Sign-writing: a lick of paint

Joe Coleman. Photo: Sadie Osborne

It is where the industry started – painting letters and symbols by hand. Summer Brooks speaks to the artisans of traditional sign-writing and some new faces about why they love it

Featured photo by Sadie Osborne, courtesy of Coleman Sign & Design 

Sign-writing has deep roots in history. From the moment a new business was born, its owner would commission a sign to illustrate to passers-by of its services. Sign-writing took off at the turn of the 19th century with techniques like glass-gilding established during the early to mid-1800s. The hand-painting sign-writers began to fade in the 1980s with the introduction of computer-cut vinyl signs, forcing many to move away from the brush to stay competitive.

Since then, available courses for sign-writing have nearly all disappeared, with no official qualification to be gained in the UK and just one school in Los Angeles left to welcome the next generation to the industry. Despite this, young people are joining and learning from those who have been in the trade all their lives who feel a responsibility to pass on these skills that have worked for hundreds of years.

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Sign-painting arguably dropped off in the 80s with the introduction of digitally printed and vinyl-cut signs

Artisans of the trade

Mike Meyer can be described as a veteran of sign-writing, having been involved in the industry since 1977. Say his name to almost any sign-writer, and they’ll know who you mean. This is the unique thing about this section of the industry – it’s a remarkably tight community for a group of people dotted all over the globe.

“I got into sign painting when I was the middle, hell-raising son of three boys and my dad was a barber in a small town in Minnesota,” says Meyer. “I had to be watched by the old man at the barbershop. In between haircuts, he’d paint signs. I saw that and said that’s what I want to do.”

Nine months out of the year Meyer travels the world teaching his sign-writing techniques. When he’s not teaching, he’s back at his shop in Minnesota making signs. “I had a couple of sign friends saying that I should teach,” he says. “I’m not a teacher – if anything, I was the class clown. But then I thought maybe that would be a good thing; I would still teach the right things and be instructional but make it fun. And that’s what I try to do. I was nervous to start off with, but after a while I just thought if I’m going to be the Pied Piper for this, let’s have some fun with it. So far, it’s been great, I couldn’t do it without Sam Roberts of Better Letters.”

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Coleman says independent businesses are looking to stand out by going back to basics. Photo courtesy of Coleman Sign & Design

Adrian Geach of Fresh Graphics entered the world of sign-writing at 16-years-of age through a five-year apprenticeship he undertook in 1980. He says the biggest changes he’s noticed in sign-writing have been in the last five years. “I think people appreciate handcrafted work more now, and in a sea of plastic a good hand- painted wooden shop sign really stands out,” he comments. “I have had combined vinyl lettering and large-format printing in my business from about 1990 and this was the bulk of my work, but over the last five years I am more or less back full-time on the brush which is great as that’s what I trained to do – I never really wanted to be a button pusher.”

Meyer agrees that he is seeing more graphic designers moving away from computers and wanting to get back to the brush. “Since the Sign Painters (2013) movie came out and when I started teaching, I was kind of wondering: ‘where is this gonna go?’ But I’m overwhelmed by the people that have come out that don’t want to be behind a computer anymore and they want to do stuff with their hands,” he says.

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Tattoo parlours, hairdressing salons, coffee shops and restaurants have been pushing a rise in demand for traditional signage like glass gilding. Photo courtesy of Fresh Graphics

“[Teaching] has been a perfect fit for me, because I wanted people to see what it was traditionally like. Where it’s going – I think is on the right path where people don’t want a perfect digital print anymore. That has its place, but people, just like everything, they want to re-do their homes and their streets and their town the traditional way. Sign-painting isn’t just crafts, which they thought it would be. It’s a mainstay in every community around the world.”

New faces

Eleanor Harper is relatively new to the industry, having only been a sign-painter for a couple of years. After realising there was much more to sign-painting than she first thought, she learnt from artisans in the business. “I would describe myself as a fly that buzzed around sign-writers and just wouldn’t go away,” she says.

“I am a fairly new addition to the sign- writing profession, so I am unaware of how much it has changed besides the obvious fact that its commercial capacity died a quick death with the introduction of computer-aided printing and vinyl lettering,” Harper continues. “Traditional sign-writing is now a fantastically hard way to make a living and a pretty foolish path to follow, but it has an inexplicable attraction for some people. It looked like it was going the way of the dodo, but somehow I think that there will always be enthusiasts to keep this craft alive.”

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Eleanor Harper entered the trade by learning from skilled sign-writers. Photo courtesy of Eleanor Harper

Despite her relatively short time in sign painting compared to many who are stalwarts of the industry, Harper has a clear view of where she’d like to see traditional sign-writing in the future. “I hope to see traditional sign-writing in a healthy tangle with technology,” she says. “There are people already that choose to design their work on computers but want to keep a hand-painted finish. It’s all about asking what we want and making sure that we get it – do we want to use traditional quality paint products? Do we want signs that have a particular look when they age? Do we want to support more hands-on, creative people? Do we want to be able to create it fast enough to compete with other forms of signage? How can we do that with the help of other skilled people in the sign trade?”

Harper says collaboration is the way forward for keeping the methods alive, as there are few courses left for traditional sign-writing but many still around who have the skills to pass on to new faces entering the industry. “Give a group of sign-writers an area, bestow them an inner city neighbourhood or even a historic market town,” she suggests. “Let them work with the people and businesses there to hand paint every single sign, every advertisement and just see what happens. I guarantee it would be something pretty special.”

Joe Coleman studied graphic design at the University of the West of England in Bristol and after some time working as a graphic designer producing digital and print work, he found himself drawn back to the nature of hand-rendered lettering. After completing an introductory course in sign-writing, he decided to pursue his passion further and opened Coleman Sign & Design in 2015, focusing on traditional signage and hand-painted murals. “Although my background is rooted in branding and digital design, I also now enjoy the opportunity to realise my work in a hand-painted form and produce many large typographic artworks and large-scale murals,” he says. “With increased demand for this type of work, I find myself at the computer less and less.”

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The trade appears to be coming full circle as it is welcoming new faces again, including Joe Coleman of Coleman Sign & Design. Photo: Sadie Osborne

Coleman admits that during his time at university, he was unaware that the craft of traditional sign-writing was still alive and thought it seemed unlikely that anyone was still making a living from it. “Since discovering the world of sign-writing, I have been introduced and welcomed into a large community of talented and passionate individuals who are all making a good living from their practiced craft,” he says. “Although hand-painted signage is no longer produced on the industrial level that it had been previously, it is apparent that there has been a great resurgence in the craft, and we are seeing that more and more clients are pursuing a handwritten approach.”

Back in business

Where there is demand for signage, there is a message to be communicated. For traditional sign-writers, trade has picked up in recent years thanks to businesses look- ing to not just communicate their brand, but their history and values, too. “In Britain, we have many independent, family-owned businesses that have stood the test of time on an ever-changing high street,” says Coleman. “I believe this is something to be proud of and in this instance, I believe a traditional approach that reflects the history of the shop/company is perfectly suited.” It is not just businesses with deep roots seeking traditional methods, however. “We are finding that many new businesses are approaching their chosen field with a focus on skill and craftmanship,” Coleman adds: “These new ventures often seek out signage and branding that is reflective of this considered and quality-driven approach. I believe businesses such as artisan bakers, independent coffee shops and traditional gentlemen’s barbers can all benefit from this more bespoke, hand-crafted appearance. When the tone of the company is set from the outside of the building, the customer enters in knowledge of the quality of goods or services inside.”

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Mike Meyer’s lettering classes take place all over the world, run by Better Letters

Keeping skills alive

Meyer says that courses in sign-writing ought to be reinstated so that the trade stays alive. When he started out there were around eight schools in the US – now there’s just one. “There used to be quite a few [schools] around the world and a lot of it has dropped off,” says Meyer. “If something could be brought back into that realm, it would be nice if training got full- time again. Sign-painting always gets the bad rap of anything. People say: ‘that will never last, that doesn’t look right etc,’ but if you really get down to it the way it’s supposed to be done it does last a long time, and it makes you more money.”

Meyer adds: “There’s a reason why these things worked back then – it was practical, and you could read it. Tech- nology isn’t the best thing all the time. Of course, there is some of it which is great, but still nothing beats the way it’s supposed to work and the personality of speaking with a real, traditional sign person where you get a handshake and you get a written contract. Try doing it that way and you’ll be surprised.”

Geach also shares the global community spirit of this corner of the industry, in that he wants to pass on his skills to the next generation. “The demand is there at the moment and it’s a skill you can take anywhere in the world as long as you have some brushes and a pot of paint,” he says. “Most old-timers like myself are more than happy to pass on any tips and knowledge as it’s so good to see the trade having a resurgence after years of neglect. You get involved with people at the very beginning of their businesses and I have made some great friends over the last 39 years and seen many small start-ups grow into flourishing enterprises.”

First published in SignLink.

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