South East Asian Signs by Jon Bocksel of NY’s Hand Signs
I was lucky enough to travel around Southeast Asia earlier this year. There is no shortage of hand painted signs throughout Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia whose written languages trace their lineage to Pallava script from Southern India.
The beautiful thick and thin “chisel” strokes of Thai, Lao and Khmer presumably developed with the use of a reed or stylus creating thick and thin strokes. It’s nice to see how this tradition is still in use, applied to quick letter forms as well as more elaborate forms with drop shadows and outlines. These writing systems started with the hand and have maintained their human form in many instances.
I may not know what many of these signs say, but you don’t need to read the language to recognize beautiful form, layout, and likeness amongst the brush strokes.
Jon Bocksel is a sign painter and typographer with Hand Signs in New York City. Check out his hand painted signs here.
Joby Carter’s Signwriting Course by Jim Medway
It’s not much more than a year that my interest in signwriting has become an active and creative pursuit. Once I’d discovered Joby Carter’s site, I tended to keep revisiting it in the hope that some of his expertise and capabilities would somehow rub off on me. Finally I got my act together, and booked myself on for his signwriting course for November 2013.
Other students seemed to reflect a fairly broad catchment. Out of the fourteen people who signed up, a few were retired, a few were tattooists, a few were graphic designers, a few were decorators, a few were into the fairground, vintage and steam side of things, and all were keen to get stuck in.
The first of the five days brought any fancy ideas we might’ve been nurturing back down to Earth, withholding brushes and paint in favour of pencil, paper and ruler. Religiously copying handouts depicting the key Roman or Trajan alphabet initially felt as uncreative as it gets, sinking your teeth into studying these ‘correct’ forms, angles and dimensions. Joby would walk around unapologetically criticising and picking apart out attempted hand-drawn versions, pointing out the key essential characteristics by constructing them himself and pointing out examples from the walls of the letters ‘in action’. Once comfortable and confident enough with these building blocks, short words began to be sketched out. At this point Joby introduced the idea of negative space, and how we need to develop the ability to harmoniously shape not just the letters, but also the gaps and voids between them. I’ve been aware of kerning for some time, but never actually made myself sit and work through the practical mechanisms involved.
As what I’d consider an intermediate beginner, I was already on board with most of what the course covered, but all at the simplest theoretical level—block effect, cast shadow, brush handling and so on. The real pleasure of this course was in stripping it all down to the chassis, starting from scratch, and spending five whole, dedicated, uninterrupted and intensive whole days reconstructing what I thought I knew.
The following day saw paint and brushes for all of us, but all at different times, once individuals had what was felt to be a suitable grasp of letterform and spacing. I feel everyone appreciated how Joby was able to both leave us to it when getting on with it, as well as support and assist everyone’s particular varying requirements. A few were able to gain confidence with what the brush can do fairly easily, but he’d patiently demonstrate and re-demonstrate twisting the brush in and out of corners, shaping an ‘O’, ‘S’ or ‘W’, and watch to see where we were slipping up. Two students had (long ago) both apprenticed as sign and ticket writers, only to abandon it at the dawn of vinyl cutting. Naturally these guys were quick to pick up where they’d left off, bringing their speedy and stylish form of one-stroke brush lettering to the table.
With all of us working at different fluency, confidence and therefore pace, the remaining days saw us immersed in repetitive practice, practice, practice; attempt a word or two, learn from our mistakes, wipe it off, then have another run at it. We were free to stick with one style, or venture into Ship, Curveside, or something more flamboyant or ambitious inspired by our surroundings. The days were broken by tea, coffee, lunch, and a tour around the yard, which included a peek inside Joby’s impressive Royal Windsor showman’s wagon restoration project.
Every so often Joby would call us all around demonstrations (using the lining brush, blending, block and shadow effects), and invite us to have a go ourselves. I’d attempted most of this stuff previously, but having him on hand to be unapologetically blunt and critical about my struggles was exactly what I needed. This constant professional patience and encouragement, nurturing every student at whatever stage, combined with the immersive surroundings, location and generous timeframe, made this course probably the most enjoyable, intensive learning I’ve ever done.
Filmmaker Adrian Harrison shot a short promotional piece during this course, which can be seen here and Joby Carter is now offering a new Fairground Art course, which covers scrollwork, marbling, gilding, and lining. http://www.cartersentertainment.com/signwriting.html
Some more images from the workshop:
Jim Medway is a British artist and signwriter. Check out his work at jimmedway.com
Wm. H. Page Company’s Chromatic Type Catalog, 1874 by Lee Littlewood
Wood type was usually used like other type - printed as black ink on white paper - but sometimes a printer might use color. And if one were an adventurous, meticulous printer, there were ‘chromatic’ types that printed over themselves (in register) to give multi-color results. Furthermore, you could get a third color by layering one ink over another - a red and a green make brown, for example.
From “American Wood Type” by Rob Roy Kelly (page 69): “One catalogue important both for its historical and aesthetic considerations is the “Chromatic Wood Types” printed by William Page in 1874. It is perhaps the most expensive specimen book printed by a wood type manufacturer - $10,000 for 1000 copies. … The catalogue card file in Special Collection, Columbia University, describes this catalogue as being the most beautiful wood type catalogue ever printed.” And for that matter, “American Wood Type: 1828-1900” is a great book, available in paperback and (I think) a reissued hardcover.
Lee Littlewood is a calligrapher and sign painter from Portland, Oregon. He’s been running Lee’s Better Letters since 1972. You can see of his work on his website: www.lblsigns.com
A Tribute to Ken Long and his Work by his son, John Long
KENNETH LLOYD LONG
The Sign Industry lost one of its legends on December 3, 2013. Ken Long came from humble beginnings. Born on the last day of winter March 20, 1939, in the small but scenic town of Stigler, Oklahoma, his family moved out to California just a few years after he was born. He was raised in Bakersfield, California and developed an interest in art at a very young age. Ken was one of Selmer and Ruth Long’s 6 children.
In the 1950’s after excelling in art classes in school, Ken decided that he could earn some extra money by going around the local neighborhoods and lettering people’s names and addresses on their mailboxes. It wasn’t long before his natural ability began to develop and he became quite good at the simple mailbox layout and lettering technique. After joining the Army, he wound up stationed at a Nike Missile Base in Valparaiso, Indiana near Chicago, where he met, fell in love with, and married the love of his life, Joanne Dorazio. Joanne was an integral part of his life and his career and the two remained together until her passing in 2003. After Joanne passed away, Ken remarried.
After moving back to Bakersfield from Indiana, Ken’s lettering talent later developed into his career after he was introduced to some of the old veteran sign painters in the Kern County area of California. These master craftsmen took him in as an apprentice and taught him some of the many trade secrets that he used throughout his career and in his art pieces that he painted during his 60s and 70s.
During the 1960s, Ken was asked to take on the management position at Kern County’s premier sign company, Baker Signs. He was a working manager though, never wanting to stray away from keeping his “hand in the paint” as they say. Ken hired and trained some of the best in the business, many of them, like Dave Mord and Troy Hvass, went on to open their own sign shops across this country.
In the early 1970s Ken and Joanne became devout Christians and helped others study the bible.
In the late 1970s Ken and his wife Joanne moved their family, now consisting of five children, three boys and two girls, from Bakersfield, California all the way to Chicago, Illinois so that the kids could get to know their mom Joanne’s side of the family. During that time Ken worked painting signs in a small shop called Krager Signs, owned by Jim Krager, Van Bruggen Signs, and then went on to work at the legendary Beverly Sign Co. in Chicago. From Oregon to Florida, from Chicago to New York and parts elsewhere, Ken’s influence in the sign industry is immeasurable.
In 1980, Ken decided that he just didn’t enjoy working in the freezing temperatures of Chicago and decided to move back to the sunny state of California. This time he could afford the luxury of moving closer to the beach and chose the beach community of Oxnard, in the heart of Ventura County where the weather was beautiful all year round. After working for other shops almost his entire life, Ken decided to start his own sign business. With only a roll of butcher paper, some paints and his brushes, Ken was able to develop Ad-Craft Sign Company into Ventura County’s only full service sign shop with all of the work being done in house.
His career spanned over forty years until the late 1980s when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and unfortunately had to retire from his business and painting. A passion of his since childhood, as soon as his illness went into remission, Ken started painting again, except this time he concentrated on just the occasional lettering piece and works of art on canvas that were “affordable to the working people” to quote him. Many of these artworks were sold as a series of special pieces in which the profits of the sales are donated to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.
Ken passed away on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013 at his home in Hemet, CA. He died of complications after a heart procedure done the day before. He is loved and missed by many. His work and his teaching about the sign trade and it’s techniques lives on through his many apprentices.
Henry Castro, Sign Painter in Sebastopol, CA by Mary Frost
The smooth, gray, concrete floor is splattered with paint. Several shades of red, yellow, blue, green, purple, orange, black, white, and gray puddle in front of me. Atop the splashes and spots of dried paint, stand various sizes of former fruit and vegetable cans. Some cans now contain paint and others, brushes soaking in thinner. I’m five and I’m squatting close to the concrete just looking at everything and smelling the smells. Smells of 1Shot paint, smells of thinner, smells of chalk, smells of redwood dust, smells of linseed oil, smells of stabilo pencil lead: the smells of my dad’s shop. I’m just looking but you never tell me not to touch, you let me explore while you paint your signs. I’m the youngest of your six children* and this is “babysitting” circa 1967 at Henry’s Signs Shop in Sebastopol, California.
Sitting quietly beside you, I watch you, Dad, with your full head of hair, hazel eyes and potbelly, slide your paintbrush along the surface of the board, the truck door, the odd keepsake, the Hell’s Angel logo. Many times I see you hold your tongue out a little at the corner of your mouth. When I ask about this you say it helps you to concentrate.
I watch as you mix colors by hand and match any color a customer brings in and match it again when they come back years later. You make matching colors look so easy to do. You take the time to explain to this little girl of five how adding a little green instead of more black will make the perfect shade of gray.
The day you show me gold leaf for the first time is truly memorable! You carefully show me how delicate the gold is and how to be extra careful when handling it. The gold leaf brush you use is like magic to me the way the hairs of the brush seem to pull the gold towards it.
I’m 8 years old and we are together on an overhang of a building. You teach me how to walk up a ladder. Going up is easy peasy; going down is another story. While we are up there you show me how to easily remove a little painting error by first rubbing your thumb on the side of your nose. The paint comes off cleanly with the oil from you face. Cool!
I’m sixteen years old, you are 60; we have nothing in common. We are both Virgos, we have everything in common. One day I come to the shop and tell you I’ve had a dream and I want to paint what I saw in the dream. You don’t even question me, you just set me up with something to paint on, the brushes and paint and let me go to it. Supportive in your own way. The dream had numbers falling from above: 146, 6873, 213, 478 and so on and on. The background was a wash of all kinds of colors, yellows, greens, blues, purples and I paint them all. My painting looks completely juvenile, not artistic at all, but I don’t mind. You kindly refrain from pointing out my obvious lack of innate artistic ability.
I’m forty years old, you’ve been dead now for nine years. I miss you terribly. I miss what we never had. I get in my car and drive around the county searching for some of your signs. Years before this, when I drove around, your signs were seemingly everywhere: the hardware store, the restaurants, the movie theatre, the gas station, the nursery, the fair, the cannery, the feed store, the tire shop, the tow trucks, the logging trucks, the hauling trucks, the septic tank trucks, the bread trucks, the taco shop, the high schools, the grade schools, the baseball field, the bowling alley, the bar, the ice arena. Now, I have to search and search but the signs I find still look good after all these years. The carved signs I find have been well taken care of for decades because the owners followed your advice and put a coat of linseed oil on the redwood sign each year. I cry.
I’m 50 years old. I’m painting my studio walls, the brush and I are one. I look for holidays (those missed spots) and find none because you taught me how to feather the brush to blend each stroke as one. While you were alive, if I could tell you anything it would be, “I see you. I see what you do. I see how you support your family. I see how hard you work. I see your unending talent with color and brush. I am in awe and thankful.”
Now, dad, when I wish you were still here, I pick up my own brush and dip it in my creamy, colorful paint and let the quiet whisper of the bristles speak to you and we are together again.
*In 1967 when Mary was 5 years old she had three brothers and two sisters but when she was 9 years old another brother was introduced to the family from Henry’s first marriage. This ‘first marriage’ was quite a surprise but Mary considers herself the last of Henry’s seven children. Even though her brother Bob did not grow up with his sign painter father, he opened his own sign shop later in life. All of Henry’s sons helped in the sign shop and three of the four had their own sign business.
Mary Frost is married to her sweetheart Jack and lives and works in Santa Rosa, CA. She enjoys being self employed like her dad and working outside in beautiful Sonoma County. You can find her website at www.thegardeningtutor.net. Although Mary is not a sign painter she cannot get enough of using paint for all sorts of projects and enjoys seeing signs painted by hand!
Frank + Mimi of Brisbane, Australia by Rick Hayward and Emily Devers
Rick Hayward and Emily Devers are Frank + Mimi.
Rick is a qualified Sign Writer with over ten years experience and Emily is an accomplished multidisciplinary fine artist—they’ve been working together since early 2012. Rick’s first independent sign writing venture was as Frank Creates (Frank, as in honest) and Em’s been signing her work as Mimi since she could hold a brush. When we started painting together, it made sense that our work embodied both our personal and collective creative capabilities, and Frank + Mimi just kind of stuck!
Like any creative venture, it’s a truly beautiful thing when people come together from different disciplines and backgrounds and collaborate on something unique. We’ve found that although we have our clear strengths; Em with illustration, Rick with lettering – we are constantly learning from each other and widening our skill spectrum.
All our original work is done with our own hands—hand drawn, hand painted, hand made. Frank + Mimi celebrates the beauty that is reflected in both the errors and triumphs of the human hand. We are driven to support local businesses, maintain environmental awareness in our methods, and educate our clients and community on the true value of a finely handcrafted artwork.
Our work references a time in history when guys slicked their hair and gals shined their shoes, traditional sign writing and illustration existed harmoniously, and local businesses visually identified themselves with soul. Like many skilled trades, the sign industry goes through ebbs and flows in relation to the development of new technologies. The result of going against the proverbial digital grain means that we are able to form valuable supportive relationships with local businesses and watch a beautiful community built on human interactions form around us.
We approach each project with the same mantra: hand drawn, hand painted, hand made. Right from the beginning we are thinking with our hands. All our designs manifest as a direct response to the intended surface and we envisage the artwork not only as two dimensional, but including the characteristics of the surface and surrounding environment.
Our visual inspiration is mostly drawn from the earlier part of the 20th century because life was just different then. Slower production methods and hand labour were the mainstream and people enjoyed simple lifestyles. Similarly, we strive for a simple lifestyle focusing less on what we’re accumulating and more on what we’re making—have less and be more!
Thanks for featuring us Pre-Vinylites! Everyone that’s a part of the PVS is an artist in the true sense of the word, and you’re all a constant source of motivation for us folks here is Australia to keep rollin’ along with our brushes!
All images courtesy of the artists from their personal website.
A History of Creative Sign-Making: A Sign-Carver’s Perspective by Don McKernan
Like many professions, sign-making can trace its roots back to prehistoric times. Even before written languages were developed, cave paintings were used as a form of ‘signage’ to tell stories, communicate the location of good hunting grounds, or warn others of good or ill fortune (Wikibooks 2009). The ruling classes in ancient Egypt painted and engraved hieroglyphics on the walls of sacred temples and burial places, telling stories of past achievements in the lives of kings and heroes. Similar carvings were produced by the Mayans of South America in their places of worship. Later, Greeks and Romans used signage extensively, carving letters into stone walls to convey messages to the citizens of the empire (Gibson, 2009:74). Hundreds of gilded and painted signs have been found buried in the ashes and lava at the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum (Schwartzmann, 1998:8). On the other side of the world, the art of Whakairo, or traditional wood carving has been practiced by the Maori people of New Zealand for thousands of years (Waikato Times, 2007).
A street sign from Pompeii (image courtesy of About.com)
During the dark ages in Europe, the vast majority of the population was uneducated and illiterate. For this reason, signs had to communicate messages to passers-by without using written language. During this period, ornate, eye-catching images were used to grab the viewers’ attention. Often, signs had no words, and if they did, the text was a decidedly secondary feature of the sign design. The traditional pub signs of England and Ireland tend to still exhibit some of the characteristics of medieval European sign design.
A traditional pub sign in Abergavenny, Wales (image courtesy of Panoramio)
On the other hand, monasteries of the day remained havens of learning, culture and literacy. For this reason, lettering can be found on tombs in Gothic cathedrals of the time (Gibson, 2009:75). In Ireland, monks carefully lettered or ‘illuminated’ religious texts such as the Book of Kells, an artefact of typographical genius such as has rarely been seen before or since.
A page from The Book of Kells (image coutsey of Maison Boheme)
In the Fifteenth century, with the advent of Johannes Gutenburg’s printing press, literacy rates increased dramatically across Europe, and the written sign became common. Itinerant artists travelled across Britain and America, painting signs for pubs and taverns (Baldwin 1990:3).
"After the Great Fire of London in 1666, some shop owners affixed their signs directly to their building’s facades. Still, the hanging sign abounded until 1718, when a sign in Bride Lane collapsed due to its enormous weight, killing four passers-by and bringing about a law that forbade the hanging sign" (Schwartzmann, 1998:8).
‘”This is a raucous street scene in London at night in which the shop signs hanging over the pedestrians seem almost ominous.” (image and caption courtesy of Jane Austen’s World)
Running parallel to sign-painting at this time was the ship-carving industry. Artisans in Europe and the New World carved and gilded ornate figureheads and other wooden decorations for sailing ships, including ‘quarterboards’ bearing the ship’s name - essentially a sign identifying the ship. By law, the letters had to be carved, so the name would be legible after years of weathering on the open sea. In some cases, quarterboards from shipwrecks washed ashore and were hung as decorations in taverns in coastal towns. Eventually, the demand for these carved ‘signs’ outstripped the supply, and the carved sign industry was born (Baldwin 1990:3). Still today, quarterboard-style signs are popular especially in the coastal New England region of North America. Carved ‘colonial-style’ signs have only increased in popularity since those years.
A quarterboard on the iconic clipper ship, Cutty Sark (image courtesy of Joyous)
By the nineteenth century, the modern era of capitalist industrialism again changed the nature of the sign-making profession. The streetscapes of cities in Europe and North America became filled to overflowing with signs advertising every product and service imaginable. ‘Typefaces,’ as we know them today, were still relevant only to the printing industry, whereas the letterforms on signs were unique to the sign-painter that created them.
(image courtesy of The Wayfinding Handbook)
"[The letters on the signs] were rarely uniform; instead commercial letterers drew them from scratch to reflect the style of the decade and the tastes of the owner, often forcing the designs to fit a given space. Though this typographic cacophony may seem a visual feast to today’s audience, it was considered an eyesore at the time, the sign of a mercantile society run amok." (Gibson, 2009:75)
In the early twentieth century, as increasingly tall buildings were constructed, type was often integrated into the building itself, with dimensional letters cast into concrete or “incorporated into metalwork and other decorative detailing on exteriors and interiors. This lettering complemented the architectural style of the buildings often with powerful and extraordinary results” (Gibson, 2009:76).
Architectural type on Byron Street, Inverell (photographed by the author)
From the mid-twentieth century to today, the sign industry—like all industries—has seen huge changes as modern technology has revolutionised the way signs are designed, made, installed and lit. New types of signs emerged, such as ‘light bulb lettering,’ neon, internally lit channel letters and more recently, LED screens. Since the 1980s the hand-lettering industry has been almost completely eclipsed by vinyl signage designed on computers and cut on plotters. This has also meant that the sign industry now uses typefaces designed by font foundries, rather than painted by individual sign painters. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of computers can create a ‘sign’ (in the loose, contemporary sense of the word).
Interestingly, however, in North America, the traditional sign-carving industry has not only survived, but grown dramatically, parallel to mainstream sign-making. This is especially true since the 1960s. Hundreds if not thousands of small and medium-sized companies continue to produce carved signs. While some of these companies still use timber panels, drawing and carving the letters by hand, others use modern materials and technology, such as wood substitutes and CNC routers to produce the same style of signage.
Today, as the industry continues to diversify and modernize, a movement called the ‘Letterheads’ continues to keep traditional sign-crafting techniques alive by holding ‘meets’ to help traditional sign-makers trade ideas and knowledge, and train the younger generation. Furthermore, several sign-makers in the US and Canada run short courses on designing and producing dimensional signage. These include well-known craftsmen Larry Whan, David Calvo, Paul White and others, not to mention hundreds of online How-to videos and step-by-step articles. Magazines such as SignCraft promote the craft by running contests and publishing step-by-step articles for and by the dimensional sign industry.
A sign-carving class in Massachusetts (image courtesy of Wooden Apple Signmakers)
"This is indeed an exciting time to be in the sign business. There’s a new wave of friendship and enthusiasm sweeping our trade. What was once an ‘every man for himself’ cottage industry is now evolving into a national fraternity of progressive-thinking artists. Sign associations are springing up all around the country - sharing information and skills as never before." (R. Straub, quoted in Stevens, 1994)
A Letterheads meet in Detroit, 2004 (image courtesy of Letterville)
"The Letterheads meets have also been a tremendous source of inspiration to me since I attended my first one in 1985. Over the years, I had nearly become lost in my own little world and had no idea how many wonderful, talented people there are in the world. I make a concentrated effort to attend at least two or three meets a year, and always return home motivated and inspired." (Gerathy, 1998:38)
More recently, traditional sign-making - and specifically hand-lettering - has captured the imagination of the wider art and design community, spawning a growing number of documentaries, books and films.
"A new development in the trade is the acceptance that we’re getting into the art world. Years that have been put into the development of sign-making as an art form… to see that finally being accepted by the art community is very exciting." – Sean Starr (N. Day, 2012)
Sean Starr passes on the craft of lettering to his nephew, Anderson (image courtesy of Starr Studios)
It certainly is an exciting time to be making traditional signs. Skilled craftwork seems to being gaining greater respect as people—especially younger people—search for “authenticity” in an increasing virtual world. Where it will go next is anyone’s guess, but there is something inherently good about crafting beautiful signage.
"Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is ‘the art of education.’ Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good… In this sense it has been said with profound insight that ‘beauty will save the world.’" Pope John Paul II (1999)
Don McKernan works at Danthonia Designs, in the beautiful town of Inverell, Australia. He also writes for the Danthonia Designs Blog.
Baldwin, S., 1990. Carving Wood Signs, SignCraft Publishing Company, Fort Myers, Florida.
Day, N., 2012. ‘Keepers of the Craft’ (film), Retrieved 13 September 2013 from, http://vimeo.com/44200022
Gerathy, D., ‘Making Antique Wood Signs’, SignCraft, No. 103, Nov/Dec 1998, pp. 36-40.
Gibson, D., 2009. The Wayfinding Handbook, Princeton Architectural Press, New York.
Paul, Pope John (II), 1999. ‘Letter to Artists’, Retrieved 13 September 2013 from, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_23041999_artists_en.html
Schwartzmann, A. 1998. Designage: The Art of the Decorative Sign, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Stevens, M. 1994, Mastering Layout, ST Publications, Cincinatti, OH.
Wikibooks, 2009. ‘Graphic Design/Sign Making’, Wikibooks, Retrieved 17 November 2009 from,
Waikato Times, 2007. ‘The Carver Speaks of His Work’, Waikato Times, Retrieved 16 January 2010 from,
From Ghostsigns to Better Letters: My Lettering Journey by Sam Roberts
In 2006 the walls in London started speaking to me through the faded remnants of advertising once painted onto their bricks. I began to notice these ‘ghostsigns’ everywhere and set about photographing and researching them, aware that they wouldn’t last forever. This culminated in the 2010 launch of the History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive which documents hundreds of examples from across the UK and Ireland. My research continues, principally through the Ghostsigns blog where I write about the latest discoveries and debates in this area.
Throughout this work on ghostsigns I often talked of their role as evidence of a form of advertising that had since ceased to exist. However, over time, I gradually became aware that this was far from the truth. While the demand for painted signs, on walls or otherwise, has certainly declined, the skill and tradition of signwriting (sign painting in the USA) lives on.
Initially through my admiration of the work of Colossal Media, more and more signwriters and lettering artists came to my attention. These included József László in Hungary, Haggai Osewe in Kenya and David Smith in the UK, among others. It was clear that a thriving global industry was continuing to produce painted signage of exceptional artistic and graphic quality. This in itself is worthy of celebration, something excellently executed by the recent release of The Sign Painter Movie and accompanying book.
Work by József László
In parallel to my work on ghostsigns I felt a compulsion to do more to promote the work of contemporary sign painters and other lettering artists. To some extent this was the intention of my book, Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie, although this only covers the work found in Cambodia, following my two years living and working there. I felt there was an opportunity to develop something more global in scale, a place to showcase work and the people producing it.
Following some initial research and development I have now opened Better Letters, an online directory that allows lettering artists to create and manage listings, and for others to view their work and get in touch. At the time of writing the site lists 28 lettering artists from eight different countries and I hope that others will follow their lead. It also lists lettering events, including courses, conferences and exhibitions. Again these can be listed and managed by those responsible for the events.
It still amazes me what has happened as a result of spotting a couple of old faded signs on walls seven years ago. Writing a blog, publishing a book and now launching a platform to promote lettering artists have all been fascinating and challenging experiences. I hope that the next seven years bring even more.
Resources and contacts:
Better Letters: http://betterletters.co and @better_letters
Ghostsigns: http://ghostsigns.co.uk and @ghostsigns
Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie: http://kratie.ghostsigns.co.uk
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Harvard Square’s Leavitt & Peirce, by Meredith Kasabian
On July 26, 1994, George L. Wren, supervisor of renovations at Leavitt & Peirce, the historical Harvard Square tobacco shop, received an unusual package in the mail containing an old maiden’s right arm. The arm, which had gone missing two years prior to its sudden return, belongs to the wooden maiden that has perched above the doorway of the historic smoke shop for close to 130 years. Though the mystery of the arm theft was never solved, Wren believes that it was a hoax perpetrated by “some Harvard student organization ‘which smokes cigars.’” He explains that the arm “‘came in a box from New York with a phony address […] It was in good condition.’” Wren promptly reattached the dismembered limb and gave the maiden a fresh coat of paint. With the return of the arm, Wren says that “‘people in the Square seem to be happier to have it back […] They walk past it and smile.’”
Me and the Wooden Maiden
The “people in the Square” are an important part of the legacy of Leavitt & Peirce—they take their local smoke shop seriously. Having operated in its current location at 1316 Mass Ave since 1885, Leavitt & Peirce has developed a protective following over the years. Ever since its early years as “’a den of sin’” for pipe-smoking, billiard-playing Harvard upperclassmen, the shop has held a special place in the hearts of its patrons. As one local regular claims in a 2009 Harvard Crimson article, “’We need that store […] I would be heartbroken if they go out of business. This is one store that still has the old spirit in it.’”
"Twentieth Century Progress" Print by TB Hoffman, 1900
It seems that students and locals have always felt this affinity for Leavitt & Peirce, both the store and its proprietors. On the occasion of Fred Leavitt’s death in 1921, an anonymous student, affronted that no mention was made of this prominent figure’s sudden demise, wrote an outraged letter to The Harvard Crimson. The student eulogizes:
"Since 1883, Mr. Leavitt has been all but a college boy himself, joking, sympathizing and advising us, who are here today. He knew "the ropes" and he helped us to learn them too. When we were wrong he told us; when we were right he never failed to commend us. Despondent and discouraged have I entered his store; cheerful and wiser have I left. He knew us all; I think he loved us all […] Together with Mr. Peirce, he built up and maintained an establishment which has been and always will be a landmark in Harvard Square. How many are there amongst us who have not seen it? Who has never cashed a check there? Who will ever forget Mr. Leavitt?"
As the years passed, the personal fondness for Fred Leavitt and Waldo Peirce slowly waned (though their portraits still hang prominently in the store), but not for the legacy that they left behind.
Fred Leavitt & Waldo Peirce
Another contributor to The Harvard Crimson in 1956 laments the shop’s change of ownership after 72 years, calling Leavitt & Peirce the “last remnant of the ‘old Harvard’” but maintaining that “the traditions of the ‘gentleman’s smoke shop’ will continue almost unaltered.’” It seems that this fortitude in the face of such drastic change in Harvard Square is what patrons appreciate and admire most about the shop.
Harvard Students in the 1940s
When Josh and I first moved to Boston from San Francisco in September of 2010, Leavitt & Peirce was one of the first places I brought Josh because it may well be my favorite place on earth. Besides it being a landmark of my adolescence (where I would gaze at the handblown marbles by Fritz and stand outside, looking bored while smoking cloves out of my mother-of-pearl cigarette holder), I knew that Josh would appreciate the plethora of Boston-style gilded glass that line the walls of the store’s interior as well its facade.
That day we gave some business cards to the manager and let her know that if the owner ever decided to repair some of the damaged gold leaf on their glass storefront, Josh was their man. About a year and a half later, we got a phone call from Paul MacDonald, the store’s owner since the mid 80s, asking us if we could restore the grate covers that read “GIFTS” “TOBACCO” and “GAMES.” Paul had installed the grates in the 1990s and had the words painted in gold paint. He wanted us to re-do them in 23k gold leaf to match the store’s name above.
Never in our sign painting experience have passersby shown so much concern about what was happening to a storefront. As part of the restoration, we had to black out the grate covers before we gilded the words exactly as they had been painted before. Several people walked by and gasped, asking in a panic if the store was going out of business. After three days of tracing, painting, and gilding in the sunset (we had to do most of our work after 5pm because the store is so busy during the day), we finished the sign, effectively keeping the local Square dwellers placated.
Some Progress Shots
In 2010, a writer for The Harvard Crimsonexplains that “over the past 25 years, Harvard Square has faced tension between maintaining the Square’s historically eclectic vibes and the demands of a modern economy.” Leavitt & Peirce has remained an anchor for the Square, maintaining that “‘old Harvard’” feel even in the face of such drastic changes as the introduction of Starbucks and The Gap into this “historically eclectic” destination. Despite the many changes that seem to have continuously plagued Harvard Square over the last century, Leavitt & Peirce remains, in the words of that anonymous student mourning the loss of Mr. Leavitt in 1921, “an establishment which has been and always will be a landmark in Harvard Square” and we are honored to have had any part in its restoration.
*This piece originally appeared on the Best Dressed Signs blog in February, 2013
Post Paint Boy, by Lee Jones
A sign painter in Lee’s father’s shop, circa 1980.
My first job was painting estate agent posts. Two and a half metre lengths of 2x2 pine – planed and finished with a sharp spike at one end. I would usually paint a hundred in one go – ten at a time laid out in a tidy row on a pair of trestles, painting the upper most sides first before flipping them over one at a time and continuing until all four sides were covered, then I would lean them against the wall to dry and line up the next batch. Each post would require two or three coats. I was ten years old.
I enjoyed the work and I loved spending time at my dad’s sign workshop (not mentioning the pocket money!). If the weather was fine he would set me up out front on the gravel driveway in oversized paint overalls where I would often meet the tradesmen who frequented the building to arrange and collect sign orders or to deliver materials.
The workshop itself was a converted stable in a suburb in the southern coastal town of Bournemouth – a ramshackle two floors of paint-encrusted work surfaces and cobwebbed corners stacked with disused signs and old silkscreens, all flavoured with the constant chatter and radio buzz of good work. In between post-painting chores and sweeping the floors, there was plenty of time for exploring and an array of dark, untouched spaces in which to do so.
My recollections of the workshop are vivid, right down to insignificant details – hours spent playing on the large wooden stairway and utilising my dad’s mahl stick and T-squares as makeshift weapons. I can still recall the photo pinned on the wall of my grandfather on a Christmas carnival float dressed in full Santa attire, taken from the local newspaper, and the many paint smears adorning the walls where the my dad and his team would test colours.
The experiences gathered here can go some way to explaining some of my current values. I consider this the reason why I can’t tolerate too tidy a workspace, why I find a cluttered workbench or an old tin with paint dripped and hardened around the rim aesthetically pleasing, why the smell of paint thinners is not altogether unpleasant.
My dad left school in 1962, aged 16, to begin a signwriting apprenticeship, which in those days also incorporated skills in painting and decorating. He then followed his father into the family sign business, established in 1954, and has worked in the trade ever since with no real desire to retire despite being well into his sixties.
My dad often recounts tales of those pre-vinyl years. Some I’ve heard many times though I don’t tire of them. Stories of my grandfather suffering an attack of vertigo whilst signwriting at the top of a triple extension ladder, or the time my dad had to paint the name on a boat by hanging upside down over the edge of the vessel in question. He would tell me of times when they would work through the night, working to deadlines painting signs for exhibitions in London. He’s also helped me to imagine scenes at the Dean Court football ground with workers from different sign companies painting the billboards surrounding the pitch, sharing paints and conversation.
These days the notion of a job for life can seem quaint or simplistic, in a time where mature student numbers are at their highest and it’s not uncommon to experience a mid-life career crisis and re-evaluation. This, of course, can be a very positive thing, but there’s much to admire in someone devoting their entire life to a vocation. Some folk just manage to find their groove earlier than others I suppose.
In contrast, my path was a fairly regular tale of a non-committal career progression: I left school with moderate grades, a brief stint at college, a couple of enjoyable but undemanding jobs before taking employment in the family sign company, cutting vinyl in a back room that had once been my sister’s bedroom. By this time a recession and the advent of vinyl had forced my dad to strip everything back, including staff and workspace and start from scratch with a computer and vinyl plotter, working from home. After a couple of years, I blew that all off so I could go travel with my future wife. When I came home I took a job in retail and crawled back to my dad when that turned sour (by which time things had begun to improve and he now had a small high street sign shop). I’ve been with him ten years now and, while I’ve always had a pretty strong work ethic, for a time I still found it hard to say “this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.” It took some time to convince myself that this was where my heart was. But then something changed.
I can’t remember the exact time I decided to take up hand-painted lettering. It had been on my mind for some time but things were often too busy in the office to consider what would essentially be an apprenticeship. It certainly wasn’t a decision rooted in any business incentive – my dad was still keeping his hand in with small gilding jobs and the occasional pub signwriting – but it was hardly boom time. So the decision to venture into sign painting was less of a financial concern and more formed from a desire to do something substantial, something that couldn’t be achieved in a month with the right software and a YouTube tutorial. It also seemed absurd not to, considering I was working every day with someone in possession of a lifetime’s experience and the required skills to teach me.
I’d spent much of my time to this point flitting between various interests, being intensely pre-occupied for a time before moving on, never particularly distraught when things ran their course. The pursuit of sign painting had weight to it, something that was threaded through the best part of a century of my family history.
This, coupled with a burgeoning online community of like-minded people, who seem intent on dragging sign painting from its revered place in the past into a more contemporary setting, not content to just view it in a nostalgic context, are all the incentives I needed to push through the barrier that can occasionally appear when you’ve spent an hour painting single practice strokes in black 1shot enamel - striving for some kind of perfection, realising all the time that this truly takes practice, this takes work. It’s been just short of two years since I first picked up the brush, and I’m trying to balance the patience of persistent practice, of really grasping the basics and not getting too ahead of myself, with the occasional regret that surfaces - that I didn’t get round to this sooner. But there’s little point in beating yourself up over the time it takes to get to where you’re going, it’s good to just get there.
With my main focus now firmly on becoming a signwriter, it can become easy to dismiss vinyl, although I’ve always been slightly at odds with this attitude. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard customers bemoaning the modern computer methods in comparison to the traditional – not that many of them would invest in the extra time and money required for good hand-painted work.
Time is my main grievance. The time it takes to produce vinyls has raised client expectations to the extent that it’s sometimes hard to meet demand. Last week I had to turn a potential customer away after he enquired about “while-you-wait signs”. I politely told him to get in the queue.
Of course there is excellent work being produced in digital and vinyl formats, providing people invest their heart and energy in their work—it shows in the finished product. The funny thing is that without vinyl, my dad would possibly be scraping a living as a painter and decorator now. Investing in a plotter gave him a lifeline, an opportunity to keep working within the trade when things turned tough, even though he resented it at the time. And now that there are signs of resurgence, when signwriting is being recognised for its craft and people are looking for beautiful, hand-crafted signs to make the most of their business, he’s back doing what he loves.
Lee Jones is a UK based signwriter. Keep up with him on his blog, Signblanks.
Welcome to the Pre-Vinylite Blog!
In the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the group of 19th century writers and painters from whom we derive our name, we’re proud to introduce the PVS blog, a place where literary-inclined Pre-Vinylites can share their writing and read fellow Pre-Vinylites’ work.
The PVS blog is a curated writing venue where hand crafted sign and art enthusiasts can submit articles for publication. Our hope is to continue the PVS tradition of providing a forum for multiple voices to express their thoughts on a variety of topics that relate to the importance of an awareness of our aesthetic environment.
Please read the Pre-Vinylite Society Manifesto for more information on what we’re all about. If you’re interested in submitting a piece of writing for publication on the Pre-Vinylite blog, please review our Guidelines for Submission.
Thanks for helping to make the Pre-Vinylite Society the success that it is!
Creator and founder of the Pre-Vinylite Society, Josh Luke, created this sign as a showpiece and a beacon for all who wish to unite as sign painters, sign writers, sign gilders. Come one, come all!