Sam Macon on his documentation of an All-American creative tradition
What a terrific movie Faythe and Sam have made! Sign Painter’s engaging telling of this important american story should have good legs” says legendary artist and former sign painter himself Ed Ruscha on the 80 minute documentary movie that Faythe Levine and Sam Macon brought to life. After four years in the making, the duo captured the dedicated practitioners, their time-honored methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship in this amazing film that is the first anecdotal history of the craft. Featuring the stories of more than two dozen sign painters working in cities throughout the United States the documentary (and book) profiles sign painters young and old, from the new vanguard working solo to collaborative shops such as San Francisco’s New Bohemia Signs and New York’s Colossal Media’s Sky High Murals.
“We see them almost every day without a second thought. Weathered by time, distinct characteristics shining through, hand-painted signs are a product of a fascinating 150 year-old American history. What was once a common job has now become a highly specialized trade, a unique craft struggling with technological advances”. Faythe Levine & Sam Macon, stylistically explore this unacknowledged art form through anecdotal accounts from artists across the country including Ira Coyne, Bob Dewhurst, Keith Knecht, Norma Jeane Maloney and Stephen Powers. These vanguards of unseen originality are leading a renaissance with a keen creative purpose and exemplify the working class American success story. Sign Painters celebrates those keeping the tradition intact with a bespoke approach and appreciation for a balance between art and commerce. When we asked Milwaukee born, Chicago based filmmaker, photographer, and writer Sam Macon to share with us everything that is to know on their stunning project he greeted us with a sign painting that says “Welcome”.
What motivated you to document the world of sign painting in the first place?
Faythe and I collaborated for years prior to making Sign Painters, and had known for some time that we wanted to work together on a larger scale project. We just didn’t know what form it would take. When Faythe suggested the idea of doing a doc on sign painting, my own ignorance of the trade and the lack of available information on it, proved to be a huge motivator. We’re both really interested in urban aesthetics, letters and signage, and people who are dedicated to specific processes - Not only did sign painting cover all of those bases, as documentarian it’s always exciting to tell a largely untold story.
What is your most favorite painted sign that you encountered?
Oh man, that is a hard question to answer. There are SO MANY great signs hidden in plain sight. What was really interesting is how our taste preferences were informed by our education of the trade. I think originally, both our taste gravitated towards the lose, less perfected signs - some would call folk signs, maybe? But as we spent more time on the project and learned more about the skills and tools associated to the trade, we began to really appreciate the expertly polished work. More specifically, I personally really like very simple work horse signs that were painted years ago - no parking, employees must wash their hands, for rent. Really basic signs, with perfect letter forms, that you just know must have been done years ago by a total pro who no doubt banged the sign out in minutes.
How long did you work on the project?
From conceptualization to the release of the film, the whole project was roughly a 4 year endeavor.
How did you discover the sign painters you interviewed?
We began with some younger people that Faythe knew personally and expanded from there. Though some sign writers have a digital presence, there is an understandable anti technology streak within the trade, so tracking down the right people online proved difficult. Much of the discovery was through word of mouth. We’d interview one painter and they’d say, “you can’t make this movie without talking to so and so.” We’d then call up so and so and convince them to let us into their home, their studio, their hospice, and do an interview. This process became a bit easier as the project gained momentum.
How has public art and sign painting changed through the years?
Well, first off, sign painting and public art are very different animals. By and large the type of sign painting that we focused on was of a more strictly commercial nature. Throughout much of sign painting’s history, it has been (for the most part) more of a trade than art. Often, sign writers were / are tradespeople first and artist second. There are of course exceptions with guys like Steve Powers, but the sign painting that WE focused on, was of the more “client based” variety. One of the things so interesting about sign painting is that it’s at this very unique intersection of art and labor. If you wanted a sign you hired a sign painter, and if you got out of their way and let them do their job, you’d probably end up with a sign that communicated and looked great.
“Sign painting exists at this very fascinating intersection of art and labor. It takes incredible talent but it’s also a lot of goddamn WORK.”
I think, what’s changed the most is the public’s perception. Now that shitty, mass produced digital signage has taken over, people respond to an amazing old ghost sign in the same way they might respond to an artist mural. The original creator’s intentions may have been totally different - capitalist v.s. creative - but now, given the current state of things, they both illicit a similar response in people. They enhance and lend character to an urban environment.
Which location inspired you the most with its tradition on sign painting?
I can’t pick just one place. Consistently, the most exciting discoveries have been the one off signs that you just know have been there forever -a random sign at a gas station off the highway, the address on a building, an old ghost sign. It’s always exciting to just find these working signs that you know were done by some pro years ago. That said, it’s really inspiring to be in a city like San Francisco, Austin, or Olympia where there has been a continuous presence of working sign painters throughout the years. You can see the positive impact that an individual or group of individuals can have on the way a place looks.
In what ways are you hoping to bring this underrated form of art into the spotlight?
Faythe and I have said from the beginning that our goal was to make a film (and book) that A - did right by the sign community, and B - brought awareness to a larger audience. The hope being that increased awareness on the part of the general public would generate work for sign painters and, that said, work would contribute to the visual landscape of this country.
“Now that shitty, mass produced digital signage has taken over, people respond to an amazing old ghost sign in the same way they might respond to an artist mural.”
How would you describe the people in the sign industry?
As with any industry, trade or discipline, all sorts of people become sign painters. There are the old stereotypes of the hard living heavy drinking sign painter, but we found that to largely be a myth at this point. Nowadays you’re more likely to meet a dedicated young entrepreneur or a middle aged person who worked to put kids through college. The more sign painters you meet, the more difficult it becomes to make sweeping generalizations. That said, there are some recurring themes that come up time and time again - A love / borderline obsession with letter formation, a gravitation towards self determination, being your own boss, a desire to work outside.
What is the main difference between sign painting and other type related art forms?
In my opinion sign painting exists at this very fascinating intersection of art and labor. It takes incredible talent (some would say artistic talent, myself being one of them) but it’s also a lot of goddamn WORK. At this point, you can’t go and get a job at a big shop. So most sign painters need to be savvy business owners as well as excellent sign writers. That means paperwork, permits, client relations, etc. Sign painters need to be able to work on a ladder for hours or rig a swing stage and paint through all sorts of weather. It’s client based work, so you need to take the client’s wants and needs into account. These are real world, labor based elements that many artist don’t need to deal with in the same capacity. Don’t get me wrong, I value and understand the life of a working artist, but with sign painting - the work and the art are more completely intertwined.
How has technology changed this community and its artistry?
What’s really amazing is that, the techniques of traditional sign painting is almost impervious to technological advancements. The basic process, tools, and methodology hasn’t changed much in a hundred plus years. The introduction of computer aided signage in the 80s damn near wiped out the whole industry. People (clients) have a tendency to gravitate towards the quick and the cheap. The irony is that now computers, once thought to be the great destroyer, have proven to be incredibly instrumental in the growing appreciation for the trade and unifying people within the industry.
In this digitized era of ours do you think businesses appreciate this hand lettered art form? What about the customers, the public eye?
I think some do, and those that do stand out. Businesses that “get it” are on the right side of history. A quality handmade sign suggest you really care about your business, and more and more the general public appreciates that and rewards that level of care by being selective when and where to spend their hard earned money.
“The irony is that now computers have proven to be incredibly instrumental in the growing appreciation for the trade and unifying people within the industry.”
What’s the place of “lettering skills” in today’s digital society?
I think that computers have made it really easy for anyone to call themselves a designer, a photographer, a filmmaker, and artist, etc. Anyone can make something look alright or look professional. But in my opinion, the cream always rises to the top and more often than not the most interesting creative work is done by people who have a solid foundation in analog fundamentals. Computers can do amazing things, but at this point in the evolution of visual culture computers are just a tool usually used to emulate aesthetics that were developed by hand. If a designer is limited by what they can do on a computer they run the risk of being literally unable to make something truly unique. A piece of hand lettering is a one of a kind creation by its very nature.
Please name the most important person you met while filming.
Everyone we met was great, but Keith Kenecht is one of the most wonderful humans I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. His knowledge and ability was unparalleled, and his ability to communicate his love for sign painting was profound. Sadly he passed away. We dedicated the film and book to him.
Do you think logos have a significant influence in our everyday living?
I’ve been a highly visual person my whole life. Even as a kid I gravitated towards interesting signage and cool logos. I wouldn’t say they “influence” my life too directly at this point, but I do appreciate good design and it definitely has an effect on how and where I spend my money. I don’t have any tolerance for thoughtlessness. People should take pride and care about what they do, and to me, quality design is a representation of care and attention to detail.
“If a designer is limited by what they can do on a computer they run the risk of being literally unable to make something truly unique.”
What are your future plans for the movie, if any?
We don’t have any big plans for the project. The project and the people we met within the trade will continue to be an important part of my life for as long as I live. I think just enjoying the work done by the friends we made along the way will be the main way I stay involved with the project.
Which is the most memorable moment while filming “Sign Painters”?
Just too many to list. Meeting Keith is up there. The moment when Ed Ruscha called me on my phone to discuss him writing the foreword for the book and we talked for an hour was pretty fucking cool.
You are an artist yourself. How did documenting this community influenced your work and mentality?
It energized me as an artist. What is really cool about a physical medium like sign painting is that there are no short cuts. You can’t pick it up over night. You can only become a great sign painter through total commitment and dedication. You have to put the time in, and you have to work your ass off even when no one is paying attention or hiring you. You have to believe. It also taught me that details are everything. The details that make a sign a great sign will largely go unnoticed by 99% population. As an artist, I am looking to make work for everyone, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to impress the 1%.
What piece of advice would you give to anyone interested in sign painting as a profession?
Find a mentor. Put in the time.
Do you recall the first ever letterform that captured your attention?
Yep. It was the titles for Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“Working on this project, energized me as an artist. It also taught me that details are everything.”
If you were a font, which one would you be and why?
I guess I’d be a piece of hand lettering, which by definition isn’t a font. Probably sign painter’s casual or a heavy egyptian. If I had to pick a font, I’ll go with Garamond, but that’s not very representative of my loud mouth personality. I just like it.
What would your sign communicate to us? In other words, what would be your logo?
It would say, “FILMMAKER FOR HIRE.” I should have someone make that sign.
Which is the best way to say goodbye to this interview?
Probably a hand painted “SORRY WE’RE CLOSED” sign.