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Sign Painters - Ten Years Later

A decade after the release of feature-length documentary, Sign Painters, Sam Roberts speaks with those that appeared in it, and whose lives were changed by it, as they reflect on its pivotal role

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A spread from the Sign Painters book, featuring work by Jeff Canham: 1 Shot is a leading brand of sign painting paints

On March 30th, 2013, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC hosted the world premiere of Sign Painters. The feature-length documentary went on to be screened in cinemas, bars, lecture halls, and sign shops across the globe. 

Its impact has been far-reaching, and it helped to usher in a new generation of sign painting aficionados and professionals alike.

The cover of the companion book to the film, designed and painted by Ira Coyne

The film in context

The film (and companion book) came at a moment when there was a hankering after the hand-made in the face of cookie-cutter aesthetics emanating from digital and print technologies—sign painting itself had suffered years in the doldrums following the arrival of vinyl plotters into the market. Faythe Levine, co-director of Sign Painters, had already observed the turning tide in her 2009 book and film, Handmade Nation.

The juncture was exemplified by two of the sign painting courses featured in Sign Painters. One of these, at Boston’s Butera School, is shown closing down on the DVD extras, while the Sign Graphics Program at Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC) was kept going by its lead instructor Doc Guthrie. Following the film’s release, his course saw enrolments more than double, requiring new instructors to meet demand. 

While some directly credit the film for sign painting’s resurgence over the last ten years, I’ve always thought of it as a catalyst, accelerating a process that was already underway. That is not to underestimate its impact, which was significant—one of its stars, Forrest Wozniak, notes that it “brought sign painting to a broader audience, most notably the art world”.

Scores of custom publicity pieces were produced for the film. Pictured: a publicity piece designed and painted by Mark Oatis for the 2013 Las Vegas premiere. Image courtesy of Mark Oatis

An invitation to paint

In addition to reaching new audiences in the art, design, and advertising worlds, Sign Painters also inspired people around the world to take up sign painting—it opened their eyes to the fact that this could actually be a vocation.

One of these was Barcelona’s Adrian Peréz who was working as a digital graphic designer when the film presented him with a path better aligned with his passions. He “bought some paint, a brush, and started filling sheet after sheet with lines and lines of practise strokes”. Peréz is now one of Spain’s pre-eminent sign painters and gilders, and has also taught the craft to others.

Georgina Tozer in Bristol had just started her own lettering journey when the film came out, and credits it with “widening my view of what being a sign painter could mean”. It was also a turning point for Dan Ricketts in St Louis: “I never thought I would be able to support my family through art, but I’m doing it and it feels great”.

A chance encounter with the book in Portland Oregon prompted Nami Oh to think to herself, “Sign painting is a thing?”. She then saw the film and promptly enrolled onto Guthrie’s course at LATTC before eventually turning her back on her fashion industry career to paint signs full-time.

Publicity for the 2014 London screenings painted by Ash Bishop at Brilliant Signs and Mark Josling of Spectrum Signs. The film was paired with Horn Please, a shorter documentary about traditional sign painting in India, for these three sell-out nights. Photograph: A.J. Levy

And what of the stars?

The film itself grew out of conversations between Levine, Macon, and Levine’s friend, and sign painter, Ira Coyne. He recalls that “at the time sign painting was in a dire state; there was very little work and it was still mostly invisible to the public”. 

This, and the stories he was relaying to them about “a massive gap in generational knowledge”, spurred the directors on to produce the documentary. With Ira’s help, they tracked down the first few sign painters to interview, with each interview opening up new leads to follow across the USA.

One of the later interviews was with Mike Meyer, which came about because so many others had said they had to speak to him. “I was, and still am, very honoured” says Meyer, a sentiment echoed by Roderick Treece for whom it was “quite frankly an honour to finally have someone consider what you’ve spent your life doing as worthy of such attention”.

Still from the Sign Painters film showing Sean Barton lettering with a mahl stick and sign painting brush

Bob Dewhurst didn’t feel he belonged in the film, but was swayed once he understood that it wasn’t “an exposition of who’s the best sign painter, just about what kind of people became sign painters, and what their world was about”. He says that the film gave him and the trade a greater sense of “pride and enthusiasm”, and that it “had a great effect on public appreciation of hand-painted signs”.

The impact of the film on the work of some of its stars was also notable. For Meyer it “put me in a position to do something I didn’t know I could do: teach sign painting”. 

Wozniak recalls that “it ultimately allowed me to take the leap and quit construction” while, for Norma Jeanne Maloney, “at the age of 50 I was finally making a living with my brush”. Coyne also saw his fortunes change with “the book and movie making the trade sustainable for me for the first time ever”.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those in the film that are no longer with us: Keith Knecht who died while it was being made, and Robert Curry, Justin Green, and Doc Guthrie in the intervening decade. 
Josh Luke of Boston’s Best Dressed Signs working on a gilded and hand-painted window sign

The next generation

Many of Sign Painters’ stars talk of the bridges it built between themselves and others in the trade, including those following a new path having seen the film. 

Damon Styer at San Francisco’s New Bohemia Signs explains: “One of my painters, Shinya, came here eight years ago to intern. This was on account of the film. He later flew me to Tokyo to run a workshop, and now he's back in San Francisco working for me.”

Phil Vandervaart’s advice to those starting out today is to “learn to give a good finished product before you worry about the money, and get over your ego which automatically gets wrapped up in the money”. 

And Treece reflects on the dream that can be realised through a life in sign painting: “Having Sam [Macon] and Faythe [Levine] come along with their dream helped spark great memories of a lifetime of creating cool things. 

“Of living a dream of being on your own, working and playing on your own terms. I see so many young people today that are trying to live the dream, and I wish them all the best.”

To celebrate a decade since the release of Sign Painters, BLAG (Better Letters Magazine) is hosting an online screening on Saturday, 18th March at 7pm GMT. 

This will feature an introduction from directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, and an opportunity to ask questions of them and many of the film’s stars. Visit bl.ag/signpainters for details and booking information for this free event.

Sam Roberts is the editor and publisher of BLAG (Better Letters Magazine), the world's only print and online publication dedicated to sign painting. 

He has written numerous books and articles on the craft and its history, and first became interested in the topic via the fading ‘ghost’ signs around London. 

SignLink subscribers can sign up with a special discount to the publication via bl.ag/signlink.

Find more about Roberts and his work via:

@betterletters (instagram)
@ghostsigns (twitter)
@mrghostsigns (instagram) 

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