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Sign Painting Corner: Dapper Signs Tribute

Sam Roberts: The world of sign painting has been trying to come to terms with the loss of Dapper Signs’ James Cooper, 'every signwriter's favourite signwriter', an inspiration to so many around the world who was taken from us far too soon.

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Cooper and Katie at Rochester Letterheads in 2014

I have just returned from Brussels, and a gathering of sign painters known as a Letterheads meet. Dapper Signs’ James Cooper was a stalwart of these events, and this was the first since he passed away in August, aged 42. He was sorely missed, and many attendees paid tribute to a man whose loss has been felt intensely within the world of sign painting.

Dapper Signs

Bristol’s James Cooper was born in 1980, and fell into sign painting by accident. It started when he stepped up to write a menu board in marker pens while working for a friend’s food truck at festivals. A few nice comments on this encouraged him to set up as a signwriter, and he promptly started touting for business in pubs and restaurants around Bristol.

Working with an airbrush to create a ‘budget’ neon panel for BLAG (Better Letter Magazine)

Cooper’s thirst for learning, confidence to take on jobs that pushed his skills in new directions, and all-round good nature, meant that he was soon in demand, both in Bristol and beyond. He was a regular at tattoo conventions, and work for parlours was something of a speciality, bringing him commissions from around the world. 

While he relished the independent businesses that made up the majority of his clientele, he also counted brands such as Budvar beer and the motorcycle fashion label Bolt London among his customers.

Style Is Eternal

Cooper was never afraid to try new things and, through this experimentation, his work was rich with novel stylistic elements. The lettering spanned everything from his signature swinging script, to fine-serifed Roman and high-contrast Art Deco. 

This was then embellished with bevels, chrome, and neon effects, extended key lines, and sparkles galore. He worked with pounce patterns, but was in his element laying out a freehand design on-site with a grease pencil, and getting into it with the paint.

Camping at the 2022 Signwriting Festival in West Wycombe 

In a trade where people strive to be recognised and commissioned for their unique style, Cooper had it in abundance. His breadth of work was impressive in that each piece was unmistakably his, whether it was a mural for a fish and chip shop or a showcard for someone’s birthday.

Described as “every signwriter’s favourite signwriter” on a piece painted in his honour by fellow Bristolians Tozer Signs and Cobra Signs, Cooper’s impact was truly global in its reach—the tributes that have flooded Instagram come from as far afield as Australia, China, Panama, and the USA. 

He was ahead of the curve with sign painting’s recent resurgence, making him an icon and a mentor to many of today’s ‘new wave’. His style has influenced countless painters around the world that knew him or followed him on social media, and he showed them what can be achieved with determination, passion, and a good sense of humour.

Keeper Of The Craft

Cooper learned the craft on his own initiative, and built a network of, in his words, “beautiful bastards on speed dial that I can ask for advice/bribe to assist me/listen to me cry, etc”. But this was far from a one-way street; he was always there to offer help and advice to those coming up behind him. This came from a place of empathy, knowing first hand the struggles faced by beginners, and those attempting something new.

Palette and mahl stick in hand at London Calling: Letterheads 2018 

He also taught classes at his workshop in Bristol, hosted them for international visitors, and was a consistently positive presence at Letterheads meets. He cherished the craft and passing it on, and there will forever be a big Cooper-shaped hole at these events.

True Gent

Cooper’s contribution to sign painting has been immense, but above all that is who he was as a person. He lived life to the full, and everyone that knew him inside and outside the trade can testify to his kindness, generosity, and sense of humour.

He had a rare capacity to make people feel special, and this came from what his cousin Fergus described as his “seemingly endless capacity for love, for giving people time, and for making them feel heard”. He was one of a kind, and our collective thoughts are with his wife and partner Katie, and daughter Billie-Marie.

We miss you Coops.

I have written a bit more about my personal relationship with Cooper at bl.ag/dapper.

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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