Hand Painted Signs

Roman Mars: This is 99 percent invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

If you’ve ever wondered what squirrels were good for besides being adorable, wonder no longer.

Scott Thiessen: These are lettering quills, the brushes I was talking about, and they generally are squirrel hair.

Roman: That’s Scott Thiessen from New Bohemia Signs, a world’s famous, hand-painted sign shop in San Francisco.

Scott: And have pretty long, very thin handles so you can twirl ’em as you’re painting like, an “O” or an “S.”

Justin Green: Look at any movie made before 1983 and you’ll see hand-painted signs everywhere.

Faythe Levine: You would see like, a certain type of an “A” or a certain type of an “S” being repeated in all this different signage in certain neighborhoods and that was the first time for me I realize there was actually a job that was a sign painter.

Roman: It’s not as common a job these days but sign painting is still thriving, and according to some of the voices you’ll meet today even undergoing to a kind of renaissance, but let’s start with a cartoonist.

Benjamen: Not just any cartoonist though, one of America’s original underground cartoonist, Justin Green.

Justin: My comic book, Pinky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, that’s my best-known work that I did as a young man. I can’t seem to shake the little bastard.

Benjamen Walker: I got to see Justin speak last year at this fancy academic comic book conference in Chicago, and he gave me a book of his sign painting comics.

Roman: Reporting right there is our friend Benjamin Walker.

Benjamin: The way Justin Green tells it is one night his wife asked him how he was going to pay the bills and he said, “I’m a cartoonist” and she said, “I know but how are we going to pay the bills?”

Roman: But an artist entering the sign painter’s world had to tread carefully.

Justin: Because to tell you the truth, among hard-beaten sign painters, the word ‘artist’ is a pejorative. Um, ‘mechanic’ is the term they use.

Benjamin: Justin came up with an ingenious way to have it both ways, he threw himself into the world of sign painting….

Justin: And frantically reading tactical manuals written in the ’20s.

Benjamin: Hustling for work….

Justin: Learning on the job.

Benjamin: Gathering tips from the elder’s statesmen mechanics.

Justin: Promising more than I could deliver.

Benjamin: And he documented all of his adventures in a comic strip he called, “Sign Game.”

Roman: But the best thing about these trips is that Justin actually teaches us how to look at old hand-painted signs.

Justin: I literally did that. I mean, I would stand in front of these old sunburnt signs like a history detective and I would see how good the craftsmen were.

Justin: If someone was a fledgling or a drunk, you would see lots of brushwork around the tricky parts like an ‘O.’ And an ‘O’ by an old-timer was done in about four strokes amazingly. Although any neophyte can use fifty strokes to get in the ballpark but at that point, you can’t make a living so you very quickly learn how to coordinate your iron hand.

Faythe Levine: It’s mind-blowing to think about what was done by hand and in comparison to how things are done now.

Benjamin: That’s Faythe Levine, she just co-directed a movie about sign painters.

Roman: And also wrote a great book.

Benjamin: With a guy named Sam Macon.

Faythe: My name is Faythe Levine.

Sam Macon: My name is Sam Macon.

Benjamin: Faythe and Sam interviewed a number of sign painters.

Roman: Including Justin Green.

Benjamin: To tell a story about a group of people who used to be in charge of how our cities look.

Justin: Serving letterforms were ideal for a barbershop and yet not for a restaurant.

Faythe: Sometimes I think the most well-designed signs are the ones that we don’t even notice. Like a no parking sign, or the street signs that tell us how to get where we’re going. And so you know, we got a lot of really amazing stories about people getting jobs lettering all of the street signs for an entire city back in the day.

Sam: This was a standalone trade in industry that employed thousands of people that had a direct impact on or hand in defining our commercial landscape.

Benjamin: All of the sign-painters Sam and Faythe introduce us to are unique but as a group, there’s a consistency to these unique individuals they’re…

Sam: Characters for like of a better word?

Benjamin: Or as Justin Green puts it…

Justin: Anyone in the sign field, is a little bit nuts.

Faythe: We got some wild stories.

Benjamin: Many of the sign painters use their painting skills to crisscross the country. Bob Deur says that he could just show up in a town on a Greyhound bus, sleep in a field and be painting a sign the next day. It seems you can’t be a good sign painter unless you’re also a good hustler.

Faythe: You got a new business site that opens, you walk in and you say “Hey! I’m your guy. I’m going to make people come into your shop because I’m going to paint the sign that people are going to walk by, stop, look at, and come in the door because it looks so good,” and that is your hustle as a sign painter and that’s what it was and that’s what it still is.

Roman: At the heart of the sign painter hustle is a promise that whatever you have me put paint on: a wall, a sandwich board, or the side of your truck, it’s going to make you and us both look good.

Sam: I’m going to make sure that this truck stops traffic.

Benjamen: But the thing is there was never just one guy doing the sign painter hustle. Sign painting was competitive, it was very very hard to break it to the business.

Faythe: It’s like you couldn’t get hired if you didn’t have experience but they don’t want to hire someone with experience because they didn’t want them to take all the jobs. You really have to kind of earn your stripes. We’re talking about a minimum of 2 years experience to even call yourself a sign painter, and even that it could be debated. [chuckles]

Same: Because you need to have the necessary knowledge of how to form the letters, layout the wordings.

Justin: Certain kinds of informational signs had be crisp and clear and a lonely letter form would be completely inappropriate.

Sam: That knowledge needs to be defined so baked in, that you can then apply it hanging off the side of a building in the winter, painting fast.

Justin Green: It really is an arduous training, aesthetically and physically.

Scott: In the Sign Games strip, Justin Green tries to help us understand why things used to be done a certain way. In one of his comics, he explains why sign painters didn’t like to use the color yellow. You’re required double coating and it faded easily.

Roman: But in every single one of Justin Green’s comics, you get a sense that he is scrambling to document a world that is fading away.

Justin: I felt compelled to do The Sign Game as a historical piece because I knew the world around me was crumbling overnight.

Benjamin: Sign painting is by no means the only industry that was wiped out by digital technology but still, I can’t help but feel extra sorry for these guys because they got their butts kicked by vinyl.

Roman: Specifically the vinyl plotter, which looks kind of like a big computer printer.

Faythe: The vinyl plotters are machines that would basically tap out vinyl letters. You would program in, you know, “Welcome!” And then it would punch out the vinyl letters and then you’d weed out the vinyl with a razor blade and put the welcome letters onto the surface of your sign.

Justin: When vinyl first appeared, no one would accept it. And yet for all intents and purposes, it was even better than the hand-painted sign because it was perfect, it was of the same color, it would weather better than paint, and for maintenance, because when the washers were enemies, it stood up to them.

Benjamen: The vinyl plotter was something sign painters really like to hate… in theory.

Justing Green: And it was considered like, selling out! Undermining your brothers in trade! But then slowly the guys who stubbornly clung to their brushes would call the guys who had the machines when they got in a jam. And they’d say, “I’m just going to do this once, you know but could you give me these hundred words” and then before long everybody bought into it.

Benjamin: By the mid-1980s sign painters were no longer in charge.

Sam: It’s a very simple story. Technology lowers the bar to entry. You got people that are necessarily the most like visual people sometimes going into like a Kinko’s or a Fast Signs and saying, “These are the words.” And those were then printed out on a thing that could qualify as a sign and that’s what goes up. [chuckles] It’s like a [inaudible] of people there are thousands of fonts. Fonts named after girlfriends.

Roman: But all is not lost for the sign painters. New and old businesses who want to advertise quality and craftsmanship of the items and services inside the store want to sign that embodies that quality and craftsmanship on the outside of the store. And back in San Fransisco at New Bohemia Signs, Scott Thiessen says business is booming.

Scott: Seems in the past 3 or 4 years has been a resurgence of especially designers with appreciated hand-painted signage. You know, the way the letters flow on the brush, you can do slight things to make the lettering look a little bit better. Think just having something that’s hand done hopefully will always be appreciated. It’s depending on… you know, the pendulum always swings back and forth.

Roman: And unlike the cutthroat days of the hustle, New Bohemia now teaches sign painting classes that consistently sell out.

Scott: And we don’t view it as creating competition. We’re viewing it as the more people see that what a hand-painted sign looks like, the more likely someone’s going to want it.

Roman: Heather Hardison is one of the young painters who took up the craft a couple of years ago and is now a journeyman painter at New Bohemia.

Heather Hardison: Damon, who’s the owner, always says it’s not perfect, it just looks really good [chuckles] and that lends to what makes it beautiful. That little wobble is gorgeous.

Roman: 99 percent invisible is produced this week by Benjamen Walker.

Benjamin Walker: For the intro, I imagine “I’m Roman Mars and I’m talking about the cities and the signs, how it used to be and my deep backlit observations blah blah blah.”

  1. AER

    My father, Stephen Martin Ehninger, age nearly 67, who has been an Architect with his own successful architecture practice since his age 34, sometimes recalls (as does his wife, my mother, for the past 51 years!) as his “favorite job ever” – the self-appointed job he had in his ages 8-18, painting signs, freelance. His initial B.F.A. was in Graphic Arts, paid for by his volunteer Air Force service during the Vietnam War, and his work with Young Sign Company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. That job was no joke; it was serious enough that it took a great deal of convincing by many people in his life, to move away from Graphic Design, into the realm of Architecture.

  2. AER

    Thank you so much for producing this piece; I first heard in on 88.3 FM in Salt Lake City, Utah, between 8:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. I ***love*** it!!!!

  3. larnell

    I didnt know the sign-writing market was that big thing during that time period. A lost craft that is now once again an open feild to attain helpful artistic experience.

  4. I guess my age is showing, I’m and graphic designer/commercial artist and my father is a retired graphic designer/commercial artist. I literally grew up in the business. I remember watching my dad, hand-letter display and presentation boards and being in awe of his skills. Myself I attended art school pre-computer, we spent quarters learning the craft of lettering and rendering layouts with markers and pencils. Now we knock those out in minutes on the computer.
    Those were the days.
    Will we one day be reminiscing about the craft of using a computer as a design tool?

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