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The Folk Art of SoCal Sign Painting

Sign by Jeff Canham, from the "Sign Painters" film and book.
Sign by Jeff Canham, from the "Sign Painters" film and book.

While businesses have had painted signs since time immemorial, a proliferation of sign painting arose in America during the 1800s as a means to identify products, buildings and companies as capitalism began to boom. Sign painting began out of sheer necessity for businesses and organizations, and slowly turned into an advertising medium, forcing the competitive edge to rise and the need for signage to grow. Until the advent of digital vinyl lettering in the 1980s greatly reduced the demand for hand painted signs, hand lettered signs were not only an accepted lifelong career, but they were a much-needed service, for almost any business.

Though vinyl lettering put many sign painting businesses out of work, folksy art form continues as a handful of niche trade programs, companies and artists spearhead a hand-letting revival. Southern California is one of the most densely important areas for sign painting and the continuation of this traditional art form. In Santa Ana, one local gallery is pushing many businesses to explore these long term signs that not only support local arts, but help create a unique brand specifically for each company. As a part of the recent exhibit, "Sign Painters," Marcas Contemporary Art Gallery coordinated a screening of the amazing documentary "Sign Painters," by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, and highlighted local O.C. lettering artists Colt Bowden and Patrick G. Smith, as they hosted a series of in-gallery workshops, lectures, demos and more.

Pop-Up Sign Shop inside the Sign Painters exhibit at Marcas Gallery.
Pop-Up Sign Shop inside the Sign Painters exhibit at Marcas Gallery.

"There has only been around eight sign painting shows in the past couple years, nationwide," Dana Jazayeri, one of the owners of the Marcas Gallery said. "This exhibit was the first time there was an actual show with the documentary, so that's why we did it, so you could embrace this art, and get a little more of the history behind it, and then with the demos and the pop-up sign shop, you can actually watch them work."

Faythe Levine, co-director of the Sign Painters film says that they "barely skimmed the surface of this movement and these artists. We wanted to make an approachable, informational piece for the general public, but also fully endorsed by the sign industry. We really wanted to create a platform for a larger discussion of this art."

Mural for "Sign Painters" the movie.
Mural for "Sign Painters" the movie.
Patrick G. Smith giving tutorials at "Sign Painters" at Marcas Gallery.
Patrick G. Smith giving tutorials at "Sign Painters" at Marcas Gallery.

To stand out against graphic design homogeneity, some businesses are starting to see the real value in the unique aesthetic of hand painted signage. The distinct, hand-painted signs have their own style that is irresistible to the eye. And the stories of the sign painters, provide a sense of history to each piece.

Patrick G. Smith, one of the area's most prolific sign painters, has been in the business of lettering and hand-painting signs for over forty years. While serving in the Vietnam War, he painted signs for the navy and army. They had him run a sign shop in Vietnam where he painted with other guys, making directional signs for the entire area, for the armed forces. After coming back with years of experience, he took over a sign shop here in Orange County and was a self-employed sign painter for 30 years. He also worked at the Disneyland Sign Shop for seven years, and also founded the Letterheads in the 1980s. He now works out of his home studio in Orange.

"I'm so glad to see a resurgence in the sign arts. Learning a craft takes time, practice and experience and asking a lot of questions and reading a lot of books," well-known local sign painter Patrick Smith told Traditional Sign Maker Magazine.

Patrick G. Smith giving tutorials at "Sign Painters" at Marcas Gallery.
Patrick G. Smith giving tutorials at "Sign Painters" at Marcas Gallery.
Sign by Patrick G. Smith.
Sign by Patrick G. Smith.
Sign Example by Patrick G. Smith at Frontier Land, Disneyland.
Sign Example by Patrick G. Smith at Frontier Land, Disneyland.
Patrick G. Smith sign.
Patrick G. Smith sign.

Patrick is responsible for most of the classic painted signs in historic Old Towne Orange, amongst many other areas in Southern California, and still goes around cleaning and touching up the work. At the exhibition, he also passed down a lesson or two on the artform. "You could sit in front of Patrick G. Smith -- to just anyone, that might not mean anything, but to this group of individuals, it means a lot, and then they get to sit five feet from him and listen to forty years of his knowledge, because he's been painting since Vietnam," Jazayeri says.

 

The tradition of sign painting is far from dead. Though the influx of technology took out many of the sign painting businesses, the young resurgence of the skill and aesthetic has revived the art form, and created a whole new generation of sign painters and a whole new industry looking for this kind of work. Colt Bowden is a young local sign painter who is passionate about reviving this art form, and the interest in this kind of signage in urban environments. Originally a professional skateboarder, Bowden is now consumed with painting signs, preserving signs, trying to spread the knowledge of sign painting and keep the tradition alive.

Still from "Sign Painters" the movie.
Still from "Sign Painters" the movie.

"Just like how people buy vintage furniture, they're going back to old aesthetics and old values, so some businesses incorporate that more into their commercial look," Jazayeri explains. "Old values seem to be trending now too, old furniture, vintage fashion, so this is something that falls into that visual standpoint. People would rather see something like this than that electric, plexiglas Boost Mobile sign."

Bowden helped start the Pre-Vinylite Society, a newer group of like-minded individuals that want to promote the creation of signs, art and writings that convey "an astute cognizance of the aesthetic built environment and a desire to create new, forward-focused art that respects the traditions and techniques of the past," according to their manifesto. Colt and the Pre-Vinylite Society have redesigned and republished numerous sign painting books, tutorial style books, sheets, and learning tools. Before the internet, that's how the only way sign painters would learn techniques and styles--through rare and expensive books.

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Colt Bowden at opening for "Sign Painters" at Marcas Gallery.
Colt Bowden at opening for "Sign Painters" at Marcas Gallery.

"There is a young upstart, a handful of mid-career sign painters, most of the masters are retiring from the trade," Jazayeri says. "The Pre-Vinylite Society is a group trying to bridge the generation gap through bringing to light the knowledge and traditions held by the masters of the trade, as well as practice the craft in a way that helps to bring the best level of craft and artistry to the trade."

Luckily, Southern California has the largest concentration of sign painters, over anywhere else. "Between Los Angeles and San Francisco, there is a larger area of people who are doing traditional sign painting, even still. But, there are sign painters everywhere," Levine explains.

Deadman by Colt Bowden, Gold Leaf Enamel on Glass.
Deadman by Colt Bowden, Gold Leaf Enamel on Glass.
Getting the Love You Want by Remedios Rapoport
Getting the Love You Want by Remedios Rapoport
Signs by Colt Bowden, Travis Simon, Brian Decannis, Brady Martinson, Roderick Treece, in "Sign Painters exhibit at Marcas Gallery.
Signs by Colt Bowden, Travis Simon, Brian Decannis, Brady Martinson, Roderick Treece, in "Sign Painters exhibit at Marcas Gallery.

Traditionally, sign painters come to be professionals in their trade by first being an apprentice, then becoming a journeyman, then coming full circle to a Master Sign Painter that would take on apprentices and hire other upstart sign painters. "In this day and age, the battle between hand painted signage and the digitally printed banner or plotter cut vinyl sticker is one that is constantly lost," Jazayeri says.

The documentary "Sign Painters" provides an in-depth look a handful of sign painters across the country, young and old, male and female, and their journeys are all different too. Levine and Macon spent almost two years interviewing and filming these dedicated artists, whose work rarely gets noticed. They explore this art form through anecdotal accounts from artists including Ira Coyne, Bob Dewhurst, Keith Knecht, Norma Jeane Maloney and Stephen Powers. These vanguards of this forgotten art form seem to exemplify the classic working class American success story.

"Before the last thirty years, it was the only way for people to have their signs done," Levine says of the craft.

Doc Guthrie talking to Faythe and Sam for "Sign Painters" the movie.
Doc Guthrie talking to Faythe and Sam for "Sign Painters" the movie.

Though some Master Sign Painters are still taking apprentices and keeping the tradition alive through these clubs and organizations, the only school that teaches traditional and modern techniques for sign painting is the Los Angeles Trade Technical College, run by legendary sign painter Doc Guthrie.

"Having a chance to be around Doc Guthrie, who has been and still is holding down that sign graphic program at L.A. Trade Tech--he even kept it open during the '80s when there was no real interest in sign painting. He would go down to Venice Beach and find people and hustle graffiti writers to keep the program open, and now, that program is at an all-time high for enrollment, so his energy and enthusiasm was really exciting to be around."

Lettering by Travis Simon at Marcas Gallery.
Lettering by Travis Simon at Marcas Gallery.
A Touch Authentic by Caitlyn Galloway, Enamel on Wood.
A Touch Authentic by Caitlyn Galloway, Enamel on Wood.

Though the feature length film only touched on a handful of artists, most of whom are well-known in the industry, Levine admits that there are so many more that she wished she could've had the chance to interview and highlight in the film. "We spent about a year and a half just shooting [for this film], and eventually just had to stop ourselves because we could've filmed forever. I think Sam and I feel really good about what we've done with this specific project."

Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, directors of "Sign Painters" the movie.
Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, directors of "Sign Painters" the movie.
"Sign Painters" install shot, Marcas Gallery.
"Sign Painters" install shot, Marcas Gallery.
Icey install, back gallery space at Marcas Gallery.
Icey install, back gallery space at Marcas Gallery.

This independently produced documentary is now finally available on DVD, and has an incredible thorough book that goes along with it, published by Princeton Architectural Press also called Sign Painters.

Though most people don't think about signs and lettering, it was the humble and original basis for our current heavily saturated advertising industry, and is growing into a rare but treasured art form that should be revered and celebrated in urban environments more. Some cities try and restore or commission these more permanent and original signs, like Lodi, California. With proper grants and funding, the city works with local businesses and major sign painting artists from all over the country to create and preserve large hand-painted signs and murals, to keep the aesthetic and history of the town alive.

Installation at "Sign Painters" at Marcas Gallery.
Installation at "Sign Painters" at Marcas Gallery.
Pop-Up Sign Painting Shop at Marcas Gallery's "Sign Painters" exhibit.
Pop-Up Sign Painting Shop at Marcas Gallery's "Sign Painters" exhibit.

"Santa Ana has a lot of ghost signs, which are old faded signs on buildings, but then there are a lot of new businesses that are using it too," Jazayeri says. "Colt did Boldo, Wursthaus used sign painting too, because it looks different. Vinyl and LED stuff is normal, it's cookie cutter, and so, what's the opposite of that?"

The exhibition and documentary were merely a glimpse at this very involved history and skill, but with the help of local revivalists, more and more cities in Southern California are going the way of the sign painters.

 

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