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Sign Painting Corner: Meet the Letterheads

In this month’s Sign Painting Corner Column, Sam Roberts tells us about the Letterheads group and how its sense of community and skills sharing is keeping the art of sign painting alive

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Panel jamming at the Bargehouse, behind the OXO Tower, at the 2018 meet in London. Photo: Colin Allen

Around the world, gatherings of sign painters have been happening informally since 1975. These Letterheads ‘meets’ play an important role in passing skills from one generation to another, and fostering a culture of mutual support within the trade.

Ten years ago this March, I was greeted at Minneapolis airport by temperatures of -16? and a man with a fox on his head – ‘wear the fox hat’, as they say. That man was Mike Meyer, and I was visiting America for the first time to attend his Mazeppa Mardi Gras Letterheads meet. At the time, I didn’t know what to expect, nor that the trip would change my life.

Letterheads Meets

The origins of the Letterheads movement were a series of gatherings of sign painting apprentices in Denver, Colorado, in the mid-1970s. To this day, its lifeblood remains those that are relatively new to the trade, with the broad aim of sharing knowledge, skills, and time with other like-minded craftspeople, invariably accompanied by liquid and other refreshments.

The seven original Letterheads, Denver 1985. [L to R] Bob Mitchell, Mark Oatis, John Frazier, Mike Rielley, Noel Weber, Earl Vehill, Rick Flores. (The women are currently unidentified.)

Letterheads ‘meets’ (the correct term for these gatherings) can vary in size and format, from a few people getting together in a sign shop over a couple of beers, through to multi-day events with hundreds of international guests.

There is no fixed itinerary for a meet, although one of the staples is the ‘panel jam’. This is simply people painting small signs and panels without the usual pressure of client work. The results are often humorous and creative and are swapped with others, or sold at a charity auction at the end of the meet. 

Other elements can include short workshops; formal and informal technical demonstrations; collaborative projects such as murals; and things like talks, screenings, and local sign-spotting walks.

An Anarchic Organisation

Hosting a meet is a voluntary undertaking and this approach has endured for nearly 50 years with hundreds of events taking place around the world over that time. This is a remarkable achievement for what I have dubbed an ‘anarchic organisation’, as articulated in this segment from a Signs of the Times article by original Letterhead, Mart Oatis:

“It’s important that a formal organisation — with officers, dues, etc. — is never made of the Letterheads. As long as things remain somewhat spontaneous, dependent upon individual effort and participation, things will remain fun. Give it a president and collect dues, and it becomes an establishment to rebel against… and sign artists are a typically rebellious lot, anyway.”

Going Global

Oatis was writing in 1985 on the tenth anniversary of the movement’s origins, and by that point it had spread across the US and Canada. By the 1990s, meets were happening outside of North America, including Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK. (Those in Australia and New Zealand are annual affairs, and New Zealand celebrated its 25th anniversary event in 2022 after the Covid-induced hiatus.)

Panel jamming and screenprinting in full swing at the 2019 Tokyo Letterheads meet. Photo: RIO / @rioyamamoto

The release of Sign Painters in 2013 (see column in SignLink April/May 2023) prompted a renewed interest in the Letterheads, as well as the craft of sign painting in general. One of the film’s most memorable contributions was from Keith Knecht (RIP), and includes him recounting his induction into the movement, and learning of its motto, IOAFS (look it up!), for the first time.

The decade following the film’s release saw a flourishing of meets in Europe, with events held in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Copenhagen, Glasgow, Helsinki, London, Norwich, Oslo, Porto, and Rochester. 

2019 also saw the Letterheads land in Tokyo, Japan, and a 2023 gathering brought the movement to Mexico for the first time. In 2020, there was also an online manifestation in the form of Lockdown Letterheads, hosted live on Zoom over 24 hours.

I, Letterhead

I was one of those introduced to the Letterheads by the Sign Painters film, and one month after its 2014 London screenings, I was in the frozen midwest town of Mazeppa, Minnesota, for Mike Meyer’s meet. 

He is a veteran host of numerous events, and one of my enduring memories was how welcoming and encouraging he and all of the 40 or so guests were. There was an overwhelming camaraderie, and I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store getting to watch all these professionals wielding their brushes in the flesh.

Going, going, gone! Panels being auctioned at the 2023 Benelux Letterheads meet in Brussels. Photo: Ben Boisacq, ACHROMAT / @achromat.studio

I’m not a sign painter, but was quickly christened a Letterhead – perhaps due to my work documenting and researching ghost signs – and was instantly hooked. I attended my next meet in Rochester, UK, that same year, and then made it back to America for the 40th anniversary event at The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2015.

In 2018, I had the privilege of being part of the team that hosted the international London Calling meet on the banks of the Thames. This welcomed 250 guests from 30 countries to my home city for the first time, with four days of panel jamming, workshops, demonstrations, talks, screenings, and excursions.

Panel jamming at the 2023 Benelux Letterheads meet in Brussels. Photo: Ben Boisacq, ACHROMAT / @achromat.studio

Many that I’ve spoken to since the London event described it as a life-changing experience, much like mine in Mazeppa. In some sense, this is the way of the Letterheads: passing on the ethos and inspiring others to do the same, as Mike did for me. And, as we head towards the 50th anniversary meet in 2025, the movement shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

There are numerous Letterheads event reviews at bl.ag/letterheads, and I share details of future events at bl.ag/eventlistings.

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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