Maybe it’s a poster in your local bodega, or the sandwich board outside of your favorite bakery. Maybe it’s the “No Parking” warning in a neighborhood lot. Hand-painted signs have long been overlooked, but new ones are popping up all over the US and, fresh or faded, they’re worth paying attention. Many of these everyday works of art are the result of a long-standing, highly skilled but dwindling tradition — one that’s thankfully being rediscovered, learned, and revered by a whole new generation.
Hand-painted signs have been part of America’s culture practically since the country was born. “At one point, every parking sign and every street sign was hand-painted,” says Faythe Levine, a documentarian who’s been researching the trade for a documentary she’s making with Sam Macon (due out in 2013), which also spawned their new book, Sign Painters. “The degree to which sign painters have affected our visual landscape is really hard for us to grasp now because it’s just not ever going to be like that again.” A viable trade and in-demand skill became an outdated form when printed billboards became the norm in the 1960s, and the advent of cheap and fast digital vinyl lettering in the ’80s nearly made sign-painting extinct.
Despite the downturn in business, a small culture of talented, well-trained sign painters persevered —like Keith Knecht, who passed away last year, and John Downer, both profiled in Sign Painters — and now, perhaps just in the nick of time, the handcrafted tradition is seeing a renaissance of sorts. Young sign painters are coming up all over the country, and cities like Brooklyn and San Francisco are rife with new handpainted signage. In the Bay Area, Damon Styer is leading the charge with his shop, New Bohemia Signs. Not only does NBS hand-paint signs, addresses, windows, and menus for businesses all over San Francisco, but it’s also helping to renew the trade through in-demand apprenticeships and workshops.
“It’s probably part of a larger trend of people being interested in traditional process,” Levine says. “I also think that because a lot of us are now working full-time on a computer, there is this re-interest in doing certain things by hand.” For Marjory Garrison, a Los Angeles resident who recently got into the sign painting business, her love of vernacular typography as well as a desire to get involved in her community drew her to the craft. “I do think it has something to do with wanting to have a greater sense of connectedness to things that are handmade and to the people who make them,” she says.
But painting a sign isn’t nearly as simple as putting a brush to wood. Though she’s been making her mark on the neighborhood for several years, Garrison considers herself a novice. “I think there’s an appreciation and a recognition that this is something that takes a really long time to get good at,” she says. Levine echoes the sentiment: “You don’t just become a sign painter overnight. It takes years and years of training and dedication.”
In fact, the most exemplary hand-painted signs are the ones you might not even notice. Design, layout, kerning, brush strokes, color choice, and, perhaps most of all, efficiency are the main tenets of good sign making. “There’s a difference to the hand-painted self-taught folk art signs that I’m aesthetically drawn to,” Levine says. “That’s not what a master sign painter’s work looks like, and it doesn’t represent the trade and the people who have dedicated their entire life to this type of work. Sometimes the most perfect sign has the least amount of flair. It’s just communicating the idea clearly, and you don’t even notice that it’s there.”
For folks who want to get into the trade now, official learning programs are scarce. In fact, there’s only one in the country that still teaches traditional hand-painting methods — a rigorous, two-year sign graphics program run by Doc Guthrie at the Los Angeles Trade-Tech College. Finding a sign painter who’s willing to take on an apprentice is another avenue. Levine suggests that “getting your hands on any of the old out-of-print books is a great way to start and just practicing.” And according to Garrison, online forums, like The Letterheads, are also a good way to find information.
Besides being beautiful works of communication rooted in technique, perhaps the greatest appeal of hand-painted signs is the inherent hope they display. “It used to be that you would own a business and you would pass that business down to your son, and he would pass it down to his son, so it would make sense to invest in having gold leaf on the door of your building,” says Levine. “You wanted to let people know that you weren’t going anywhere.”
A hand-painted sign does more than look good: it evokes an investment and, hopefully, a sense of permanence. Which is one of Garrison’s favorite things about sign painting. “It’s an incredibly optimistic line of work,” she says. “I work with small business owners who are just starting out on something. They are finally opening their general store or their bakery or their restaurant that they’ve always dreamed of, and they’re taking an incredible amount of care about the details.” Details they hope will be around for many years to come.