Transcriptional mechanisms that drive angiogenesis and organotypic vascular endothelial cell specialization are poorly understood. Here, we show that retinal endothelial sphingosine 1-phosphate receptors (S1PRs), which restrain vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)-induced angiogenesis, spatially restrict expression of JunB, a member of the activator protein 1 (AP-1) family of transcription factors (TFs). Mechanistically, VEGF induces JunB expression at the sprouting vascular front while S1PR-dependent vascular endothelial (VE)-cadherin assembly suppresses JunB expression in the nascent vascular network, thus creating a gradient of this TF. Endothelial-specific JunB knockout mice showed diminished expression of neurovascular guidance genes and attenuated retinal vascular network progression. In addition, endothelial S1PR signaling is required for normal expression of β-catenin-dependent genes such as TCF/LEF1 and ZIC3 TFs, transporters, and junctional proteins. These results show that S1PR signaling restricts JunB function to the expanding vascular front, thus creating an AP-1 gradient and enabling organotypic endothelial cell specialization of the vascular network.