“His presence was big,” Blakely said. “I mean, he was a pretty big guy himself, over six foot and with his big beard. But you knew when Joe was around. Outgoing as anybody ever could be, and ready to make you laugh.”
Blakely’s role at the shop was installing Merz’s stellar graphic designs on signs, walls, and vehicles. He says he never saw anyone knocks the socks off of clients like Joe.
“Personally, I think what makes a good designer is the ability to sit down and listen to a customer. You have to figure out what the customer is actually telling you and what they’re trying to tell you, which is especially hard if they only give you four or five reference points to work from. Somehow, Joe knew how to turn that conversation into a beautiful piece every time. He was always busy, always in demand, and the client always needed their designs yesterday. Somehow, he kept up.”
Merz’s talents were entirely self-taught, giving him a competitive edge over more classically trained designers. When he passed away suddenly last May, Meeks interviewed endless candidates to fill his position, but found that Merz’s black boots were big shoes to fill.
“Joe never took any classes or anything, and what he taught himself was amazing. It became difficult to fill the orders that he would usually fill, so we were always jumping through hoops to get it done. We met with people who had been through college and all this impressive training, but they just weren’t up to his speed. I would say he was a graphics genius.”
Over the past two years of working together—Merz was at another shop for many years before Meeks bought them out—Blakely and Merz often filled the long working hours with conversations of his other intense passions: blood and beer.
“He loved horror movies, and would go on about titles I had never heard of. He knew them all, and used to talk about the ones he saw with his daughter. And he was a big McNellie’s fan, and would always tell me about their last Pint Night, when they would bring out different beers from all over the world. He was definitely a beer-taster, and got pretty excited for that.”
Merz worked as a graphic designer for more than seven years, until he died in a single-vehicle accident, having lost control of his motorcycle.
“It devastated all of us,” Blakely said. “I remember that it was a Sunday when I found out. It’s still tough to this day. We see cars all the time riding around the streets of Tulsa that he designed and worked so hard on. I always think, There goes Joe Merz.”