind of took me under their wing when they didn’t have to,” Polen said. “Many of us in the industry, we’re kind of like one big family, we can turn to one another and share what we do.”
He wants to help people by also paying it forward. “If someone asks me for advice, I give it. I think back to the help I got starting out and without that help who’s to say I’d be where I am now,” he commented.
His biggest challenge now is wanting to expand but being a one-man-show makes that difficult. “I am grateful that my dad helps me out, but he can’t always be here,” Polen said. “I want to do more with apparel, take on more jobs expanding into other areas, but also keep my schedule on track.”
By growing Polen doesn’t want to jeopardize the quality and integrity that goes into every piece he paints. Being busy is a good problem but expanding is something he needs to give serious thought to in the near future.
It’s essential to use quality products - Polen uses quality paint and SATA spray guns to achieve a superb finish. “A few years back, I had the opportunity to try the SATAminijet 4400 B. It was a night and day difference from what I was previously using,” Polen said. And since then, he’s never used another spray gun brand. In fact, he’s added three more minijets to his lineup, one for primer and two for basecoat. He has high praise for the SATAjet X 5500 RP 1.2 I. “I love this gun, it atomizes so well, spraying clear has never been easier” Polen said. And with the help of the SATA adam 2, his pressure is spot on, every time.
In the last couple years Polen has switched to using SATA RPS Cups, and he can’t get enough of them. “I love them,” he said. “They save me a bunch of time and so much money, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a metal cup.”
After he’s done spraying, he stores leftover base colors in the cups. “I just make sure the bottom and top caps are snapped on tight and put them on my mixing table to use at a later time,” he said. “It’s awesome, a few weeks later if I want to use that color again instead of going through the whole process of mixing, I can literally add a splash of reducer, plug the cup into the spray gun and go. Or if I have to do a small touchup, I can just pour a little amount into my airbrush. It’s just so convenient.”
“I’ve had so many painters ask me, ‘How doesn’t it dry up?’ I’ve learned how to use the cups so I’ve just been doing it this way forever. I probably have 25 RPS Cups with basecoat waiting to be used at any given time.” When using the SATA RPS Cups make sure the bottom cap snaps twice to be sure it is fully closed.
Appreciating the beauty and textures around him, Polen can find inspiration just about anywhere. “I was walking outside and noticed this pattern,” he said. “I told my wife I’m going to take a picture of that and make that as a pattern in a helmet.”
For Polen, finding unique ideas is endless, whether it’s a certain bevel or a shape on a car. He was even in the mall and walked by a sunglasses booth and noticed little pearlescent circles. Thinking it would be cool he recreated the pattern on a helmet. “It turned out so good, I’ve only used it the one time,” Polen said. “I don’t want to overuse it.” Polen likes coming up with fresh ideas that no one else has seen, to give a quality, custom one-of-a-kind vibe.
Some of these helmets can take up to 30 hours or more with the entire masking and painting process that is involved with each layer. With every creation, Polen pours his soul into his work, achieving depth and intricate detailing in each helmet.
Check out more of Polen’s custom work on Instagram or Facebook at Polen Designs.
Written by Andrea Hindt,