Sign Painters | Interview with Timothy Maddox of Mighty Fine Signs

Timothy Maddox is a rare breed. He is a young (30) man out in the world excelling at an old craft. His work has the character and skill of someone who has been painting signs longer than he has been alive. Which is exactly why we are so excited to have him as our opening speaker for our February 27 (NEXT THURSDAY!) screening of the Sign Painters Movie. He is so ready to share stories, knowledge and bring people as close as he can to this craft short of handing them a brush and a can of One-Shot.

Come see Timothy next Thursday at our Sign Painters Movie Screening. ONE NIGHT ONLY! 

What sparked your interest in becoming a sign painter?
Loving hand-painted signs!  Seeing the individual’s hand represented in the work and the uniqueness of each piece:  the human-quality, the flaws, that are inherent in such a direct form creation were (and are) inspiring.  It helps create a space for me to create without such an expectation of perfection.  I have found perfection in the flaws, but valiant attempt, of the individual.

How did you go about getting training as a sign painter?
I studied signs on the streets and ordered some brushes!  I had no idea what brushes were to be used, but had an Andrew Mack & Sons brush catalog.  I got a can of black 1-Shot paint and start painting, line by line, on a roll of butcher paper.  I painted over 20 linear feet of 36” wide paper before I started to contact sign painters.  Everyone I reached out to was really helpful and told me I was doing it wrong!  And of course they were correct!  But, the stuff I was doing didn’t look too terrible and I realized that many sign painters have their own way of doing it.  I did take the advice I was given and it was really helpful.  Many people paint signs without the basic knowledge of traditional sign painting and I really dig that stuff.  But, I’m a craftsman so I was thankful to get on the right track.

But, to back track, I was visiting friends in Oakland, California and luckily happened to drive by Golden West Signs in South Berkeley.  I stopped in and met Derek and Tina, who run the shop.  As soon as I returned to North Carolina I ordered those first brushes and sign paint.

So after my initial attempts to learn sign painting, I emailed every sign painter in the country that I could find asking if I could get an apprenticeship or job.  Well many sign painters, I realize now, don’t run a business that can afford a proper apprenticeship.  But, Derek McDonald at Golden West Signs said I was welcome to hang out in the shop if I was ever back in the Bay.  So, I subleased my place and made plans to travel that way.  Derek and Tina were incredibly gracious and let me hang around the shop for a while.  I watched Derek and a fella named Duncan painting and they let me practice as much as I wanted on butcher paper.  And they gave me great tips along the way and talked about their process.  They even let me help on some jobs, doing second-coats and whatnot.

I came home with an idea of how a traditional sign-painter worked and what their set-up looked like.  I set up shop best that I could and got to work, practicing.  Fairly quickly I picked up some work and have been at it since.


What are some of the greatest challenges you have had?
Not worrying about what the hell I’m doing and what my future looks like. Also, I’m a perfectionist and it’s really hard to break.  I like sign painting because of its directness and flaws, but I struggle implementing the IOAFS theory.  And it is what I love about the craft.  I hope I’m getting there, even slowly.  If you don’t know the IOAFS theory, watch the Sign Painter Movie.

Where does your inspiration come from?
Seeing hand-painted signs on the streets and feeling so passionate about them.

What are some of your favorite tools for the creative process?
Talk-radio, podcasts, rock-n-roll, R&B, pencils, erasers, yard sticks, Sharpies, butcher paper, Mack 179 No. 6 quill, . . .

What is the most frustrating aspect of your job?
I don’t really care for money.  But to do what I love and be self-employed I have to make money.  I have to tell people how much money they have to pay me.  And, some people don’t like letting go of their money.  

Who are your sign painting idols?
Derek McDonald, he is the real deal.  And, he is such an incredibly nice guy.  His work and his approach are . . . damn, he is the real deal.  Duncan Knappen has worked with him for a while and is also the real deal and a great fella.  Duncan is really competent and super talented. Sean Barton is so good and I love his work. Everybody in the movie is rad.  And for that matter, anyone painting signs is my favorite.  And anyone who painted signs is my favorite.  I love visiting towns and cities and figuring out who painted what.  Whoever the sign painter in the town was, that is my favorite sign painter at that moment.

Can you share an interesting bit of the history of sign painting?
I’ve been told that Sho’ Card painters were the top bunch of folks in the trade.  They wore suits to work, but I guess suits used to be more common in the workplace anyhow.


Who are your clients? Why do they choose sign painting?
Sometimes hip, boutique-type stores and restaurants will commission signs because they are aware of the resurgence in the craft.  These people tend to be selling a product or idea that they really care about and want every aspect of their business to reflect that.  And, often folks realize that having a sign painter create their artwork will produce a look and feel that can’t be authentically created otherwise.  And come on, it is cool to have a hand-painted sign.  Business owners who think the price is fair and understand that the sign will last longer than vinyl or digital prints will commission signs.  And once they understand that the sign will age gracefully they see the extended life of the sign, too. Individuals who want lettering that looks cool and unique will commission sign work. And some people just need a sign and I’m the person that talks to them first.  They don’t care what it is made out of and they don’t care to know the options.  If the price sounds fair, they are ready for the sign.

What would like to see for the future of sign painting?
I just want to see more hand-painted signs.  And if someone wants to paint signs, I want them to have work.  I want to see more amateur attempts at sign painting instead of computer graphic printed up in minutes.  Give me crude letters, bad paint, whatever. . . Give the person on the corner some paint and a brush and a job.  Creating something by hand connects humanity and puts smiles on faces.  

There seems to be a resurgence in hand crafted work going on, including sign painting, how has that impacted your work?
As an adult, my work has almost always been handcrafted work.  So sign painting is another way to stick with that.  I like making things and I like talking to humans.  I like talking to hawks, dogs, and lots of things.  I can talk and make things.  I can’t write and talk.  I can hardly think without talking.  Handcrafted work helps me see the unique beauty of one another.  It helps me feel connected to my species.  I don’t know if that is why there is resurgence in handcrafts, but it is surely great for my well-being.


By Lenny Terenzi
Published February 22, 2014