The Rapidian

Film "Sign Painters" uncovers hidden craft

The UICA and AIGA West Michigan presented Sign Painters, a film that addresses very relevant issues regarding craft in our technological age on June 22.
Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs in Boston, MA

Josh Luke of Best Dressed Signs in Boston, MA /Courtesy of Faythe Levine and Sam Macon

Grand Rapids Sign Painters

Kathleen Harrigan

Sofia Ramirez Hernandez

Know any sign painters in your area? 

Spread the word! Share what you know with the filmmakers by going to their site

Sign Painter Sean Barton of Sean Barton Signs hard at work

Sign Painter Sean Barton of Sean Barton Signs hard at work /Courtesy of Faythe Levine and Sam Macon

The filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon

The filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon /Courtesy of Faythe Levine and Sam Macon

When you see a hand-painted sign on a small boutique storefront, it's easy to see why the billboard signs on the side of the highway are difficult to regard as art. To hand paint a sign is an art form, a craft.

This was the discovery I made during the film Sign Painters.

The film tells the story of sign painters from all over the country. It is an account of the mini Renaissance of sign painting that is happening due to fatigue with the uniformity of machine-made signs.

"It's a wonderful thing ‘cause it's human," says one sign painter interviewed in the film.

"You can make the brush do whatever you want. That's real power," says Keith Knecht, the most renowned of all sign painters.

"Art is the pursuit of truth for yourself. Sign painting is the pursuit of truth for the client," says a sign painter in the film.

Many of the sign painters interviewed during the span of the four years the filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon worked on this project, had wonderful quips of wisdom to share. They voiced concerns on the speed of technology and the disposable nature of modern signs. They are frustrated that their jobs are being replaced by machines, or if not by machines, by people without any history in design or sign painting.

"I want to make signs here that turn into art," shares another sign painter.

In contrast, Stephen Powers, an artist who uses sign painting as his medium, sees more than art being pursued in sign painting.

"Sign painters are subjected to the client," says Powers.

The film shows the craftmanship, time and creativity of these sign painters and convinces me to think otherwise. Perhaps sign painting is just one of those forms that blend art and design perfectly, making it hard to tell at times where one ends and the other begins.

The sign may be an advertisement for a company, but who chose the lettering? Picked out the colors? Will have aches in their back the following day from the manual labor? The sign painter will- and that is the true sign of an artist.

It might very well be that it is only today that sign painting can be considered an art form, with the comparison to the lifeless, robotic signs of our age that are produced at incomparable speeds and look perfect.

A sign painter is behind where you gravitate. You are attracted to the human craft and ingenuity that went into it. And that is something that machines cannot accomplish.

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