I spent the morning watching a documentary on sign painters – talking through the history, art, and future of the industry that is almost invisible to us today. Now, a very small industry full of people with a common goal: painting beautiful signs.
They are a bunch of cooks. Some lovable, some not. All extremely talented.
The documentary got me thinking, so I took a drive around Milwaukee to try and find some of the painted signs I never stop to notice.
Sign painting is a rare art form these days. In the 70s and 80s, as computer and printing technology developed, vinyl signs became the standard – due to their extreme cheapness and ease to make. Of course, the old standard exists in the world of signs as well: of quality, budget and speed, you can only choose two. The world of signs today is often dominated by budget and speed. With crummy and dirty vinyl signs hanging in every town in America.
Near the end of the documentary, an old sign painter mused that vinyl signs will turn into garbage 30 years from now, but hand painted signs will turn into artwork. The painted signs of the last century still plastered across our cities are precious. They are artworks. Memories of a different world. With different values and technology and practices.
Many of the sign painters interviewed lamented the insatiable desire for today’s cheap signage. They are part of a dying generation that values the honesty and stability of long, hard work. Of hand lettering and human imperfection.
I agree. And I think today, more people are starting to look back with fondness on the signs and practices of the last generation, discovering a richer and truer beauty in their work. I think, perhaps, sign painters and the unique beauty they create could once again step into the spotlight.
In hopes of paying homage to the past, I started creating a font from one of the beautiful signs I saw on my search.