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.

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.

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.”

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.

Ghost Signs

Many people like to look at the history of street art exclusively through graffiti. It gives the whole art style a certain edge that, while not unwarranted, ignores a large portion of its origins and influences. Street art, after all, didn’t start in LA and New York sometime in the seventies, it’s part of a rich history that stretches back to the ancient world, when it was similarly used for anything from commerce to protest.

But we don’t have to head back to Rome to see one of the primary influences on contemporary street art and graffiti. We can instead head out into the world around us and look at what many people call “ghost signs,” those old advertisements that are still hanging around, faded with time, on the sides of old buildings, or even on old billboards that people no longer use. It’s an easy way to see how street art has been a part of daily life since long before many people choose to see it, and it reminds us that art and commerce needn’t be enemies.

Ghost signs are the old painted signs from the late 1800s and early 1900s that were used for advertising long before printers made that scale and size much more possible. They often followed similar stylings of modernism, but variations occur everywhere, as space and weather and supplies made unique demands on the artists. The work was often difficult and meant that many of these talented people lived a life on the road. But the testament to their work is still all over North America and much of Europe, from buildings in the heart of Manhattan to barns in rural Saskatchewan.

And a surprising micro-economy has sprung up as a result of the fascination with these old signs. One such company is an aspect of the History of Advertising Trust (HAT), which offers a host of different resources and experiences, all related to the fading advertisements of old. One of the most fascinating aspects of this trust’s interest in ghost signs, however, is its ongoing database of ghost signs around the world. Made entirely using the volunteer efforts of people with a similar interest in these signs, HAT host hundreds of pictures of these old signs that anyone can peruse and enjoy on the website.

And for the more intrigued, a company in England has sprung up that’s entirely dedicated to London’s many, many ghost signs. Ghost Signs is probably most known for its walking tours of London that includes many old signs that still exist in England’s capital.

Learning about street art is also a way to learn about history from an entirely new perspective. While most of out history is told through things that can be pinned down and put behind glass in museums, there is large parts of the human experience that simply cannot fit in such a place. That’s why it’s important to learn about these other parts, and to see where the daily experience perhaps differed from the gallery life we’re often shown. Ghost signs are a perfect example of such a part of life, and their history stretches back centuries or more, and has had a definite influence on the world around us.

The American Sign Museum

If you think about all the technological innovations in the past 150 years, probably one of the most prevalent and generally unnoticed is the sign. Signs are incredible little devices: they have to hit people immediately, grab their attention for less than a second, and leave the person with a feeling that makes them associate with whatever the sign is indicating. Take the simple stop sign as an example: you instantly recognize one on more than a few levels: its shape, its colour, the word itself, and in that recognition, you bring your vehicle to a stop (or, if we’re being honest, a rolling stop) really before you’re conscious that you read the sign. In many ways, the world of sign making is all about being highly visible and almost invisible, and there’s a place in America that you can visit where they explore all that’s great about the wonderful world of signage.

The American Sign Museum first opened its doors in 1999. A self-proclaimed mid-life crisis, the museum was more a display of founder Tod Swormstedt’s collection of signs in a place that wasn’t his house. As a former editor and publisher of Signs of Our Times magazine, he knew a lot about the wide and ever-evolving world of signage, and decided to share it with the world. After about 6 years, the museum relocated, and then in 2012, it moved to its permanent location in the Camp Washington area of Cincinnati. The permanent location boats 19,000 square feet of space with 28 ft. ceilings to house some of the biggest signs in the collection. And with another 20,000 sq. ft. left to develop, The American Sign Museum is only getting bigger and more impressive.

There’s plenty to do at the museum besides just walking around and looking at signs (which, by the way, is fascinating in and of itself). The museum is surprisingly affordable, and every ticket of admission comes with a free guided tour of the facility, letting you and your family wander through the halls with someone who can tell you all about the history, technology, and psychology of sign making. IN a lot of ways, it’s more than just learning about how we use signs, it’s a lot about how America developed as a nation.

And when you’re done the tour, you can poke around and take in whatever you might have missed, but you can also see sign making in action. Not only is the facility a museum, it’s also a fully working neon sign shop, so you can witness first hand how neon signs are made. It’s all quite fascinating, combining an art gallery of sorts with real working artists.

The great thing about The American Sign Museum is not just its impressive collection, but how that collection charts the changes in culture, technology, aesthetics, and more in American culture. From early painted signs to elaborate neon displays (some of which can be made in the museum itself), this museum is not only a walk through an often ignored part of American life, but also a walk through America’s most recent developments as a nation.

Ghost Signs: Remnants of Days Gone By

If there’s one singular truth about street art is it fades. No matter what you do, how you preserve it, or how often you come to touch it up, murals and signs will eventually disappear. They’ll be cleaned up, removed, the building may be bought and demolished or renovated, and the art moves away. Sure, we can try to make it more permanent, like when someone removes an entire wall to sell a Banksy graffiti, but by and large street art fades.

But while paintings fade, they sometimes won’t disappear entirely and that’s where Ghost Signs comes in. The idea of a ghost sign is fairly simple and something we’ve all seen: those old painted advertisements on old buildings. Ghost Signs, with capital letters, is an online database that collects snapshots of ghost signs for people to look at. The signs come from around the world from New Mexico to Portugal and are most often advertisements and shop names, sometimes for things we can no longer even advertise, like cigarettes or chewing tobacco. The paint has peeled away, but the trace of old street art remains, almost like a shadow or shade of what was once there. It takes us back to older times, when billboards were painted, not printed, and they were made to last. As writer Rebecca Solnit once said, “Ruins are the unconscious of a city.” Ghost signs are the literal writing of the unconscious in our cities’ histories.

The next time you’re strolling around your town, look for old signs. They’re usually higher up, often painted on brick, and harken back to at least the 60s, before regulations and bans made this particular style of painting nearly impossible. It’s like flipping through old issues of Punch magazine or stepping into the early days of Mad Men. The rules weren’t the same and advertising was less a science and more an abstract attempt to connect. You’ll find the signs in the least likely places and you may find yourself in neighbourhoods that still like the idea of a brick building instead of a skyscraper made of steel and glass. Chances are there’s a great coffee shop nearby as well, which makes for a fun weekend activity.

Ghost Signs gives us small snapshots of the paradox of urbanization and urban decay, the fact that things can fade but still remain. Many of these old signs are attached to condemned buildings, places that no one has bought up or felt the need to remodel or remove. So instead they sit there, a testament to days gone by when the signs and the buildings were newer, when the world operated just a little differently, when sign painting was a way many artists paid their bills. As sign painting becomes more and more a lost art, Ghost Signs documents the history around the world for everyone to see. Perhaps it may even inspire people to take up a brush once more and make beautiful street signs again, ones that in the future will remind people of our present.

Watson Lake’s Sign Post Forest: A Unique Art Project in Canada’s North

Watson Lake is a small town in the Yukon, not far from the British Columbia border. It’s a small town with a population under 1000. Most people make their money in the lumber industry and it sits on the Alaska Highway, a rest stop for people making pilgrimage to Alaska. It’s a quaint town with a long history and it’s the last place you’d expect to have a famous roadside attraction that sees thousands of visitors every year.

Watson Lake is home to the Sign Post Forest, a collection of local and international sign posts that have grown from one sign pointing to Illinois to literally an entire forest of signposts. You’ve probably seen the signpost trees in towns like Halifax, Philipsburg, and other places around the world. Signs that point to the direction of famous cities and state their distance. Well, Watson Lake has a forest of these posts numbering over 100,000.

The Sign Post Forest began in 1942, when a homesick American GI working with the 341st Engineers was ordered to repair a broken sign post. It was a simple job, one that was frequently needed as heavy-duty machinery used roads built for much smaller vehicles. But this particular GI was homesick for his hometown of Danville, Illinois. So, instead of simply fixing the sign, the GI personalized it, putting an extra sign pointing to Danville and stating its distance. Several other people thought this was a good idea and added their hometowns to the sign. Soon, the idea snowballed into what it is today: a forest of signs pointing to nearly every conceivable place on the planet.

In 1942, the Sign Post Forest was a small idea, now it spans two acres, comprising of over 100,000 items ranging from street signs to welcome signs, signatures on dinner plates, and international license plates. Ranging from quirky to seintimental, the Sign Post Forest reflects the town’s daily visitors: people travelling through from different parts, catching a small glimpse into Canada’s most remote areas.

What makes the Sign Post Forest is not its idea, which is one adopted around the world, but its age, method, and adoption by other people. It’s more than a collection of objects, it’s a part of what makes Watson Lake unique. An isolated area where people are prone to homesickness, the Sign Post Forest is an example of how a small, seemingly insignificant place is genuinely connected to the rest of the world. The idea is organic as well, a collection of things from people who want to participate in this small town’s unique art project, and it reflects how Watson Lake itself is a welcoming town despite its location and relative isolation. Watson Lake’s Sign Post Forest is visited by thousands every year despite its remoteness, which makes its art project that much more important for its residents. The signs may point to other places, but they show how everything is really no too far.

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.

Signs Are Everywhere, No One Thinks Of Who Made Them

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.

Exposing The Art Of Sign Painting

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.

Honest Ed’s: Where Branding Turned into Part of Toronto’s Identity

Honest Ed’s is part of Toronto, a kitschy place held dear to the hearts of Torontonians and tourists alike and much of that love comes from their signage. The hokey catchphrases and jokes covering almost every square inch of Honest Ed’s exterior brings smiles to locals and, almost embarrassingly, plenty of pictures from tourists. A personal favourite of mine is “Honest Ed attracts squirrels! ‘At these prices they think he’s nuts!’”  I have a picture of my brother and I underneath it from my first visit to the city. My hair’s changed, Honest Ed’s hasn’t.

But even Honest Ed’s has to change. The store will close their doors for the last time in 2016 and owner David Mirvish, son of Ed, started selling Honest Ed’s signature look last month. This includes the hand-painted signs marking the deals Ed was just “nuts” to offer. Prices ranged from $0.50 to $100 and, in keeping with Ed’s love of its city, all proceeds went to Victim Services Toronto for people affected by sudden and violent crime.

Honest Ed’s, Distinctly Toronto

Yes, Honest Ed’s is distinct, but it’s also distinctly Torontonian. It’s been regularly featured in film and TV, its marquee turned into postcards, and even the odd bus tour takes a swing by Ed’s. The store even played into the Scott Pilgrim comics, possibly this city’s best love letter. And, if the lineups for the sign sale have anything to say on the matter, Toronto citizens agree.

The sale unexpectedly brought out hundreds of people, some of whom lined up for hours to buy the signs and get them signed by employees Douglas Kerr and Wayne Reuben. These men painted the signs and were on-hand to demonstrate their painting skills and sign people’s purchases. As custom sign painters ourselves we hold dear to our heart this aspect of Toronto’s culture.

Buying a Piece of Toronto’s Culture

But at least people will have a piece of Ed’s to carry with them, or put up in their homes and offices, which is a much better place than the recycle bin. The very act of buying these signs, of lining up in the wee hours of the morning just to get them prove that Honest Ed’s holds value in Torontonians’ eyes, even as the store itself closes down. Honest Ed’s signs are more than just branding, they’re embedded into Toronto culture. They are valued by people, turning price tags into a sentimental part of living in Canada’s largest city. These signs will be framed, cut up and used in other art projects, documented, but most of all preserved in some way or another.

That line of hundreds also proves the look of a store can go beyond increasing sales, they can become a distinct part of a city, a neighbourhood, a street. Honest Ed’s is a Toronto institution in part because of that signage, both the Las Vegas marquee and the beautiful and kitschy signs inside, are ingrained in people’s memory. Their branding turned into city identity, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Toronto Street Signs for Sale: A New Initiative Gives New Homes to Old Signs

The City of Toronto’s latest initiative is the very epitome of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure: the city continues to sell decommissioned street signs to the highest bidder.

The auctions started last month through a deal with Platinum Liquidations, who set up an online auction selling their the old signs to people who want a piece of Toronto from days gone by. The city replaces roughly 1,800 signs per year for various reasons, from legibility to damage, and usually they go straight into recycle bins. But by auctioning them off, the city’s transportation services can make some money off their trash.

Here’s How Sign Sales Work

Here’s how it works: Starting with minimum $30 bids, the city lets anyone bid on the signs in $5 increments. After 60 days, the auction closes and the sign is given to the highest bidder. 20 signs are released every week and money raised through the sales goes directly back into the city’s transportation services division. They haven’t released a master list of signs going to auction, so it’s best to check back every week to see if the street you want is there. Just a warning, the more severely damaged or illegible signs are still going into the trash heap.

And the initiative is working. The site brought had over a million views on its first day, enough to crash the page. With those numbers, competition is stiff. Some of the more popular signs, like Bloor St. W, have reached over $300 and still climbing.

Toronto Signage Sales Bring On Controversy

The move is not without controversy and, like many of Toronto’s headlines this year, Rob Ford is once again at the centre. On leave from his Mayoral duties, Mr. Ford has been signing the signs with a gold sharpie. Some see it as an autograph, prices for these signs have been much higher than those without, but others see it as defacing. The city itself thinks worries the signatures are stopping some people from bidding, so now all signatures must get approval from the city planner. After all, if you would just like the sign as is, why would you want a bright gold and very permanent scribble on it?

For my part, the signs seem like an excellent idea, both as a way to recoup costs for the city and lets people show some pride in their city. Many citizens have grown up on certain streets, maybe even for generations, so having such a sign would be a point of pride for families in the area. Of course, plenty of frat houses around town have been preemptive in street sign removal, and they aren’t the only ones.

Toronto hopes this will be an ongoing program for decommissioned street signs and hopefully these signs find good homes. A personal favourite is the old acorn style signs. The distinct shape and print reminds me of the Toronto I visited before I moved here. I’m sure for others, these signs can be a part of their family history. The auction, at its core, is about helping things change while still valuing what came before.

Signs have always been ubiquitous in Toronto, as such we are here to help provide you with custom Toronto sign painting services to help bring your dream to life.