At the beginning of Sign Painters, just as a nondescript keyboard plays over disjointed interviews, we see a man on a scaffold. It’s morning, he’s happy in his paint-covered clothes, “This is my favourite part,” he says, “this is my city.”
In a lot of ways, this sign painter is completely true. Signs are a large part of any city’s aesthetic, they are an instant way to separate yourself from others, and a art with a long, strong, and obvious history. It’s around all of us everyday. Sign Painters is a documentary about the craft itself, but more about the people who passionately dedicate their lives to putting letters to the canvas.
That man on the scaffold who owns his city is exactly the type of painter Sign Painters wants you to know. He’s quirky, messy, visibly unwilling to fit into the suits and ties of the people on the sidewalks below. He works where others can’t, an artist whose work and labour are both obvious and ignored. Many people will see his sign, certainly more than any of the art galleries around, but little to none will think of him, the thought that went into it. As another painer says later, “Signs are everywhere, but [no one] thinks about who made them.”
But Sign Painters’ directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon want to show the people behind the signs, hoping beautiful shots of the creators and their work will speak to the craft. For the most part, the strategy works. A younger sign painter says early in the film that older painters say “You will spend your life impersonating the older painters.” In a way, the film does exactly this, the rich colours and distanced narrative relies on the painters themselves, the film just replicates what good sign painters are trying to do. Perhaps it’s fitting that the most visible of invisible art now has a documentary that actively tries to be invisible for the sake of their subject.
Levine and Macon are interested in exposing these painters as artists, as professionals in a fringe science, as it were. They are like chefs, their work is out of public view but whose products are enjoyed by everyone, and sign painters they are equally technical in their trade. A small section of the film’s natural progression is the under appreciated technicalities about the trade, the difference between typography and lettering, hand-painted signs and the vinyl that threatens to replace them.
It is after this discussion, between shots of smaller signs we take for granted like “Please keep your dog on a leash,” that Levine and Macon switch to how sign painting has gone from a necessity to a commodity. The classic “computers have changed everything” observation, which has impacted sign painters as much as anyone else.
And perhaps most significantly, it is also at this point that their cross-America tour takes them from San Francisco, the home of Google, to a small town in Minnesota. In San Fran, we meet two painters, a graphic designer that enjoys the work as an extension of his graphic design degree, the use of old techniques with new technologies, the other is from New Bohemia Designs, a classic sign painter. He utters a critical phrase, one that sums up Sign Painters entire purpose and theme: “There does seem to be some section of the population who want it hand painted and are excited someone is still doing this.”
And then we move to Minnesota to a man that has fully embraced this idea of still. He drives an old-timey truck, has a classic moustache, and describes his town as “old-fashioned.” His work is nostalgic, working against the easier, cheaper signs we see everyday printed out on vinyl. As the documentary moves us through the history of sign painting, the major movements and critical celebrities, watching the influence of technology becomes, as one puts it, “heart breaking.” Levine and Macon treat sign painting as an artistic style, one worthy of study and history.
What Sign Painters accomplishes is a respectful look at a trade and art that we all take for granted, and the true artists who are dedicated to making signs for people, not just businesses, but the people who get to enjoy them. While many businesses are content to not use painted signs, but there are the designers who make places stand out, whose artistry actively contributes to the aesthetic of the world we take in everyday.
Sign painters are here to stay. Still.