It’s not common to see a sign painting shop anymore, but across the country sign painters continue to work and make hand-painted signs in the age of information. Sign Painters, directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, is a documentary comprised of interviews and footage of this surviving profession. As technological developments occur in graphic design and advertising, there are those that maintain their artisan traditions while educating a new generation. The film makes it clear that although the profession has had trouble competing with vinyl signs and the computer, there still is a desire to have an authentic fingerprint on a storefront, not just something disposable.
Josh Luke; Courtesy of the artist
In a way, sign painting acts as a median between advertising and graphic design; the film doesn’t necessarily state that the profession is an art itself. Some veteran sign painters consider it an art while others see it as a job with strict guidelines. The documentary makes these stories heard and that is in essence the most important aspect. The documentary is really an oral history narrated by the range of young and old professionals, comprised of interviews and footage of sign painters working on projects. Watching the sign painters at work on buildings, cars, and storefronts are as visually informative as the actual interviews. The documentary honestly portrays the profession; the financial struggles are very real. However as some veterans describe it, they didn’t get into the business for the money. Creative types often are content doing what they love, and there is a lot of passion to keep this profession alive.
It’s hard not to compare the final product to street art or graffiti. From Nevada to New York, these sign painters each have a regional signature. The “tags” are business logos but each sign painter has their own style and application of the methods with materials like One Shot paint or gold leaf. Although there are foundations to the profession, the difference between a California sign painter and one from Minnesota is evident. These worlds intersect when the film crew visits Syracuse, New York where artist Stephen Powers, a.k.a. ESPO, is working on his Love Letter to Syracuse project for the city. For this project, Powers painted phrases onto various decaying bridges around the city. Powers describes his process as “an adult version of what graffiti is to me.” He continues to tell the filmmakers that in his approach, he is looking at his practice like a sign painter.
Mike Meyer; Courtesy of the artist
One of the most interesting moments in the documentary occurred when Mark Oatis, a very respected sign painter, discusses the group he and several others founded known as the Letterheads. Similar to an art movement, the Letterheads gathered together to share trade secrets and learn new methods. In this way, the film reveals the communication between all these sign painters and their efforts to maintain these traditions. The documentary savors these moments and acts like an archive for the next generation to learn from these masters of sign painting.
(Image on top: Jeff Canham; Courtesy of the artist)
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