Sign Painters: An (almost) Lost Art

A1.bookSign painting is an art and a craft that has attracted and fascinated both designers and laypersons alike for decades. It can be a combination hand-lettering, calligraphy, illustration, as well as borders and other decorative elements, created with brushes, pens, and other tools. Hand-painted signs can be found on billboards, buildings, murals, and any kind of signage for the purpose of advertising or publicity. The people who create them range from seasoned professionals who have been painting signs for decades to young sign-painting enthusiasts who strive to learn this craft and keep this very specialized trade alive.

In 2010, directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, along with cinematographer Travis Auclair, began documenting these dedicated practitioners, their time-honored methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship. The result is both a film and a book, each entitled Sign Painters, offering an anecdotal history of the craft, in the stories of more than two dozen sign painters working in cities throughout the United States. The documentary and book profiles sign painters young and old, from the new vanguard working solo to collaborative shops such as San Francisco’s New Bohemia Signs and New York’s Colossal Media’s Sky High Murals. (Check out the trailer for the Sign Painters movie here.)

The directors explain, “There was a time, as recently as the 1980s, when storefronts, murals, banners, barn signs, billboards, and even street signs were all hand-lettered with brush and paint. But, like many skilled trades, the sign industry has been overrun by the techno-fueled promise of quicker and cheaper. The resulting proliferation of computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering and inkjet printers has ushered a creeping sameness into our visual landscape. Fortunately, there is a growing trend to seek out traditional sign painters and a renaissance in the trade.”

So what makes a good sign according to these two documentarians? “When we began this project we thought we knew. How wrong we were. We’ve learned great sign – a perfect sign, someone say – can be so simple that an average person wouldn’t notice anything special about it, Beyond the fact that it’s telling you if you park here you’ll get towed. It’s the expert sign painter’s proficiency, talent, and ability that make a sign communicate effectively and keep you from the misery of the total lot. This book, like the job of a sign painter, isn’t always about eye-popping flashy designs. It’s about process. It’s about communication. It’s about the experiences, years of practice, tricks of the trade, and design fundamentals learned overtime that transformed a person who just wants to paint signs into a great sign painter.”

A student practicing “the chart”, a guideline for first semester LATTC (Los Angeles Trade Technical College) students.

A student practicing “the chart”, a guideline for first semester LATTC (Los Angeles Trade Technical College) students.

While the objective of the book and the film is to help show the general public how sign painters contributed to society, we have selected some of the more striking pieces from the book with a quote from each artist, to give you a taste of what it is all about. (All images courtesy of Faythe Levine and Sam Macon from their book Sign Painters.)

Bob Behounek | Chicago, Illinois
Vinyl machines can cut, they can give you a circle and a square, but they can’t give you the passion of a sign painter.

Beverly Sign Company job sketch, date unknown, collection of Bob Behounek

Beverly Sign Company job sketch, date unknown, collection of Bob Behounek


Sean Barton | Seattle, Washington
If you have a good-looking storefront and you take pride in it, you’ll attract more customers.B.Barton33


Mark & Rose Oatis | Las Vegas, Nevada
Rose: The guys at the sign shops…said they’d hire me to sweep floors and make coffee, but as a woman, I wasn’t going to be working…as a sign painter. Mark: You have to learn how to look ahead of where you are.C.Otis49

Letterhead project, Indiana, 1998

Letterhead project, Indiana, 1998


Roderick Laine Treece | Encinitas, California
A lot of the artwork has been designed in Photoshop, which gave it a stiff look. We changed a lot of that by hand.N.Treece77


Norma Jeanne Maloney | Austin, Texas
There’s some fear involved in doing what you love. I get up every morning and look at that fear and say to myself, “I’m doing what I love today.”

Trash Palace pattern and finished piece, 2011, Norma Jean Maloney

Trash Palace pattern and finished piece, 2011


Gary Martin | Austin, Texas
I love my work to look like it’s hot off the press, like you can still smell the paint.G.Martin63 H.Martin64 J.Martin65


Ernie Gosnell | Seattle, Washington
The world has changed and I’m glad I’m on the backside, you know?K.Gosnell107


Josh Luke | Boston, Massachusetts
I see sign painting as a way to positively affect the visual landscape of my city.

Chameleon Tattoo & Body Piercing shop, Boston, MA, 2011

Chameleon Tattoo & Body Piercing shop, Boston, MA, 2011



Sean Starr | Denton, Texas
When you get the sign-painting bug, it’s not about the money.O.Starr81


Phil Vandervaart | Minneapolis, Minnesota
I’m adding to the urban cacophony and feel proud that I’ve affected the landscape.Q.Vandervaart143


Bob Dewhurst | San Francisco, California
Being a sign painter, I get to meet the sandwich maker, the auto body mechanic, the CEO executive – I’ve connected with the world through the sign business.P.Dewhurst137

Posted on: May 10, 2017

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community.

5 Comments on Sign Painters: An (almost) Lost Art

  1. Absolutely fablous look back through time.

  2. Robert Marchand

    May 10, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    That’s what gave the sparks to do graphic design and typography 30 or more years ago.

  3. Victoria Huminik

    May 11, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Sure do miss the storefronts with the hand-lettered advertising. Brings back good memories from the 70’s and 80’s. My art instructor was really experienced with it. His name was Ron Matteson in Scottsdale.

  4. Thanks for sharing. Got my start in the signs & printing business with a shop employing hand-letterers in the early 80s. Interesting cast of characters.

  5. Thanks for providing that insight into a nearly lost art. I started out lettering trucks at sixteen, while still in high school. Studied sign painting and graphic arts at Williamsport Technical Institute, now Pennsylvania College of Technology. Worked my way through college as a sign painter. Started a sign shop and gravitated toward 3D signs, displays, and exhibits. There are still few sign writers around. Half way between Rochester & Buffalo, NY there’s a very talented sign painter and artist named Mark Weld. No vinyl cutter or digital printer for Mark. He’s also an amazing pinstripe artist. The really good sign painters have an intimate relationship and understanding of type design and letter construction that is seldom seen in the graphic design profession. When you create graphics letter by letter you really get to know those characters.

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