Growing up in small town Florence, Alabama, a trip into downtown meant a visit to colorful shops, recognized by equally colorful signs. Ye Ole General Store had a block letter, serif-type sign across the entrance way and inside, we could find canteens and hats and overalls for backyard battles and explorations. Next, we’d walk to Court Street and look for the black and orange store front that meant Wilson’s Fabrics. The simple lettering, enhanced by the high contrast color choices, told my grandmother to come right in – the “Tall Man with the Low Prices” had just the cotton and muslin she needed. Finally, the best part of our trip was our visit to Trowbridge’s for hot dogs and milk shakes. The hand painted awning, with its swirling cursive script, told us we were headed in the right direction. The front window advertises: SANDWICHES, ICE CREAM, SUNDAES. We would slide into a booth and look at the hand-painted menu hanging behind the ice cream counter. That beautiful menu is still there today, challenging me to choose between the hot dog and the chicken salad sandwich. I think the town would riot if it were ever taken down.
This sentimental love I have for hand painted signs was rejuvenated when friend and fellow maker, Faythe Levine, and her co-writer Sam Macon published Sign Painters. This book chronicles the histories and modern-day stories of sign painters. In the 1980’s and 90’s, the art of painting signs became doomed to obscurity, or worse -extinction- with the invention and widespread use of vinyl lettering and digital design. In today’s world, full of Adobe software and inflatable dancing tube men, it is hard to remember that every grocery store sale sign, billboard, storefront, and banner was once carefully designed and painted by hand.
“So many stores have vinyl signs that now entire blocks look the same,” says Sean Barton of Seattle. “Many business owners want to slap up some garbage and still have a bunch of people show up. It just doesn’t work that way. If you have a good-looking storefront and you take pride in it, you’ll attract more customers…They can feel the power of a hand-painted sign.” This book profiles the individuals who have moved forward, making art and making a living in spite of faster and cheaper alternatives. Here, you will find craftsmen who are still working. They don’t find nostalgia in what they create; it is their today, not their yesterday.
Levine and Macon interview some of the most prominent and talented sign painters alive. They talk about their process, their years of training and apprenticeships, and the fundamentals of what makes a great sign. I found inspiration in the profiles of artists like Doc Guthrie of Los Angeles, California: “Many people in this country dread getting up and going to work. You have fifty years of work ahead of you, and it should be something that you really love.”
Other painters don’t want to be considered artists, merely tradesmen. Years ago, in the sign industry’s heyday, “artist,” was almost an insult. Cincinnati’s Justin Green learned his trade in that era, saying, “Sign painting isn’t quite an art form. It can be, but the kind of sign painting that I embrace, that I made a living doing, is a service. It’s an industry, and I want to keep it that way. I don’t believe in gilding the lily.” Others, like Ira Coyne of Olympia, Washington, embrace the artistic aspect. “Sign painting creates jobs — more importantly, jobs for artists. Art and music are the first things to go in schools. The role of art is disappearing. When we were kids, we learned about bakers and candlestick makers. We learned about cobblers and all these old-school, awesome things that people did their entire lives.”
Many of these profiles explore what Doc Guthrie would call “working-class American success stories.” What these men and women reflect, by simply continuing to exist, is that the best kind of success is the success you build yourself. Painter Forrest Wozniak said that sign painters are, “a deacon to society because you don’t work for someone who is successful, you work for someone who hopes to be successful.” I’d like to have a sign with that sentiment painted for myself.