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Different Strokes: New Generation of Sign Painters Picks Up a Brush

By:  Anna Raddatz Aug 21, 2014
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Travis Simon

Sign painter Travis Simon at work in New York City. Credit: Schafmayer and Co.

“I think people need to get better at utilizing their hands and the physical tools in front of them instead of retreating to a computer,” says Travis W. Simon. “Think about where we came from and how we got to where we are as a society and a culture. It wasn’t using computers. We built all this around us.”

These may sound like the words of an old-timer or a Luddite. But Simon couldn’t be further from either. The 31-year-old grew up with technology and even has degrees in commercial art and graphic design. But a few years ago, he traded in pixels for paint, and is building a successful career as a sign painter, an old fashioned trade that many had considered dead only a short time ago.

Building on a lifelong passion for drawing and typography, Simon started out as a freelance graphic designer in Brooklyn, N.Y. But the more he got into the design profession, and the more he found himself “scraping the ground” looking for work, the more he realized it wasn’t for him. After a couple of clients requested handpainted signs, he started teaching himself basic hand lettering techniques. His sign painting business snowballed from there.

Growing up with a father who worked as a mechanic and carpenter, it felt like going back to his roots. “I needed to go back to this more analog, hands-on craft,” he says.

Today, three-and-a-half years later, he can barely keep up with demand, and sometimes even refers overflow work to other sign painters. Inspired by skateboard culture and “ghost signs” around New York City, he has painted signage for a wide range of clients, from hardware shops to skate shops to high-end furniture boutiques. He estimates that he has painted 30 or 40 signs for restaurants in the hip Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bushwick and Williamsburg alone.

“It’s all word of mouth,” he says. “You do a job and get five more jobs just from people looking at that job.”

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Original and One-of-a-Kind

Niki Weinberg, a sign production artist in northern Virginia, has more work than she can handle. While she does some signage for restaurants, Weinberg says that up to 85 percent of her work is custom signage for weddings. Through her Etsy shop, Paper Tangent, she sells handpainted signs that inform wedding guests about dinner menus, signature cocktails, guest books and photo booths—signs her customers often display as art in their homes after the wedding. In the 18 months or so since launching her store, she has sold more than 400 signs and recently tripled her prices in order to narrow her pipeline of orders.

Sign Painter

Niki Weinberg

While she has a background in art, Weinberg, 30, considers herself first and foremost an entrepreneur. With an interdisciplinary degree from the Art Institute of Chicago, she studied painting, design, sculpture and architecture. After school, she found her way through several jobs, including wedding and event planning.

“I wanted to do something really special for clients, so I started to hand letter,” she says. She started doing research online and was inspired by the many typographers and designers who were sharing their work, especially on Instagram. “I wanted to be a part of it,” she says. “So I got out my 1 Shot and different lettering brushes and just started practicing and painting.”

Similar to Simon, Weinberg was drawn to the low-tech aspect of handpainted signs, and the originality she could introduce into her work.

“When I started to realize I could create my own lettering and give it attitude, it became really fun,” she says. “The process of sketching from scratch is so much better than taking fonts that have already been created by other designers. I want this to be my own; I don’t want to re-do someone else’s work.”

An Invisible Trade

Of course, sign painting as a profession has been around for a very long time. “Good-looking signs were the first ads that anybody had,” says Sam Macon, 34, who, with Faythe Levine, made a documentary film called Sign Painters, released earlier this year.

For hundreds of years, signs have been used to promote businesses, identify merchandise, or simply point the way. But for most of us, it’s an invisible trade. Americans in the early and mid-20th century took handpainted signs for granted. But for those born in the 1970s or later, the commercial landscape contained very few handpainted signs at all, due to computer graphics and the advent of vinyl letters, which were introduced in the 1980s and completely took over the signage industry through the 1990s.

In recent decades, when cheap, fast and digital became the norm, the sign painting industry was nearly wiped out. Many experienced sign painters suddenly struggled to find clients and ended up throwing in the towel. Others, like Mark Oatis, 63, embraced the computer as just another tool for sign making and adapted his career to the new realities.

Today he is a creative director at YesCo. But in the sign painting community, Oatis (who appears in the Sign Painters film) is perhaps best known as a founding member of The Letterheads, a group of sign painters that started meeting in 1975 to learn from one another. Next year, they will gather at the American Sign Museum for their 40th annual international meeting. Oatis expects up to 400 people to attend.

The way Oatis describes the beginning of The Letterheads has a similar flavor to the energy expressed by younger sign painters today. A young man in his 20s then, Oatis says he and his peers were eager to connect with an old-fashioned aesthetic, specifically the “Victorian revival” style.

“We were getting really lit up by stuff we were finding in old lettering books and old photographs of streetscapes from turn of the last century,” recalls Oatis. “But the old guys we knew who were in their 40s and 50s really hadn’t learned that. Their stuff was pretty modern. So we had to go back and find our own styles.”

Filmmaker Macon says that there may have been another reason for that generational gap. “There was a time when sign painters were traditionally very protective of their business and secrets and tools of the trade,” he says. When he was making the film, he heard stories about young sign painters in the 1960s and '70s being shooed away by older masters, who worried that sharing their knowledge would just lead to more competition.

But now that the painters from that younger generation have become the masters themselves, Macon sees a more open flow of information to the next crop of sign painters.

“There’s a really open dialogue,” he says, “a lot of which, ironically, has been facilitated by the computer.”

Sign Painter

Mark Oatis

Master and Apprentice

While Simon and Weinberg confirm that many sign painters are connecting online, they also still yearn for hands-on, in-person training. Both said they would love to learn from the older painters, but can’t seem to find the time or funding required to put their lives on hold for months or years, which is what apprenticeships or intensive classes often require. As Simon says, “Because I have to pay rent, I decided to teach myself.”

Regardless, for his part, Oatis is pleased to know those younger painters are around and eager to carry on a time-honored tradition.

“I can’t believe that this seems to be happening,” he says. “But if it’s coming from a deep-seated commitment, then I’m extremely heartened by it.” He’s aware that some young painters are learning from mentors, but few have the opportunity. His hope is that The Letterheads’ annual gathering next year will be full of people like Simon and Weinberg. “There’s still too much gray hair there to suit me,” he says, “and I’m saying that as the grayest of the group.”

Sign painters

Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, co-directors of the Sign Painters documentary film.

So what explains this new demand for hand-painted signs? Weinberg says it reflects well on the business that commissions the work. “Maybe it sends a different message,” she says. “It says it’s more expensive, or more worth reading.” Simon observes that with vinyl signs, businesses all started to look the same; his clients recognize that handpainted signs help them stand out from the crowd.

But Macon says that in the three years it took to shoot Sign Painters, he noticed a larger cultural trend that is helping bring sign painting back to life.

“There’s an across-the-board renewed interest in process, whether it’s booze-making, the clothing that you’re wearing, or a handpainted sign,” he says. “I think sign painting is benefiting from a larger cultural interest in things made with care.”

Oatis agrees, offering his perspective from over 40 years in the sign making industry.

“Inevitably, the more things that can be automated,” he says, “the more there’s going to be some backlash to an interest in handcrafted things.”