In our parents’ and grandparents’ times, hand-painted signage was so commonplace in the average city or town as to become background texture and thus, nearly invisible. Today, a nearby downtown-style mall in Durham alone apes this tradition with simulated wall ads for non-existent products, services, and stores, mimicking the authenticity of the hand-painted signage to be found only a few miles away in the Bull City’s downtown district. This environment of contrasts is commonplace not only in the United States, but across the globe.
“A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”
– Marshall McLuhan
When Marshall McLuhan said this in 1964 he was talking just as much about television’s displacement of the radio in the 20th century as he was the printed word which centuries before displaced oral traditions dating back yet further centuries. What does this have to do with sign painting? Well, in today’s age of inexpensive vinyl lettering, large format printers, and the corner print shop, the art, craft, and business of hand-painted signs and murals becomes all the more special and rare due to its McLuhan-esque oppression in the context of these new mediums.
To show just how widespread this phenomenon is, and to whet your appetite for Thursday’s presentation of Sign Painters, I’ve collected an international assortment of videos documenting the art, craft, and business of contemporary sign painting (or sign writing, as it’s known across the pond as you’ll see).
Let’s start in New York City, with Brooklyn’s own Colossal Media and Sky High Murals. This video, called Up There was my first exposure to the contemporary world of sign painting. It has all of the great characteristics of these videos: close-ups of drip-laden cans of paint as well as brush strokes, hard-working painters generous in their storytelling, and awe-inspiring work.
UP THERE from Jon on Vimeo.
From New York we head across the pond to Dublin, where we meet the Freeney family, a multi-generational family of sign painters (Kevin and Kevin, Jr.) as well as some of their fellow travelers Colm O’Connor, Maser, and James Earley in Gentlemen of Letters.
Gentlemen of Letters – A Dublin Sign Painting Film from Colin Brady on Vimeo.
Now that we’re in Ireland it’s only a short hop over to the UK where we meet Joby Carter, a showman, sign writer, and restorer with Carter’s Steam Fair, a Victorian style traveling fair. Joby’s art is our first deviation from the norm, representing fairground art and signage in 21st Century Victorian.
21st Century Victorian from Adrian Harrison on Vimeo.
Our trip to the UK wouldn’t be complete without stopping in on David A. Smith. You might have seen his work recently for John Mayer or The Kings Of Leon on recent album covers (another “old media” suitable for examination in another article). To me this video represents the most focused contemporary expression of this craft; it’s the purest diamond expressed from the carbon contraction of new media. Everything David does can be simulated in print, on vinyl or film, but it just wouldn’t have the same feel.
David A Smith – Sign Artist from Danny Cooke on Vimeo.
The next stop from the UK is Kenya where we meet Haggai Osewe, a sign writer in Kisumu. Sign writing or wall-branding as it’s also known is still a common form of advertising there.
Signwriter Haggai from Kisumu Reports on Vimeo.
In India we next find both a mirror-like portrayal of the issues involved in the vinyl vs. paint wars to our own as well as a moving example of hand painted lettering in a wholly different context. With Painter Kureshi, part of the HandpaintedType Project, the struggle between the traditions of India’s street painters and vinyl printing businesses is clearly laid out with no easy answers. Many of these street painters have lost their livelihood to vinyl printing.
Painter Kureshi from hanif kureshi on Vimeo.
Horn Please! is an upcoming documentary about Truck Art in India, a unique expression of hand lettering that acts as both art and advertisement for trucks across the subcontinent. This would be a good future double feature with Sign Painters.
Horn Please Trailer from Shantanu Suman on Vimeo.
After India we return to North America with Montréal, Québec’s own Mr. Sign. David Arnold is his civilian name, and in addition to his excellent work, he has a few tricks up his sleeve for painting on glass.
Mr. Sign Documentary from Here On Out on Vimeo.
We’re back in the States (or Colonies if you prefer) in Boston with Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs. Josh gives us a look back into sign painting’s historical context and its contemporary saviors, The Pre-Vinylite Society through Proceed & Be Bold.
Proceed & Be Bold from Mike Chew on Vimeo.
We head to (but don’t mess with) Texas next, with Keepers of the Craft, a short film about Denton’s own Starr Studios. The studio takes an interdisciplinary approach to sign painting, using computers as a tool where necessary and helpful but also employing the classical look and feel of gilt on glass where appropriate.
Keepers of the Craft from Nathaniel Day on Vimeo.
What do Robocop 3 and Fried Green Tomatoes have in common? The hand-painted signs of Atlanta, GA’s own J.J. of LA! JJ is both a muralist and sign painter, specializing in food-related businesses. His goal is to paint food so tasty looking, you’ll want to go up and lick the painting!
Finally, we end back where we started, with a special, extended look at Sign Painters, the documentary.
Shorts on Sundays: Sign Painters on Nowness.com
We’ve taken a trip through the world of contemporary sign painting and that trip has taken us around the globe. The issues of craft vs. commerce are here to stay, but as more of us make our careers in digital media in one form or another, it can be both a relief and inspiration to see what can still be done by hand with a brush. Not because it’s old fashioned, and therefore better, but because it represents our current needs and concerns as a society. Sign painting is a contemporary art and craft, as well as a business.
12 videos not enough? Looking for more hand painted goodness? Check out Better Letters, a directory of hand-crafted lettering artists and events from around the world. They’ve gathered a list of films, expanding beyond those above.
How about a more analog experience? IRL even? Come join AIGA Raleigh as we celebrate the uniquely American aspects of this art and craft for one night only at Raleigh’s own Rialto. There will be a talk by Asheville’s one Timothy Maddox of Mighty Fine Signs and will conclude with a panel discussion featuring Timothy alongside Dunn’s own Suzanne Bircher, of She Paints Signs.
Before he knew what about graphic design or typography, Tim Swezy was copying letters out of his dad’s battered copy of the classic Speedball Textbook for school projects. Today Tim works at Epocrates, in Durham’s beautiful Brightleaf Square designing iOS and Android apps for healthcare professionals. In his free time he still loves to draw letters, but is just as likely to be found gardening or cooking with his wife as he is drawing in pen and ink. In fact he likes the latter so much that he put a ring on it, check out his blog crosshatching.net or follow him on Twitter @crosshatching.