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Mike Meyer, Traditional Sign Painter

Computers are lovely but they have taken over some of the traditional crafts that took time to create to perfection. One such industry is the sign painting industry. Beautiful and decorative signs made by hand are rare to see nowadays. There those of us however who are trying to keep the skill alive.

Mike Meyer is a sign writer who still used the old school methods that were long forgotten by the digital world. Born 1989, the man has been in the letterhead painting business for over thirty years. All that experience under his belt can be seen by how he commands his work.

The Minnesota native is a professional typographer. He is well versed in the how typefaces work and for which function. They understand how to pair the right size of letters together with the right font. That is why you will find different emotions are evoked depending on how the words are written.

Like many great artists, a parent’s influenced is often the case for igniting life passions. Mike Meyer’s father was a barber who dabbled in drawings between attending to his customers. The young Mike wanting to ape his father picked up on the habit.

The obsession with letterheads exploded when he visited the stock car races and marvelled at the details on the cars. From there he went home trying to replicate everything he had seen down to the last detail. He got a part-time job in high school at a sign shop and that was when he realized that, that is what he wanted to do.

He followed his passion and went to sign school for nine months. When these nine months passed and he got certification, he went back to the shop he worked in while in high school. The shop got a new owner and things started to change rapidly.

With people losing their jobs right, left and center, it was finally his turn to be let go. It was a hard blow but still continued making signs. He had never thought of going into business on his own. So with few options left, he joined the army.

His journey has not been smooth as nothing good in life comes easy. Starting his trade took a bit of work. He started from a garage as his first sign shop. He had no customer base when he started his business, he had to go around to other workshops to look for favours.

Since he had nothing else of value to exchange for offers, he traded in his handmade signs. By the time his business was established he had a good customer base. When the vinyl cut out letters emerged in the 70’s, typographers had a problem on their hands.

The cheaper and easily accessible vinyl signs completely disregarded the time and workmanship the old method of sign writing offered. Mike Meyer persevered and until today he is still in the craft.

With the years of experience teaching oneself, Mike Meyer now goes around the world teaching guys how to do sign lettering the old way. The man who started his business in a garage now constantly busy with work.

He says that the art of typography is not dead. He sees a growth in interest especially with the curious millennials in Europe. It seems that countries like Amsterdam still have an appreciation for the art. He doesn’t do it for the money, he teaches in these workshop in order to spread the skill to more people.

His advice for those who want to dabble in the field is to observe their surroundings and decide what makes them happy. He doesn’t in mind blocks when it comes to creativity. He says you can even find inspiration in the grocery market since there are thousands of products with different letterheads and styles.

He encourages students to be open-minded as the field is still expanding with new fonts coming to view. His journey is not over either, he still meets people who teach him a thing or two.

A bigger than life personality and a steady hand, we don’t think that he will stop working or teach anytime soon. The world will always appreciate beautiful things, we thank the lucky stars that we have people like Mike Meyer who understand what it takes to make something beautiful by hand.

 

air ink made by graviky labs

Air Ink: The Paint Made from Car Exhaust

Smog. In some places around the world, it has become an almost daily reality. It forces people to stay indoors, endangers the lives of people with lung and breathing complications and, until recently, was a source of ugliness in the world. While no one would surely celebrate air pollution and smog, one Indian-based company is taking it and turning it into art. Or, rather, the means with which to create art.

In mid-2016, India-based company Graviky Labs announced Air Ink, their brand new invention that turns soot into paint. The idea came to Graviky Labs’ founder and self-described “perpetual inventor”  Anirudh Sharma. The idea came to him while he was discussing smog with his friends, who complained it left stains on their clothes. Wondering if the stains could be a little more permanent, rather than less, he set out to turn soot into paint. His work started in a lab at MIT, but he soon went to India to complete the project.

Air Paint is created on the exhaust pipes of cars, of all places. Since cars are one of the world’s leading polluters, and a fairly steady source of carbon emissions, a special device can be hooked up to the exhaust system to capture the carbon soot. The captured soot is then purified to remove heavy metals, carcinogens, and other unnecessary elements, and then blended with other materials that turn it into a durable paint.

“The soot is blended with oils to create oil-based paint, the spray paint is packaged with compressed gas and canned,” Sharma said in an interview with CNN. “To a user, the end results are materials that function much like any other paint they use.”

The paint is stored in what Sharma calls “an Air Pen,” which holds soot from 30-40 minutes of car emissions.

Since the project was announced, Graviky Labs has partnered with Tiger Beer to test the product on the streets of Hong Kong, an area of the world that is notorious for its pollution levels. Artists were given Air Pens to create murals and other pieces of artwork around the city. Thus far, the murals, and the messages they send, have been well-received. As for Air Ink, Sharma is hopeful that it can have a positive impact on the world. “”The ink will confine the particulate matter [found] in emissions, that would have otherwise gone in our lungs,” he says. ”What we’re doing at this point is repurposing a pollutant that makes people sick, is destroying our environment, and exists all around us in our air.”

Air Ink is still a long ways off from being in your local store, or on the back of your car, but Graviky Labs is currently researching how to produce Air Pens on a larger scale. Hopefully, the art, and the paint, could help spread the word about environmentalism throughout the globe.

david a smith sign writer rendering gold leaf on glass reverse sign of his name

Artist Profile: David A. Smith

Sign painting is one of the oldest forms of art we have, one that has seen rises and falls in popularity, style, and prevalence. One thing the genre has never lacked is talent, and perhaps the most well-known sign painter in the world has dedicated his life to creating beautiful signs and teaching other artists about the craft and the industry. His name is David A. Smith, and he may just be the most popular sign painter in the world.

Smith got his start in the 1980s when he left school to become an apprentice sign painter with Gordon Farr and two of his associates. He spent the next five years learning the skills of the trade. His teacher, Farr, was a unique teacher, one who “had an almost uncanny ability to paint letters, accurately laid out, without even a preliminary sketch,” according to Smith’s website. It was during this time Smith learned about drafting, letter painting, and how to draw beautiful pictorials.

a book cover rendered by david a smith

By 1992, Smith had opened his own sign painter shop in his hometown of Torquay and specialized in everything from “vehicle graphics to 3D installations.” But it wasn’t until a fateful trip to New Zealand that Smith met Rick Glawson, one of the world’s best-regarded sign painters and a member of the world-famous Fine Gold Sign Company. Glawson was “universally regarded by his peers as the godfather of gilding, with a reputation for sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of glass decoration with eager students of the craft,” and Smith soon became his close friend. Smith learned many new and important lessons about sign painting from his new mentor.

hand made font image rendered with pencil by david a smith

Smith eventually sold his painting shop and now focuses more on Victorian-style glass painting, creating beautiful and intricate works that are sold and showcased around the world. He also teaches and educates artists in the many skills he’s learned from those before him, including Gordon Farr and Rick Glawson. Smith views his educational work as paying the debt forward and “shares the fruits of his study with his many friends, old & new, in the sign trade, through courses, step by step instruction and one-to-one chats on the phone or internet.”

glass emblem gold leaf design rendered by signwriter david a smith

If you are a sign painter or a fan of sign painting, you have probably heard of David A. Smith. His work has become the standard by which glass window signs are judged, not only for their ingenuity and craftsmanship but for their distinctive design. Smith continues to create beautiful pieces of art in the world of sign painting, but also dedicated much of his time to teaching the next generation of sign painters. While sign painting has dwindled in prevalence since Smith began his career, his talent and passion for education ensures that the art will be with us now and into the future.

cave paintings ancient murals

Sign Painting, Truly A Dying Art Form?

The relationship between the painting of murals and signage is very close. It’s possible to trace murals back to the dawning of mankind, to a time when cave dwellers used pigment from berries and crushed beetles to portray relevant and historical events on the otherwise barren rock walls of their homes. The art of sign painting for advertising purposes is almost as ancient as these events. While the Chinese and Japenese used complex logographic characters and Egyptians had used hieroglyphics as far back as 4,000 years ago, hand lettering only had it’s origins near the time that the Roman alphabet was first created.

The Long History of Sign Painting

Much like in previous times, the art form known as sign painting is still a learned craft. In previous years, painters with natural talents were often self-taught, and others were set to complete apprenticeships working under highly skilled masters of the craft. In our modern times, those who have the heart to pursue sign painting professionally generally attend art college of some form and may luck out finding work while completing their study. There is some fairly heated debate amongst artistic circles as to whether the standard of sign painting, in our modern days, is as high-quality as it may have been in earlier years. While this is the case, there is still a fairly broad acceptance that overall the majority of sign painters simply don’t possess the same skills and talents that were common-place in yester years.

Signs of Paleolithic Times

In paleolithic periods, signage was used to advertise good resting spots for nomadic people, dangers of rival tribes, and the presence of good hunting. During this period, life in North America largely depended upon finding shelter and food. In an effort to aid each other, people would paint signs providing aid to those who might find these signs and be in need. Generally, these signs were pictorial showcasing scenes the painters had witnessed.

Hand Lettering

In July of 2001, the Hanover, New Hampshire Hood Museum of Art hosted an exhibition detailing a collection of early American inn and tavern signs. During this event, the museum showcased 24 of the most eye-catching 18th and 19th century signage, primarily these signs were colourful wooden signboards featuring patriotic eagles and proud lions to show travelers designed to show travelers where to go and provide them with pertinent information.

The Technological Age

In our modern day world, with the advent of computers and powerful graphics software, both hand lettering and sign painting have become a dying artform. Computer software programs can generate pixel perfect signage in the tiniest fraction of time that was required of even the most skilled artists. This has significantly reduced the cost of signage and thus pushed out a large portion of the need for sign painters. It is paradoxical that this might be a good thing for sign painting, marking a rebirth of sign painting and hand lettering as forms of art rather than put to use for commercial purposes. When artists are free to produce signage that does not conform to strict advertising requirements, perhaps they will be able to go back to producing information creative works of art, allowing our cities to be filled with colourful, eye-catching paintings.

sign painters movie sign

With Sign Painters, The Weird And Wonderful Comes Out

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.”

“Still.”

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.