Sign Painting: The Invisible Art, Explored in Film

When I first learned there was a new film exploring the past, present and future of the hand-painted sign in the USA, every beautifully lettered sign I’d ever ignored, glanced at or outright admired flashed before my eyes. They weren’t just signs anymore. They were tangible history. Works of art.

I then had the pleasure of viewing Sign Painters, a film by BOND/360, directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, and learning more about this “invisible” yet very physical art, as well as the talented artists behind it.

The sign painter’s story

Macon explains why he and Levine felt the need to create this film:

There was a time, as recently as the 1980s, when storefronts, murals, banners, barn signs, billboards, and even street signs were all hand-lettered with brush and paint. But, like many skilled trades, the sign industry has been overrun by the techno-fueled promise of quicker and cheaper. The resulting proliferation of computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering and inkjet printers has ushered a creeping sameness into our landscape. Fortunately, there is a growing trend to seek out traditional sign painters and a renaissance in the trade.

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As noted on the Sign Painters website, “What was once a common job has now become a highly specialized trade, a unique craft struggling with technological advances.” But struggle as they might, sign painters are as dedicated as ever. After all, the underground trade was built on a firm foundation, the fruits of which we can still view today on the rustic buildings of America.

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Masters of their craft

In the film, we hear from legends Keith Knecht and Bob Dewhurst and contemporary sign-painters such as Ira Coyne from Washington, Gary Martin out of Austin and Colossal Media in NYC. These humble masters of their craft share a love of lettering and a passion for every part of their creative process, which really shows in their work. Some of them learn the techniques and then apply them to graphic design, which perhaps infuses an extra note of individuality.

As explained on the website:

These vanguards of unseen originality are leading a renaissance with a keen creative purpose and exemplify the working class American success story. Sign Painters celebrates those keeping the tradition intact with a bespoke approach and appreciation for a balance between art and commerce.
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If you’d like to read about sign painters, from solo artists to collaborative shops such as San Francisco’s New Bohemia Signs and New York’s Colossal Media’s Sky High Murals, check out the book, which features a foreword by legendary artist (and former sign painter) Ed Ruscha. The film is also available on iTunes.

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Beyond sign painting

Let me just say: Directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon have created something big here, bigger even than the first anecdotal history of sign painting. I walked away from the film not just with an understanding of the work and passion it takes to create these hand-painted signs we take for granted, but also with a deep sense of wonder and appreciation for humankind. Yeah, yeah. That’s a bit cheesy. But it’s true.

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We all see amazing art and design every day, but Sign Painters made me see it anew. We live in a world with so many talented, passionate people who are making the world a more beautiful place the best way they know how. Yes, there are fewer sign painters out there today than there were years ago. Yes, we’re living in the digital age and may take certain art for granted. But, yes, there are still people hand-painting signs.

Sign Painters has things to say about hand-painted signs, but also about life, passion and humankind. You better believe it.

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Do you think learning the techniques of hand-painting signs could enrich your graphic design work in a way that could help to eradicate the “creeping sameness” in our landscape, as Macon describes it?

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