The Street Museum: Sign Painting as Art and History

Sign Painting on York Blvd. Photo by James Mann.
Sign Painting on York Blvd. Photo by James Mann.

Arden Stern is a Ph.D. Candidate in Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She has published and presented on 19th-century type design, street graphics in Zambia, and typography in film title sequences.

Designed to explore the intersections between artists, the built environment, and the Highland Park community, the Full Dollar Project has enlisted Los Angeles sign painters to illustrate the collaborative and constantly evolving identity of a neighborhood. While LA's rich history of muralism has helped construct the city's identity on a global scale, the distinctiveness of its painted signs can identify its landscape on an even more local level. Like facial features, signs are a vital part of how businesses distinguish themselves: appearing one after the other, mismatched awnings and stucco facades constitute a cast of community characters in their own right. Painted signs, of which no two are exactly alike, express the history of a place through a unique and often idiosyncratic language of images, symbols, and text. In this way, a street like York Boulevard simultaneously becomes a public art gallery and local history museum.

The language of sign painting has a long history, spanning centuries and countries all over the world. From 14th-century English inn signs to the perfectly painted reproductions of corporate logos on 21st-century Zambian storefronts, hand lettered signs have announced countless messages to millions of people. Hand lettering, which is related to but also distinct from typography, frequently calls upon the artist to replicate the appearance of printed type either with the aid of stencils or through painstaking freehand drawing.

It is this ability to create distinctive lettering by hand that separates the work of the sign painter from that of the digital designer. Though both occupations require command of composition and layout, the technical skills involved in sign painting have their own heritage. Historically, sign painters have learned their trade through trial and error, by finding employment as a sign painter's apprentice--or, more recently, by attending school. Sign artists Agbey Hommey, Kimberley Edwards, and Art Tapia, all participating in the Full Dollar Project, have attended classes in the nearly hundred-year-old Sign Graphics Program at LA Trade Technical College.

Going back as far as the 1800s, students hoping to learn the trade had a number of manuals and guides at their disposal. While some sign painting books included historical information and technical advice, others featured a wide variety of typefaces and ornaments for painters to include in their own work. Instead of using samples of text to demonstrate the appearance of a font for a printer to purchase, the pages of these books featured every letter of the alphabet, both upper and lower case, for the sign painter to copy. Some authors of the more technically minded manuals warned painters against making their work look too mechanical, in order to preserve what they viewed as the individual spirit of the art. A 1920 book, How To Paint Signs and Sho' Cards, promises that technical mastery leads to individual expression: "You can express just as much originality and personality in lettering as you can in pictorial work." Even during sign painting's heyday, hand letterers were aware of the stiff competition posed by printers when it came to advertising signage. As a result, they found ways to balance speed and quality with the distinctive, homespun effects of handwork.

Signage on storefronts in Zambia
Signage on storefronts in Zambia

Despite their history of competition, typography and hand lettering have powerful ties that reach back to the invention of the printing press. The blackletter typefaces used in the first mechanically printed books imitated handwritten scripts used in medieval Western Europe. Even italics, once a discrete typeface rather than a supplementary component of roman fonts, were initially designed to imitate the calligraphy used by Italian state officials and scholars. Later, the proliferation of printed matter and advertising over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries added a unique twist to the relationship between the human hand and the printing press, as the use of type to imitate writing commingled with skillful hand lettering techniques that imitated type.

More than merely imitating printed text, skilled sign painters could push the limits of letterforms. Their ability to alter the sizes, shapes, color, and arrangement of words and images with the stroke of a brush made it possible to quickly produce an extensive, eloquent variety of compositions for their clients. Sign painters continue to blur the boundary between letters and pictures, often transforming even the simplest text into a sophisticated array of symbols that speak to different viewers. Even something as simple as a color scheme can alter the meaning of a sign: national flags, religious iconography, and personal taste might all find their way into a single group of letters on a neighborhood storefront.

Although the wide availability of digital vinyl lettering in the 1980s sharply reduced the demand for hand painted signs, the skill of hand lettering is by no means on the decline. As an increasingly rare specialty, the ability to translate written messages into richly textured images is not simply an act of communication, but also of historical preservation.

Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art is an initiative that aims to reconsider the tradition of public art through a collaboration between artists, sign painters, and business owners.

The Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art is developed through a partnership between:


Story continues below

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading