Episode 74: Hand Painted Signs

There was a time when every street sign, every billboard, and every window display was painted by hand. This sounds unremarkable until you actually think about what that actually means.

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(Sign painter Chancey Curtis in Mankato, MN, ca. 1930. Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)

Every single sign in existence was made by a sign artist with a paint kit and an arsenal of squirrel- or camel-hair brushes.  Some lived an itinerant lifestyle, traveling from town to town, knocking on the doors of local shops, asking if they could paint their signs.

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(From Wagner’s Blue Print Text Book of Sign and Show Card Lettering.
Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
And this was the way things were until as recently as the 1980s, when everything was upended by the vinyl plotter.  Now, sign-making was faster, easier, and cheaper than ever before. Moreover, vinyl signs didn’t require any skill to make.  But over time, they  created an environment of anonymity and impermanence.

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(Credit: Gelatobaby)

Hand painted signs began to disappear. But not completely.

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(Credit: New Bohemia Signs)

Our contributor Benjamen Walker spoke with Faythe Levine and Sam Macon about their new book and documentary project, Sign Painters, which profiles more than two dozen contemporary sign painters keeping the tradition alive.

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(Ken Davis and Caitlyn Galloway of New Bohemia Signs. Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)

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(A collection of work from New Bohemia Signs. Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)

Benjamen also spoke with sign painter and cartoonist Justin Green, who draws the comic series Sign Game (among others).

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(Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)

Sam Greenspan also visited New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco to get their take on the sign painting scene. Damon Styer, the store’s owner, was working on a “rickshaw obscura” for the San Francisco Exploratorium.

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Sign Painters (the film) premiers in Washington, D.C. on March 30.

6 thoughts on “Hand Painted Signs

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