Documentary about skilled sign painters looks fantastic

Stendahl Syndrome alert! This trailer for a documentary about sign painters made me swoon.

There was a time, as recently as the 1980s, when storefronts, murals, banners, barn signs, billboards, and even street signs were all hand-lettered with brush and paint. But, like many skilled trades, the sign industry has been overrun by the techno-fueled promise of quicker and cheaper. The resulting proliferation of computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering and inkjet printers has ushered a creeping sameness into our landscape. Fortunately, there is a growing trend to seek out traditional sign painters and a renaissance in the trade.

In 2010 Directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, with Cinematographer Travis Auclair, began documenting these dedicated practitioners, their time-honored methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship. Sign Painters, the first anecdotal history of the craft, features the stories of more than two dozen sign painters working in cities throughout the United States. The documentary and book profiles sign painters young and old, from the new vanguard working solo to collaborative shops such as San Francisco’s New Bohemia Signs and New York’s Colossal Media’s Sky High Murals.

Buy Sign Painters book

(Thanks, Matthew!)


  1. I’ve painted exactly one sign professionally, though I wish it could be many more.  After studying letters for about a decade of graffiti enthusiasm, I was tapped to paint the sign for an acquaintance’s shop:  Legacy in Knoxville’s Old City.  Last time I was there, the sign was still running–quite a thrill–but the internet says it’s closed now.

    Signpainter’s OneShot is a brilliant product.

    1. You should have used One Shot before they removed to lead base from the paint.  The stir stick stood straight up in the can.

      1. Coop did a painting of Frankenstein’s monster with lead-based One Shot. It’s beautiful.

    2. One Shot is the whip – I still have many old lead-based cans and that paint is still good in there.  I remember going to the Autorama shows in the 70’s when all the brush guys were there and you could get things striped at their booths if you brought them in.  Also, airbrush artists, somewhere I have a shirt with an airbrush design and my name on it.  They had just released a roller-based pinstriper (Bugler?) and they had a car hood they would let you try it on and then wipe it off, over and over.

  2. It looks great.  Ironically, so much digital art out there tries to replicate that analog organic gilded lily flourish of what these traditional signmakers did/do.  When you look at a pinstripe on a really really nice car, you’ll notice that it’s painted on.  it’s painted on with a brush, by a human hand.  It’s not a vinyl strip of adhesive stuck on the paint.  It’s paint.  It’s laid there with a brush that has really long hairs that trail along the body of the car in a as-straight-as-humanly-possible way.  I love how rich it looks – and by that I mean “crafted” rather than “it costs more than a strip of vinyl”.

  3. I still operate a truck lettering sign shop in So. Chicago, Il.  (opened in 1977)
    had to put the brush away because when a customer (lease co.’s) wanted to trade their truck in,  You had a hell of a time taking the painted lettering off, hence vinyl.
    Removed in minutes.  Great video by the way.

  4. this music again…? it’s really becoming the default documental music…

    other than that. I’m looking forward to watch this!

  5. This is a must see for me!
    I think my obsession with type and my career as a graphic designer was inspired by signs and sign painting. There was a running thing on Sesame Street where a man would paint a letter or number perfectly, and then in the end it would get smeared. As a kid, I liked that more than the muppets, to be honest!

    1. That man went on to become the Jeffersons’ wacky neighbor and the “I am just as God made me, sir!” guy in Spinal Tap.

  6. I look froward to seeing this documentary. I wonder if my father would like to see it too.  Before I was born, my father was a professional sign painter.  During my life, he was a draftsman.  He had an amazing lettering skill.  I watched him paint signs for anti-war demonstrations in the 1960’s.  Here is a photo of my father with a sign he did for his political work:
    My sister and I are in that photo, too.

  7. Sounds like every typographer I’ve met, or librarian, or audio engineer, , ,

    Looks pretty sweet though.

  8. looks very interesting, but Hall of the Mountain King is such a cliched piece of music. Documentaries can be interesting without soundtracks which try to evoke a sense of panicked action.

  9. This amazing sign maker named David A. Smith made the album cover for John Mayer’s new one, “Born and Raised”. If you dig this sign doc you’ll love the mini doc about the “Making of” the artwork. The glass work is brilliant!


  10. Ha! As a signwriter’s kid (and sometime signwriter myself) I will have to watch this. It’s hard these days, though – very very few people want to pay for this kind of work any more. Actually they never did, but they didn’t have a choice! Alas for the old days of the sign shop where I grew up helping my Dad. These days he mostly works in films/tv. You can’t use vinyl on a 1890 saloon door, that’s for sure.

  11. This is bound to be better than that documentary about unskilled sign painters I saw recently.

    Seriously though, I love sign painting.

  12. Sign Painting is a lost art.  My Great Grandfather and Grandfather were professional sign painters in Chicago.  My grandfather started a sign shop that employed 40 people…. it was all done by hand…Then computers made the whole trade obsolete..

  13. One of the greatest things you’ll learn from sign painters is the correct use of kerning and leading. When I was first starting out working in a digital sign shop in 2000, the manager (and his father) were both ex-sign/window painters and the guidance that he gave (even working with vinyl plotters) was amazing. Still use a lot of those same skills with my digital designs… As a side note I still run into my signs that I made at car washes all over the country to this day.

  14. The podcast 99% Invisible just did an episode on this:

  15. I was taught show-card lettering from Al Zlatin – one of the masters who painted old vaudeville signs, movie placards, and hand decorated Blaze Starr’s legs on occasion. He was a God of the brush, and could out letter a p.o.s. Gerber sign cutter any day of the week. After Al retired I started my own sign shop, where I did nearly nothing but hand lettered signs for 11 years. It was good til “Signs by Tomorrow” and their ilk fucked it all up.

    The world lost one of it’s finest lettermen when Al passed away in October at the age of 90, and the world seems less without him around. He taught me more about art than anyone ever has.

  16. I too knew many “brothers of the brush”  who are long gone.  No wanna be’s in the hand lettering trade.  either you had talent or you did’nt.  When you applied for work at a sign co. they would have you letter a simple “for sale” sign on card stock or paper.  That way they could see how you handled a S and O  The hardest letter to produce.

  17. Back in the dark ages, when I was in high school, I took commercial art classes (that’s what they called design back then). One day, my instructor, an older man with a head of gray hair, unrolled a 6-foot x 1-foot length of paper on the floor. He then took a straightedge and pencil, and lightly drew guidelines down the length of the paper. Then, he opened a pot of tempera paint and, with a 2″ flat brush, proceeded to hand-letter a quote of some sort. I can’t recall the quote, but I will remember forever how amazed we all were that he just lettered this thing as perfectly and easily as you wish. Pretty impressive. 

    1. I used to do that all the time back in my revolutionary days, except on muslin. There was an endless need for banners. You get pretty good at it when you do it regularly.

  18. I was lucky enough to apprentice to some of those old fashioned sign painters way back in the day, and learned the craft for a good six years or so before I left for the digital design world and the internet. I consider those days to be my degree in graphic design, and they have helped inform everything I have done since then.The first job I got was when my future boss set me up with a big rectangle of paper and a brush to see how I handled them.  

  19. My dad had a sign painter, when I was growing up, in the 1960s. In Massapequa, on Long Island. Lived near us. He used to provide signs for my dad’s TV repair shop. His name was Sol. Sol Seinfeld. Seinfeld Signs. He had a kid around my age, name of Jerry. Wonder whatever happened to him…

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