The New Sign Painters
The commercial signs of yesteryear, which were all painted by hand, offer a kind of beauty, personality, and longevity that today’s industrial signs have been unable to duplicate. While exploring what’s left of the old sign-painting traditions, we stumbled upon small but lively seeds of revival.
By LAURA FRASER
Photography by ANDREW SULLIVAN
Signs are everywhere—on streets, storefronts, billboards, even city buses. They’re so ubiquitous, so overwhelming, that we do our best to render them invisible. But we can’t. Signs are designed to catch our eyes; as such, they shape much of the aesthetic character of our cities and landscapes, creating a visual archeology of where we live.
Older signs in particular have a certain staying power. Hand-painted with a permanence that outlasts their original commercial messages, they tell a story of a bygone era. Each decade, and each region, has its own look and feel: Ouija board fonts, bold black enamel letters, winking cartoon characters, jazzy cut-outs, bubbles and stars, curlicues and winding flowers, or sleek, minimal designs. At their best, signs elevate the ordinary–the name of a grocery store or shoe repair shop–to the beautiful, suggesting uncommon taste and attention to detail within.
Today, there is only one trade school left in the U.S. for sign painting: the Los Angeles Trade Technical College.
Some of those signs have managed to linger past their time, providing a layered history of commerce and style. Along rural highways and in what’s left of old industrial cities, barns and brick buildings are still adorned with “ghost signs”—faded letters bearing the names of companies and merchandise from decades past. These ghost signs still whisper yesterday’s gentle sales pitches, in stark contrast to the marketing norm of today—big, blocky lettering on banners and billboards that are industrially produced, calling for attention with bold but lifeless uniformity. Within only a few years, these inexpensive plastic banners often slump and tatter, and end up thrown in the trash.
As in so many industries, technological advances—in this case, computers that reduce cost, time, and need for human skill—drove the artistry out of the sign business. Today, there is only one trade school left in the U.S. for sign painting: the Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Yet, as often happens at the moment when people realize that an old craft is dying, there is renewed interest in bringing back the hand-painted sign, mostly among a younger generation that brings different skills and aesthetics to the craft.
THE HAND’S MAGIC
Bob Dewhurst, one of the nation’s few veteran sign painters, lives in a cluster of beat-up trailers behind a warehouse in the fast-shrinking industrial section of San Francisco. An old turquoise truck is parked out front, with “HAND PAINTED SIGNS” in large, cheerful lettering on the side. A sign on his trailer, which notes that Dewhurst is available by appointment only, warns visitors, “No Loitering, No Lurking, No Skulking.” Dewhurst, a weathered and spattered character in a faded sky-blue T-shirt, is lettering a piece of wood on a table when I arrive. His brushstrokes are as tidy and clean as his surroundings are chaotic and messy. After greeting me, he glances around him at his collection of signs.
“It’s not an art,” he tells me. “I do it for money.” OK, but as I watch him brush paint on wood, the color flowing as evenly as a fountain pen, I’m amazed at the result. He makes letters as if they were stenciled (as I’d always assumed such signs were done), with perfectly straight lines and curves, the spacing between the letters evenly matched. There is not a single stray smudge. He cocks his head and considers his work. “It’s nice when you can do something with some style.”
Dewhurst first heard about sign painting when he was young and locked in a mental institution in the mid-1970s. A fellow inmate who had enjoyed a brief escape told him he’d spent his time away in San Francisco, painting signs. Since Dewhurst had some talent for art and a fascination with letters and colors, he decided to follow the same plan. After he was released, Dewhurst started out farther afield, doing ranch work on a goat farm, where he made his first sign for money. Unlike most sign painters of his generation, Dewhurst never apprenticed or went to trade school (for that reason, he says, he’s never been good at fancy lettering or intricate details such as pin-striping). But he had enough skill to support his hobo lifestyle and eventually make his way to San Francisco, find plenty of work, and found his company, Sign Language: “Handpainted: The way ya like ‘em.”
“Signs are the identity of a city, and San Francisco is a flashy city,” Dewhurst says. “It’s carried me for a while; I’ve been lucky that way.” He climbs up into his office, a semi-trailer, like a man who is used to climbing ladders quickly. The trailer is stuffed to the brim with a chaos of paper and work supplies, and he emerges with a notebook containing photos of some of the signs he’s painted around town: on buildings, awnings, trucks, windows, murals, and hanging from shops. Many are simple and straightforward, from a time when shops for plumbing parts or light fixtures had their own signs hand-made, painted to last. Others are more ornate—a mandala around a Moroccan establishment; a huge, elegantly-lettered sign on the side of a high-end restaurant (Julius’ Castle) that can be seen from the Bay; an enormous bear with the California flag that covers the entire side of a building housing a restaurant called El Oso (Spanish for bear). In the 1990s, Dewhurst painted a logo for a taqueria that featured Jimmy the Cornman, a sombrero-wearing kid riding a giant ear of corn like a rocket; the logo became famous when the restaurant offered free tacos for life to anyone who had the logo tattooed larger than four inches on his or her body. (So many people got the tattoos that they had to cap the offer at 50 people in 1999, then revived the deal in 2010.)
Paging through Dewhurst’s notebook, I recognize several signs from my neighborhood, the Haight-Ashbury, a district of San Francisco made legendary 50 years ago, as the epicenter for the hippie Summer of Love. I realize that Dewhurst created the swirling, psychedelic sign on the Pipe Dreams head shop, along with images for a pizza parlor, a vintage clothing store, and a bagel shop that has long since closed. For years, I’ve seen Dewhurst’s signs almost every single day and barely noticed them as anything other than names, at least not consciously. When I now study these signs, I see they all have personality—a suggestion of magic and altered states—which forms a large part of the Haight’s character. Dewhurst tells me that he used to be able to walk around town and spot who made which sign, because each painter’s style is a little different.
“Packaging, labeling, and signs are the premier culture craft in our consumer society,” he says. He’s not interested in what the signs say, but how they look. “A lot of them are over-the-top or bullshit sales—‘the world’s best hamburger’ stuff–but to me, it’s all about the letters and the energy.” Dewhurst considers painting a type of meditation. While he won’t call it art, he believes a hand-painted sign tugs at us more than the industrial version, especially in visually chaotic environments. “There’s something appealing about the human touch, even if it’s subconscious. You take it in.”
SHORT-TERM SAVINGS, LONG-TERM COSTS
“Most signs these days are boring, horrible plastic banners,” says Dewhurst, mournfully. I think of how my husband, who works for a mid-sized retail company, wanted to have a hand-painted sign done for the side of their big brick building in the heart of San Francisco, but instead had to settle for cheaper vinyl banners whose blocky letters are practically meaningless–more visual noise that we just want to tune out. “We’re losing a synapse in our mass consciousness with the computer,” Dewhurst says. “What’s human knowledge if you can’t do something with your hands and understand the process?”
Once upon a time, of course, all signs were hand-painted, even on billboards. In some ways, the trade launched an especially American craft, geared to our vast spaces, unbridled commercial enthusiasm, and limitless appetite for advertising. Consider the work of Clark Byers, dubbed the “barnyard Rembrandt.” Byers painted “SEE ROCK CITY,” a roadside attraction outside Chattanooga, on the sides of more than 900 barns in Tennessee and Georgia before he died in 2004.
Hand-painted signs of this sort, particularly in the rural South and West, ended up defining America’s historical aesthetic and iconography. The stark, bright colors that show up in the paintings of famous early American artists, such as Edward Hopper, intentionally echoed the work of sign painters, whose paint comes in a small number of colors, all relatively bold. In fact, a number of mid-20th Century artists, such as Jackson Pollack, created their style with sign paint, largely because these paints were cheaper—a must for the larger works these artists were experimenting with at the time. (For some extra context on the relationship between hand-painted signs and mid-20th Century art, see our sidebar, “From Art to Signs and Back Again.”)
In those days, sign painting was a real trade, where someone with some art skills, or who at least had enough patience to learn to draw a straight line, could go to trade school, apprentice for a few years, and end up working a union job handling ropes, ladders, and scaffolding with maybe 40 other sign painters in a big city like Chicago or Boston. The profession had strict rules: students had to master specific types of strokes, spacing, design, and styles, along with the special techniques required to transfer small drawings onto the sides of very large buildings.
“It was a real job, and a real industry,” says Meredith Kasabian, who owns Best-Dressed Signs in Boston with her husband Josh Luke, and whose grandfather was a sign painter in Boston. “My grandmother didn’t work and they raised two kids in a really nice house.”
Then, in the 1980s, computers were developed that could churn out signs in a variety of stock fonts, which were then printed on vinyl—fast, easy, cheap, and anonymous. When my husband wanted the hand painted sign on his company’s brick building a few years ago, he first sought a proposal from New Bohemia Signs, a small revivalist sign-painting shop founded in San Francisco in the 1990s. New Bohemia bid $3000 for a two-color six-by-thirty-foot sign, which had to be primed on the brick; the vinyl banner they ended up with cost far less—about $1000 with installation—but it has already been replaced once.
“Digital printing these days might be a little less expensive, but you end up with something that doesn’t last as long or weather as well,” says Damon Styker of New Bohemia. But in today’s economy, short term savings almost always beat long-term costs. When large computerized signs became available, most sign painters went out of business. “Vinyl came in and nearly decimated the sign industry,” says Kasabian. Those who kept painting were, like Dewhurst, more lone wolves than union men. “It’s nearly impossible these days to make a living off sign painting,” says Kasabian.
Plenty of people have regretted the demise of the hand-painted sign industry, including pop artist Ed Ruscha, who, growing up in the Southwest in the 1950s, became fascinated with the iconography of the West and started out as a sign painter himself. “In a world of computer plastics, where do we go?” Ruscha asked in forward to “Sign Painters,” a book published in 2012 by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon. “Children are not even taught longhand writing these days. You might say the closest thing to a sign painter would be a graffiti artist out on the street.”
As it happens, some of those graffiti artists, armed with a new level of education and determination, are re-invigorating the tradition of sign painting in Los Angeles. That revival is mostly thanks to Ralph “Doc” Guthrie, who teaches “Sign Graphics” at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, the lone sign-painting trade school. Guthrie’s students come from a variety of backgrounds, and Guthrie has found that some of his best were street graffiti artists and “taggers” (once they mustered some discipline).
“Everything is so digital and screen-oriented that people need a reprieve,” says Meredith Kasabian, co-owner of Best-Dressed Signs in Boston. “Having something handmade reminds you that you’re a human.”
Guthrie, himself a 1972 graduate of the program, worked as a sign painter for years, and therefore understands the patience and perseverance needed to master a craft. He starts the students off with mind-numbingly dull exercises painting brushstrokes and charts, until they develop muscle memory and speed. The second year is more fun, where students do drop shadows, gold leafing, shading, and a wide variety of lettering styles. “He’s hella strict,” Jorge Velasquez told the L.A. Weekly. Velasquez went from being a graffiti artist to painting signs for Trader Joe’s. Other graduates have found apprenticeships (a vital but disappearing tradition in itself) and then set up their own shops.
Sign painting’s renewed popularity nationwide started in the 1990s, with the DIY movement and a generation that was keen on reviving other analog media and artisanal crafts, such as celluloid film, vinyl music records, and handmade wallets. “Everything is so digital and screen-oriented that people need a reprieve,” says Kasabian. “Having something handmade reminds you that you’re a human.” Kasabian’s sentiment seems to be spreading. New sign painting boutiques are now popping up in hipster neighborhoods in cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Austin, and anywhere there’s an interest in reviving old-time aesthetics or creating fresh new styles. Unlike the previous generation of sign painters, many of these DIY enthusiasts were educated in fine arts or worked as graphic artists first.
These new shops are not only bringing back an old commercial art form, they’re also providing new work, and badly needed teaching jobs, for senior sign painters. Colt Bowden, 32, an Oregon-based sign painter, has gathered techniques from many of these older painters in a series of self-published, retro-style booklets entitled “How to Paint Signs and Influence People.” The booklets have helped revive some old lettering styles, such as Roman, Egyptian, casual, speed, script, and icy caps.
An enthusiasm for DIY projects only gets people so far in sign painting, because careful design and lettering, especially when it’s blown up onto building walls, requires serious skills. At one point, Bob Dewhurst showed me how to begin a large-scale sign by using a “pounce pattern”—the same technique Michelangelo used to transfer his small drawings to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
When the company chose the cheaper digital approach, they sent its logo to an industrial shop that printed the lettering onto heavy PVC vinyl, the way your computer tells your printer to make a color image. The useful life of such a banner is three to five years.
The process starts with a small drawing of the design on graph paper. Dewhurst scales that up by re-drawing the design in each small square on another sheet with much bigger squares. Working square by square, he ultimately recreates the design at full scale. Other times, to produce an exact replica of a drawing such as a logo, he uses a simple projector to enlarge the image onto a piece of paper taped to the side of his trailer. Once the design is outlined, Dewhurst uses a pounce wheel—which is like a little pizza cutter that makes holes—to trace the lines of the design. Then he rubs chalk or charcoal over the pounce paper, which transfers the design to the sign behind. After removing the paper, he begins painting from the middle of the letters, working outward, adding embellishments, shadows, and pin-striping. He keeps these pounce patterns, because they can be used over again.
What’s the difference between these signs and today’s computerized version? Consider the banner for my husband’s retail building. For sign painters, the pounce system would guide their paint job on a brick wall, where the lettering would eventually fade but still be visible for many, many years. When the company instead chose the cheaper digital approach, they sent its logo to an industrial shop that used an enormous inkjet printer, which lays the lettering onto heavy PVC vinyl, the way your computer tells your printer to make a color image. The shop then adds grommets, and the sign is ready to be hung. The useful life of such a banner, depending on the weight of the vinyl and the quality of the colors and ink, is three to five years.
One of the few places where someone can still learn to paint signs the old way is at San Francisco’s New Bohemia sign shop, which has become the epicenter for sign painting’s revival. Inside, among a wall covered with signs, one reads “Simulate a more vernacular feel,” a knowing wink at the inauthenticity of creating new things that look old.
New Bohemia acknowledges using making some use of a computer, typically for fonts. “We’re treading a digital/analogue divide here,” says Damon Styer, its current owner. “It’s not just about good design and nice hand-lettering, but making signs fast enough to stay in business.” (Styer often begins with pencil sketches, which he then scans and “vectorizes” on a computer, printing out enlarged sections of the sign that he then uses for pounce patterns.) But there is still plenty of analogue going on here. On the day I visited, one apprentice spent the entire time practicing letters on a wall, over and over.
When Styer took over the business, he thought chances were good that it wouldn’t succeed; instead, it has expanded rapidly. “Over the last seven years, it hasn’t slowed down, we’re constantly busy,” he says.
THE RESISTANCE MOVEMENT
With few trade schools or mentors to rely on, the new generation of sign painters have started organizing their own communities. As is often the case, technology has entered the picture to both ruin things and save the day. Thanks to social media, these painters have been able to find each other and share techniques. Several of their shops, including New Bohemia and Mystic Blue, now offer classes in lettering. A group called the Letterheads started in Colorado in the 70s as a gathering place for sign painters to share the design principles and techniques that were no longer taught in trade schools; it has since grown internationally, producing SignCraft magazine and a website with resources (where do you find gold leaf?). Letterheads also holds regional and annual meetings. The Pre-Vinylite society, started by Meredith Kasabian of Boston’s Best-Dressed Signs, is another virtual meeting place for sign painters, which maintains a blog and is soon starting a journal on the subject.
Some of these groups also mount gallery shows of signs, including a “Pre-Vinylettes” show of women sign painters coming up in Chicago, curated by Kasabian, and another at the Houston Center on Contemporary Craft, curated by Levine. This is a very different direction from the one taken by traditional sign painters, like Bob Dewhurst. Old sign-painting trade-school texts, in fact, referred to the painter as the “mechanic.” In Sign Painters, Minnesota painter Forrest Wozniak says that what separates sign painting from art is that “art is an exploration of one’s self,” whether egos, emotions, or ideas. Sign painting is doing work for a client, and doing it right. “There’s a correct format. It’s similar to carpentry.”
Carpentry or not, today’s interest in retro signs is so strong that a lot of businesses are now asking sign painters to make faux ghost signs, which are signs newly painted to look old, invoking nostalgia as a substitute for authenticity. This trend presents painters with something of a paradox. “I’m philosophically opposed to the idea of trying to achieve a sense of authenticity by doing something that’s not authentic,” says Kasabian of Best-Dressed Signs. “It’s a more confident choice for a business to choose a regular hand-painted sign and let it age gracefully.”
But, she says, they will do them if the clients ask. “We’re sign painters. It’s a job.”
Since I met Bob Dewhurst, I’ve begun looking at signs differently. Walking around town, I now notice the ones that are hand-painted, and admire the detail and skill. If nothing else, the signs send a message that the proprietors care about aesthetics, and how their brands contribute to the cityscape. Now that I notice them, hand-painted signs do seem less anonymous than vinyl or digital versions; and with them, so does my city.
When I finished my visit with Bob Dewhurst, he gave me a hug. Before I left, he handed me a wooden heart, hand-painted words in shadowed cursive with spots of yellow: “Thank you.” If it had been a print-out, I would have smiled and thrown it away later. Instead, I hung it in my office, where it reminds me, among other things, to be grateful to all those invisible sign painters who have given our urban landscapes more lasting character and charm.
- Sign Painters, the movie and book, by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon.
- The Pre-Vinylite Society, manifesto, journal, blog, and art exhibits of hand-painted signs.
- How-to books on sign painting skills, published by Beard & Butter.
- Center for the Lettering Arts, resources for sign painting, calligraphy, and graphic arts.
- The Letterheads, organization for sign painters, with resources
- American Sign Museum, Cincinnati.
- Sign Graphics Class at Los Angeles Trade Tech.
- “How to Paint Signs and Influence People” sign-painting zines, by Colt Bowden.
© 2023 Laura Fraser. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.