Sign Painters, a new book by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, profiles the men and women whose hand-lettered handiwork can still be seen in small towns and big cities across the country. Here, Seattle’s Sean Barton is hard at work.

Work by Ira Coyne from Olympia, Washington.

Roderick Laine Treece collaborated with designer Dikayl Rimmasch to create these mirrors for a Ralph Lauren store in New York.

Signs by Mike Meyer.

Meyer works out of Mazeppa, Minnesota.

Jeff Canham’s nod to 1 Shot.

A stunning piece by San Francisco’s Damon Styer.

Josh Luke perfecting the Chameleon Tattoo and Body Piercing Shop in Boston.

Josh Luke perfecting the Chameleon Tattoo and Body Piercing Shop in Boston.

Dusty’s Bar in Minneapolis got the Phil Vandervaart treatment.

A work in progress from New York’s Colossal Media.

Colossal Media, making magic.

Co.Design

Paying Tribute To Artists Who Hand-Paint Signs In A Digital Age

Faythe Levine and Sam Macon explore the life and times of modern-day sign painters.

“At one point in the not-so-distant past, you’d call your plumber to fix the toilet and the sign painter to letter the window,” Faythe Levine tells Co.Design. “It was another trade job that has since just dried up to the point of near extinction in our vocabulary.” Levine has been a longtime champion of people-powered creative endeavors (see: Handmade Nation), and now the multitalented multi-hyphenate--curator-artist-photographer--has turned her attentions to the life and times of these modern-day artisans with a new book (and forthcoming movie).

The passion project has been in production for almost four years, a collaboration between Levine and filmmaker Sam Macon to document the personalities who keep the profession alive in the face of a booming digital revolution. “One of our goals is to re-educate our generation--and those to come--about who these people are and what they’ve contributed to our landscape,” Levine says, in addition to opening up a larger discussion about “process, permanence, and investment.”

Macon explains that the trade started to “vanish” in the mid-'80s, reducing the once-ubiquitous need for these niche professionals to, well, a niche. The time is certainly right for a renaissance, as consumer attentions turn to the importance of heritage and provenance, and businesses search for authenticity in a world beset by quick fixes and somewhat empty branding efforts. “There seems to be a new level of attention being paid to process,” Macon says. “People want to know who made something, where it was made, and how it was made.” But despite this fortuitous, zeitgeist-y appeal, those who continue to practice the craft are interested in the work, not the trend. “One thing we really learned is that sign painters don’t do it because it’s ‘old-timey’ or ‘retro,’” Macon says. “It’s just the best way to make a quality sign. Gold leaf lettering on glass is the best way to let a potential customer know that you are in business to do business.”

The enduring appeal of freedom--in many different incarnations--afforded by the trade popped up throughout the featured profiles. “These seemingly simple ideas like being self-employed, making a living doing what you love, the ability to travel from one city to the next and find work--we don’t really think about how incredibly difficult it is to do that,” Macon says. “Sign painting enabled these men and women to buy houses, to put kids through college, to buy motorcycles and hit the road.” Plus, of course, the obvious appeal of leaving one’s mark on the built landscape. “Another common thread was the desire to have a hand in defining the way the world looks.”

The book is full of stunning full-color shots of finished signs and works-in-progress of folks from San Francisco and Iowa City to Mazeppa and Boston. Even artist Ed Ruscha gets in on the action, penning a poignant foreword in which he waxes poetic about, amongst other simple pleasures, “the ecstasy of seeing a sign on metal with a beautifully built-up edge of paint bulging from one side of the letter stroke!”

Ultimately, Levine is optimistic about the future of the field. “It’s something that can be taught,” she says. “Having a creative flair or interest in the arts can help, but it’s all about practice, layout, and design." The sign industry will never be what it once was," she continues, "but those who are continuing on the tradition of hand paint will keep it alive for some time.”

Pre-order the book here.

Add New Comment

7 Comments

  • Kevski

    A brewery down the road from me (Wadworth's - a national brewery, but still family-owned) still have a sign-writers department, where all the signs for Wadworth's-owned pubs are hand-drawn and hand-painted. And they still deliver the beer by dray horse and cart to pubs within a two-three mile radius. You gotta love some traditions..
    Oh, and the beer is mighty fine, too!
    http://www.wadworth.co.uk/

  • Amber King

    I like one sign that stated, "Sign Painters do it in 1 shot" Hand sign painters are amazing, they have the patience to do these. They should be given tribute.

  • MrsDogood

    Thanks for this article and tribute to sign painters. I spent two summers working with my dad when I was younger. He recently past away, wish I could have shown him this article.

    My dad was a sign painter who was always sought after to work on the high quality jobs, often giving welcomed advise to the designers that helped improve their artwork. Plus, he had no fear of heights and did all the local jobs that were HIGH up. The first high-rise job I helped my dad with, he always preferred a single plank to walk on across the scaffolding, he chewed me out and said, "Look what you did!", I didn't realize that I had dragged my hand across the sign to steady myself and left a streak across the entire length of the sign. After working with my dad, I took up rock climbing to face and overcome my fear of heights.

    Reading Linda's comment below about her uncle, sounds like he and my dad were two of a kind.

  • Linda

    It is so wonderful to see this art form honored. My late uncle was a sign painter in Chicago. He would do everything from pictorial bill boards on the tops of buildings in Chicago's Loop, to hand lettering on glass doors with gold leaf (which was a whole extra skill set), to wall murals (he advised Claes Oldenburg that pink/red paint would fade too easily. So Oldenburg's "Pink Pills" wall mural became "Green Pills").

    He had a real craftsman's pride in his work. I sure he would be so happy that a new generation is reviving this.

  • rktrixy

    I love a hand-painted gilt sign.  So classy and attention grabbing at the same time. 

    I think with the rise of tech, there has been a renewed interest in what we can do by hand.  Hand crafts, cooking, farming, sewing - everything that is tangible, touchable, and done with love and spirit.  No 3D printing, no bits and bytes, no plastic peel-off stick-um sign.   Call me romantic - I think we can have both, in balance.

  • Different Fur

    wow! thanks for featuring our sign... damon actually designed all of the new Different Fur logoing as well as doing the actual sign painting and gilding