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The Secret History of Sign Painters Screening at New York’s Type Directors Club

Updated: Sep 21, 2014 13:45
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After watching Sign Painters, the film directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon which documents the history of hand-painted signs, one can’t help but find irony in the withering crop of these sign artisans and their fading works of art.

The journey in Sign Painters begins in the Midwest, where we are given a lesson on the intricate and enriched history of sign painting, an industry born out of necessity. Local businesses needed a way to separate themselves from their competition. They were in need of a sign, a logo—branding. Artists were recruited for the task—tattoo artists, graphic designers, and painters—who eventually found consistent work that led to an industry many thought would endure. Not only were these skilled artists of yesteryear creating an image for your brand, but they were also birthing a stylish emblem that would be longstanding, and age gracefully with nostalgic magnetism.

Today, whether you’re a part of a start-up business or if you’re a self-employed freelancer, you might contact an artist based on their online portfolio. However, you’d be only commissioning this artist for the design and not the labels, awnings, or signs themselves. That job is outsourced to someone else or another company. This is where the sign painter’s problems lay today. Few businesses are looking for someone to wholly create a sign for them, knowing fully well that there’s an added convenience with inexpensive alternatives if they utilize computers and software.

“They’ve virtually decimated our whole industry as far as pricing and making a decent living,” said sign painter Doc Guthrie. “It’s just part of our culture; our culture is being dumbed down on every level—aesthetically, especially.”

On September 1982, in White Plains, New York Gerber Scientific Products released a computer that could print out and cut out vinyl letters, infamously known at the Signmaker ® III. Possibly the darkest moment of the film, you could sense in the recollection of each painter’s “I remember where I was when it happened” story that this was the crux of the sign painting industry.

Keith Knecht, an Ohio-based sign painter who died in 2011 and had the film dedicated to, recalled a conversation with Mike Stevens, who was also revered sign painter and author. In their exchange, the two artists made their predictions on the effect that the Signmaker ® III would have. Stevens, optimistically, felt that it would make a dent in the sign painting industry, more specifically; he saw it weeding out mediocre sign painters from the field. However, Knecht disagreed, believing that even the exceptional sign painters were not bulletproof. His forecast predicted, more accurately, the grim eradication of artists and the sunny days of sign painting fading.

In the end, you realize that while sign painting may not be in high demand and while it is a craft practiced by few, it will always remain alive because it’s organic—it has soul.

In Syracuse, New York, a recalcitrant artist, Stephen Powers, who fervently holds sign painting in high esteem, verbally paints a picture of the artistic freedom a sign painter should be given. He speaks on his project “A Love Letter for You” where he blended sign painting, wall painting, and graffiti. Personally, Powers viewed it as a soulfully mature version of graffiti and what it meant to him, which is “a vehicle for projecting larger ideas.”

Colossal Media, known as the largest hand paint mural and outdoor advertising company in the world, also makes an appearance later in the film. The Brooklyn-based company, like the film, poetically, gives hope to a new evolutionary renaissance of sign painting. “We get a lot of appreciation from the public about keeping something like this going,” says Paul Lindahl, co-founder of Colossal Media.

All it boils down to is people appreciating a handcrafted work of art. Thank you, sign painters.

Sign Painters will be screening in New York at the Type Directors Club on Tuesday, September 23 at 6:30PM. It will feature an exclusive art installation by John Downer. Tickets are $5-$15 and available at Eventbrite.

On Saturday, October 11 it will be screening in Sonora, California at the Sonora Opera Hall presented by Celebrate Art Festival. For more screening information, please visit the Sign Painters website here.

Sign Painters Screening at Type Directors Club
Tuesday, September 23 at 6:30PM
Tickets: $5-$15
Type Directors Club
347 West 36th Street # 603 (between 8th and 9th Avenue)
[Midtown Manhattan]

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Enrique Grijalva - Mr. Minimum Wage

Enrique Grijalva - Mr. Minimum Wage

My father came, my mother saw...and I conquered. I encourage children to do drugs, I buy alcohol for teenagers, and I drink beer with the homeless. In my spare time, I attend art galleries for the FREE booze while rubbing elbows with modish elephants. I also hammer six-inch nails into small penises. Stuart knighted me as Broke-Ass King of New York. You've been warned.