Board, Brush & Bucket

The prevalence of plastic street signage has brought an increasing sense of sameness to the American visual landscape. However, traditional sign painters and hand-letterers are fighting back and their craft skills are being sought out across the country. A new book, Sign Painters, introduced by the V&A’s Glenn Adamson below, looks at the people keeping this art alive

I went to graduate school at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. It is a city famously divided between town and gown, and also between black and white. Back in the 1960s there had been race riots, and a disastrous replanning of the city that ripped the heart out of downtown residential neighbourhoods, replacing them with parking megastructures and highway overpasses raised on massive concrete piers.

By the 90s, when I was there, things had improved a bit, but New Haven was effectively still a segregated city. Many people in the black community lived along a four-lane road called Dixwell Avenue, which angled up from the corner of campus to the northeast. It was a poor neighbourhood, to be sure, with plenty of boarded-up buildings and empty lots, but there were also churches, laundromats, nail salons, busy auto fix-it shops, and some of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten in.

What struck me most about all of these establishments was their signs: hand painted in rounded italics, mostly blue and black letters with shadowing executed in a hard red. They spoke of businesses that were run by real people, businesses more or less free of corporate optimisation. Were they all happy places to work? I don’t know. But what I can say is that the signs themselves were joyful, expressive, and utterly unique.

And here’s a crucial detail: almost all of them seemed to have been painted by a single hand. I didn’t have the imagination back then to seek out the author of all this work. But there was clearly enough demand to sustain a professional career of some length, to judge from the number of signs and their varying ages, some brand-new and gleaming, some weathered and yellowed.

Taken en masse, the hand lettering of this one person brought a unity to the Dixwell neighbourhood, a sense of specific, place-based identity that digitally printed or vinyl-cut texts could never have provided. Just as a handwritten letter contains more of its writer’s personality than an email, the crafting of these signs imbued New Haven’s urban landscape with a degree of humanity, which would seem to be the one commodity that is easiest to come by but, in practice, is awfully difficult to find.

The anonymous ‘Master of Dixwell’ (as I like to call him, – or, who knows, maybe her?) was of course not unique. Many other cities, other neighbourhoods, have had such public scribes. Some stick to the basics: letters on a blank white or yellow background, so the words jump out as you pass by at 35 miles an hour. Other painters enliven their work with images, or decorative motifs, or maybe make the sign itself into a sculptural object.

Fortunately photographer Faythe Levine and filmmaker Sam Macon have been finding these skilled practitioners and recording their methods, their stories, and their art. Levine could not be better suited to the task. Her first major project, Handmade Nation, looked at a new subculture of ‘crafters’ for whom making things, rather than buying them, is an activity infused with political, emotional, and aesthetic meaning. In taking up the subject of sign painters, Levine is redirecting her attention to a less fashionable group, perhaps, not so much a subculture as a dispersed and informal guild. But she is continuing to show us how practising a skill can be a whole way of life.

In settling on this topic, Levine and Macon are just in time. Many sign painters are now retired, or about to hang up their brushes; others have made the transition to easier, cheaper, but depressingly homogenous vinyl lettering or large-scale digital printing. As is so often the case, it is at the moment of a craft’s disappearance that its cultural value suddenly becomes plain to see. It’s true that hand lettering has been appreciated by artists for decades – think of the 1930s street photography of Walker Evans or the more recent work of graphic designers like Paula Scher, both drawing inspiration from vernacular sources, finding in them a route out of conventional modernism. But it is only now, as we cross the digital divide, that it seems to make sense to celebrate sign painting. Handmade signage is no longer the norm, as it once was on the streets all over America. It is exceptional, in every sense of the word: the trace of a slower, less hurried era.

Yet it is also important – when looking at this work – not to fall into the trap of nostalgia. In a general sense, sign painting may be in decline. But that doesn’t mean sign painters themselves are disappearing. Those who are still working deserve to be taken as the inventive, vital artists that they are, rather than as remnants of a vanishing past. Indeed, it seems likely that after a hard run of years, this trade will go on to have quite an interesting 21st century. As with other aspects of handmade culture, it is already taking on new and unprecedented forms – whether in the spirit of revival, the context of artistic appropriation, or simply on its own terms.

Yet, while the digital sphere might seem to be the enemy of crafts like sign painting, let’s not forget that this work can now be seen worldwide at the click of a mouse. Levine and Macon have gathered the back stories, the rich details of this craft; but you’re only one web search away from seeing many further examples, not only from the US but also from Latin America, West Africa, India, China – places where the traditions of sign painting are still going strong.

So there is plenty of cause for optimism. In fact, the very existence of the Sign Painters book (and the film it accompanies) is yet another. This is no how-to manual; although you might pick up the odd tip, it certainly won’t tell you how to be a professional sign painter. But you know what? The best response to it might just be to go out, find yourself a board, brush, and bucket, and get to work.

Glenn Adamson is head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This is an edited version of his introduction to Sign Painters (by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon; foreword by Ed Ruscha), published next month by Princeton Architectural Press; £15.99. Reproduced with permission. See papress.com and signpaintermovie.blogspot.co.uk

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