Hand-Painted and Hand-Made Signs

You could jump straight to the Sign Gallery, but I’d read on if I were you.

Evidence of the Artist’s Hand

Along with just about everything else that involves typography, I’ve been collecting snapshots of hand-painted and hand-made signs for quite some time. However, it was only about two years ago when I purchased a digital camera that I consciously began to document my visual landscape in any organized manner. Living in New York City, it’s easy to come across some fine examples of hand made signage amidst the suffocating cacophony of computer-generated lettering and imagery. These works might be buried in between some large four-color billboards in midtown or on the store awnings of a soon-to-be-discovered Lower East Side street. They might also be as simple as the words “free delivery” painted onto the plate glass window of a pizza parlor. They are remnants of a not-so-bygone era when craftsmen and tradesmen created and built things by hand. I hope the fact that you are reading this on a web site convinces you that I am no Luddite. I am merely sentimental about a time when the talents and skills of a hand-letterer were considered as important and honorable as those of a furniture maker or a chef. Albrecht Dürer, in the dedication of his 1535 treatise “Of the Just Shaping of Letters,” expressed such a sentiment with regards to the lost Greco-Roman art of lettering:

“In what honor and dignity this art was anciently held amongst the Greeks and Romans, the old authors sufficiently testify; though afterwards all but lost, while it lay hid for more than a thousand years. It has now at length, only within the last two hundred years, by some Italians been brought again to light. For it is the easiest thing in the world for the Arts to be lost and perish; but only with difficulty, and after long time and pains are they resuscitated.”

Okay, I’ll admit to not having read much more than his dedication because the rest of the book contains enough geometry to boost your GMATs. Nevertheless, this passage rang true enough then as it does now.

I guess I was inspired to start documenting some of the signs around me one day when walking in Greenwich Village. I spotted an elderly black gentleman standing on a ladder painting words and ornaments onto the windows of a newly renovated restaurant. He had a small can of enamel paint in one hand and a long-haired brush in the other. I looked closely and couldn’t see any guide lines on the glass. Was he eye-balling it?! I was so intrigued I stopped and watched him for a half an hour before moving on. This rare scene reminded me of a time when I was working in a sign shop in Savannah after graduating from art school.

It was one of those “modern” sign shops that only used computerized tools to produce lettering. The process was simple enough for any normally intelligent human to follow. So simple, in fact, that the company I was working for, Speedy Signs, was offering franchises of the company at business expos around the country. The first thing that would happen was that a computer operator would set all of the characters in a word to be cut — a store name, for example – in one of the typefaces installed on the computer. There were about 12 different typefaces with funny names, the faces of which resembled (remarkably) Helvetica, Avant Garde, Times, etc. The computer was connected to a plotter-like cutting device, which would carve the vector-based lettering and graphics onto colored rolls of tractor-fed vinyl adhesive sheeting. Once the letters were all cut, we semi-skilled worker bees would “weed” out the excess vinyl (meaning the negative space around and within the letters) and apply a transfer sheet on top of it. This transfer sheet would allow us to peel the letters away from the backing while keeping them in place. We could then apply the letters to a piece of wood, metal, a store window or a car door. Peel away the transfer tape and voila – “perfect” lettering. The finished product was so efficient that two of us working in tandem could probably install a block-long storefront campaign in a fraction of the time that an army of traditional sign painters would take.

I would go out on “installations,” as they were called, and occasionally run into this old black man working a neighboring store. He was a freelancer, a traditional sign painter who would stand atop a white bucket with the exact same tools as the old man in the Village—a can of paint and a brush—and create what I felt was “perfect” hand lettering. That was a subjective call and perhaps even an oxymoron, but I had such high regard for this artist. His control of the brush and the flair he would add to a simple brush script made it so that I could barely make eye contact with him each time we spoke. Here I was, barely out of high school, with the tools of my trade: a squirt bottle, a plastic squeegee, and a roll of precision-cut vinyl letters under my arm — letters whose form I had nothing at all to do with creating. And in less than fifteen minutes, which was all the time it took to install, I was putting him out of business. Still, he was always polite and appeared at least on the surface to be pleased to see me. We would just talk about how hot it was and if it was going to be as hot the next day. He never asked any questions about the letters or the process or anything and I often wondered if it was because he felt like a horse carriage asking the automobile what was under the hood. Years later I would go on to work at other such sign shops in New York, just to earn some extra cash to help pay my way through grad school. The machines got more sphisticated and their output more uniform. At no time did I ever confuse what I was doing with what the old man on the bucket did.

Until I saw the man hand lettering in the Village I thought maybe this art had been lost. I suspect if it hasn’t been already it is probably on the way out. “Sign Painter” showed up in a House Industries font catalog as the concept for a family of typefaces. With all due respect to House Industries, it’s got to be the one of the best litmus tests of whether something’s time has past.

If nothing else, I hope this collection of signs, photographed in New York City, New Orleans, Istanbul, Saigon and elsewhere pays proper homage to the artists and craftsmen who created them. Not all of the signs in this exhibit consist of beautifully painted letterforms. Some are down-right awful. But although they range from hand-lettered windows to metal and neon constructions, the evidence of the human hand is clearly visible. That was my goal. If you’ve ever tried painting any type of recognizable character with enamel paint on glass using a long-haired brush or tried to form sheet metal and glass tubing into words, then you will probably share my love for hand made signs in all their imperfect glory.

Enjoy the show!

Sign Gallery

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