As folklore has it, in the nineteenth century, the owner of a railroad purchased a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his spike-driving crew. The mighty John Henry, to save himself and his fellow workers from being replaced by a machine, challenged the owner to a contest: Henry versus the steam hammer. The man beat the machine, but shortly thereafter, John Henry collapsed and died of exhaustion.
Some twenty-first century observers had predicted that sign painting would go the way of railroad spike-driving crews—that software, adhesive vinyl sheets and digital plotters would be the death knell to painting signs by hand. Indeed, up until recently, the future of hand-painted signs looked bleak. The old, and possibly final, generation of sign painters was retiring, or passing on. Vinyl sign shops were cropping up like dandelions in suburban lawns.
Within the last few years, however, this downward spiral has reversed direction, and a vibrant new community of sign painters is sprouting. They are young. They help each other learn the craft, and their work is driving a high demand for hand-painted signs.
Best Dressed's John Luke applies gilding to this window sign, inspired by Boston-specific nineteenth-century
paper currency, for Chameleon Tattoo and Body Art. Image courtesy of the Sign Painters documentary.
Why, after so many years of decline, are hand-painted signs making a comeback? Meredith Kasabian, business partner with Josh Luke at Best Dressed Signs of Boston, believes it’s a reaction to the proliferation of mass-produced products. “I think the last decade or so has seen a general movement toward more artisanal, handmade crafts,” she says. “There’s a trend toward a slower, more detailed process of making things. More and more businesses want to differentiate themselves from their neighbors by investing in some-thing that is handmade and unique to them.”
Damon Styer, proprietor of New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco, echoes Kasabian’s sentiment. “I believe that the more technology pervades every aspect of our lives, the more we feel a hunger for some semblance of human touch, some echo of our own softness—our own fallibility.”
There are apparently many people, at least in the San Francisco area, who agree. While Styer is not sure exactly how many signs New Bohemia is responsible for, the shop completes nearly 550 projects each year, and there’s nary a retail block in the city that doesn’t feature its artistry.
This new group of sign painters genuinely love what they do, and share the optimism for their craft. “I clearly think the future of sign painting is positive and would recommend a career in sign painting to a young person,” says Kasabian. “That person, however, would have to be a very special kind of individual, specifically, the kind who believes that living your dream is totally worth the sacrifices it takes to get there. It’s a long road to proficiency, and sign painting has never been about getting rich.”
The tradition of apprenticeship and mentoring among sign painters runs deep, and this new, young group seems to be perpetuating it naturally. New Bohemia’s Styer runs Saturday and Sunday classes on brush lettering. “My classes are pretty small potatoes, in comparison to regular schools, but a couple of my ‘graduates’ have already hung out their own sign-painting shingles.” Some of his students go on to work in Styer’s shop. He acknowledges, “Ideally, I’d like an apprentice to come to the shop every day to practice, but I know that’s impractical. Usually they will show up about twice a week.”
Styer adds, “After time, if they show ambition and proficiency with a brush, I’ll offer them a job as part of our staff. That doesn’t happen too often though. Most of my students are graphic design pros who are looking to add another arrow to their design quiver, or to find a different creative use for their hands.” On busy days, Styer will share his small shop with up to three additional sign painters. Much of the time, however, he works alone.
Josh Luke began his career in hand-painting letters as an apprentice to Styer, and eventually became an employee at New Bohemia. “Damon was my mentor,” reports Luke, who moved across the country with Kasabian to set up Best Dressed Signs in Boston three years ago. “Only recently have I considered myself a full-fledged sign painter.”
While Luke works in a variety of media, he says that gold leafing is the most challenging. “Working with the various techniques of gold leaf on glass with hand and brush is the most difficult. Not only are you working with a transparent surface that is extremely delicate, the gold leaf is also delicate and because of the reflective quality of both the glass and gold, your mind can play tricks on you while trying to execute an often detailed and intricate design.”
While it’s demanding, Luke takes pride in working in a particular style of gold leaf lettering. “It’s called the ‘Boston Style,’” says Luke. “It’s a gilding technique that features matte gold centers, burnished (or mirrored) outlines and a black outer outline with no shadows. The style is historically prevalent in Boston and … was the preferred style of the sign painting schools in the area.”
(Left) In hopes of rejuvenating Boston's Fenway neighborhood, a real estate developer had Best Dressed "dress up" one of the area's largest "canvases"—a commercial building slated for eventual demolition. (Right) Mike's Liquors needed to repaint their storefront, and wanted to upgrade their signage at the same time. Inspired by the dozens of mid-century neon signs (now in various states of disrepair) that mark corner stores all over San Francisco, New Bohemia designed and painted both the wall and the projecting sign (on DiBond panels), which Mike later adopted as the new logo for all of the store's collateral.
Best Dressed’s largest—and most daunting—project to date, however, is not one that involves gold leafing but the “There’s Never An Off Season” sign in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. “We got the job through Korn Design,” Kasabian says. “Korn was developing a campaign for a real estate developer, to rejuvenate the neighbor--hood, and they called us.” The result is a sign that wraps around the side of a building, with letters that are over six feet tall. The total installation extends 300 feet.