Appreciation for the Forgotten Sign Painters

Sign Painters has been out for a couple of years now. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, look for it on cable or online.

Sign Painter is a film that celebrates the art of sign painting. In the past we may have taken sign painting for granted, while many artists hand carved their signs from solid wood, and painstakingly painted on letters, graphics, and illustrations. Signs were used for many purposes: To provide signage for a business, advertise products, and provide route directions. Modern day signs are made with a computer and vinyl. The signs are as disposable as the vinyl they’re printed on. The Sign Painter film celebrates the lost art of sign painting. Real signs slowly weather through time. Their paint fades, the wood slowly erodes. With vinyl signs, they chip, crack, and warp. Fifty years from now old wooden signs may be displayed in museums, but vinyl signs will just be tossed in the trash.

The Sign Painters is a documentary film that was directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon. It celebrates the small community of independent artists who still make a living at finely crafting a real sign, not a copy that can be made over and over again on a machine.

The documentary is made up of interviews of these artists. It shows us the sign painter’s life. We’re given a glimpse of how traditional tools make lasting wood signage, and the fine art of hand lettering copy onto them.

With their naturally sourced paint brush bristles, we learn a bit about their handicraft. Creating signage involves many different disciplines, from carpentry, to design, typesetting, and painting. One character in the film, Mike Meyer, drives an old navy truck with his signage business painted on the side. He claims that one $700 sign will last for twenty years.That’s quite impressive over a $100 vinyl sign that may last only two. Mike argues that it’s great value for the dollar. Another artist, Marjory Garrison uses her Art Decostyle to hand paint numbers onto the exterior of homes. While LA is pervaded with a high-design movement, she appreciates that there’s an underground sign creation culture there as well. One artist, Jeff Canham wonders whether he can make sign painting a full-time endeavor, with today’s modern sign technology. Stephen Powers claims that the sign artist knows more about type than even a graphic artist at the best ad agency in town. Keith Knecht has been a longtime sign artist, and enjoys how he holds control over his brush. He can make it do what he wants, and he said there was no difference between painting a sign, or the side of a truck.

Rather than just being a composite of many sign artist’s lives, the film manages to weave the message through the film about signage being a lost art form, and how new signage technology has put a damper on creating sign art. It presents the message to have a look around us, and to appreciate the old over the computer-generated.