Sign Game: tricks of the trade from a professional sign painter

It’s always fun to cruise through Fantagraphics’s store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. You never know what you might stumble across amid the new comics releases, independent zines and assorted odd runs and old stock there. I happened upon a copy of Justin Green’s Sign Game (ST Publications and Last Gasp Of San Francisco). It's an 80-page paperback collection from 1995 of the monthly comic strips Green did for the sign painter’s trade newsletter Signs of the Times from back in the 1980s and 90s.

As detailed in Green’s comics, that was a turbulent time of transition for sign painters. Just as desktop publishing and digital photography transformed the graphic design and photography businesses (ask bankrupt Kodak about that!), the dawn of the computerized vinyl letter cutting machines undid the business of hand-lettered and painted signage.

Each densely rich comic takes on one arcane aspect of this dying art, from the ins and outs of doing gold leaf lettering, or how to wield a mahlstick, to the fine points of font design and brush technique needed for painting on the corrugated surface of metal trucks. Green’s sardonic tone and hilarious perspective also illustrate each hard won lesson of running a business, filled with characters like hard-boiled artists, chiseling customers, and back-biting competitors.

As a comic, Green’s one-page masterpieces employs a myriad of graphic techniques: send ups of Johnson Smith & Co. catalog layouts, Goofus and Gallant-ish profiles, Dick Tracy Crimebsuters comic crooks, and an endless supply of cartoon lettering intro panel gimmicks that ape plexiglass, peeling vinyl letters and stencils.

One installment is most telling: his predictions for the sign biz from 1994. Many were already coming true then, like computer-less mini vinyl letter-cutting systems. One thing he did NOT foresee: the current hipster renaissance for all things artisanal—like hand painted signs and lettering! A brand new book and documentary film Sign Painters by Faithe Levine and Sam Macon promises to tell that tale, and I hope it will be as funny and informative as Green’s Sign Game. -- Bob Knetzger

Sign Game, by Justin Green. 1995, 80 pages. $12 and up (out of print)


  1. I was one of those sign guys from 1995-96 that gave up the brush for the computer.  Miss hand lettering? Yes.  Now letter 6 trucks (12 doors) in a half hour,
    What do you think? 

    1. I’ve never heard of a Letter 6 Truck. I’m curious about what you would need 12 doors for on a truck.

      1.  If the business owning the truck has a very long name you would need 12 doors to fit it all in. I’m guessing that in this case the business had a Welsh name.

    1. Yeah, it’s quite the coincidence. I think they need to give 99% Invisible some love if they’re getting inspired by the show…it’s brilliant and Boingy and BBers will love it.

  2. The prices seem to have heard about your glowing reviews:

    Amazon Price New from Used from
    Paperback — — $459.59
    Paperback, June 1, 1995 — — $194.79

  3. I lettered a fleet of Kenworth tractors the other day.  6 tractors, 2 doors per tractor, hence 12 doors.  When I hand lettered, it would take all day of countless interuptions,distractions, and know-it-alls telling me how to do it.  Now with my computer cut lettering, done and gone in a half hour.
    not as satisfying, but one job down, many to go.

    1.  jebus |+| muhammad!

      1) Why is your site an .au blogspot, especially when other TLDs are available such as

      2) Fix your site. You make signs…. surely you can see that this site is not selling your product well?

      Free Tips:
      A) If you insist on using a blogging platform: use wordpress, it’s better than blogger by a factor of 10
      B) If you’re going to use a background image you’d better make sure it’s good quality. Also a backwoods road is not usually considered positive imagery (unless you’re selling roads, I guess)
      C) Outlined text with a drop-shadow? Choose one text decoration (MAX). Also you dont need so many gradients!
      D) Don’t EVER imbed your text in an image and then upload that as the entirety of a post. Teh Googs doesn’t crawl image text so all that stuff you bothered typing is invisible to google.
      E) Axe the flash. Those Picasa image galleries won’t show up on most mobile devices and there’s WAY better ways to do it, such as use of wordpress plugins that require no coding to create fluid CSS galeries.
      F) Get a domain man… they’re $10 a year and it builds brand reputation.

      I know I sound mean and that’s because I am, but my points are made in earnest as I appreciate you sharing your story and I just wanted to contrib my 2 cents as a web designer.

      PS: Denny.. you know your name is listed on that site, right?

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