By An Uong
Worn-down signs adorning factories and buildings may be wondered about from time to time, but rarely are they looked into for their meaning and history. Not much thought is given to those who have painted these signs, nor to the meticulous work that the painters have put into them. Sign Painters, directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, gives depth to the long-standing tradition of sign painting.
“It’s only a fucking sign,” or, “I.O.A.F.S” as sign painter Keith Knecht (to whose memory the film is dedicated) and his community like to say, because, despite whatever fascinations stir around sign painting, the painters are aware that their product is still a commodity for clients. Though there is a sense of humility attached to what admittedly is a service done for the benefit of others, it doesn’t mean that painters can’t be proud of their work.
In one scene, John Downer of Iowa compares a sign of his to two others made for the same business. He explains in detail the shortcomings of the other signs, focusing on the design and aesthetic of each. To the viewer, these details don’t seem so obvious at first, but as he continues to speak, the differences become more acute. In this sense, the film goes in depth with the psychology of signs and how they work. In its truest form, the film is an honest exploration of sign painting on a personal, social, historical and consumerist level.
The practice of sign painting has been in existence since the early 1830s, but met a downfall once vinyl lettering and printed posters came into popularity. Many businesses and craftsmen once heralded for their intricate work are now pushed aside by seemingly more convenient ways of performing the same job. Sign painting is not an exception.
The tradition is passed down through the master and apprentice relationship, which keeps the history enclosed within a tight-knit community. As a result, only a handful of the population knows about the small industry’s colorful history. Levine and Macon speak to sign painters across the country to enlighten viewers on the vastly intricate stories within the craft’s community. Every artist interviewed plays a different role in the story about sign painting and how it has faired in the face of the instantaneous nature of today’s society.
The film, fraught with laughs and laments, explores the oftentimes-tired topic of craft versus machinery in a way that doesn’t hit audience members over the head with the tragedy of our modern age. Though many of the painters share their opinions on fast-paced technological movements, their discussions aren’t entangled in mere nostalgia. Between the plentiful jokes and witticisms shared, viewers don’t even realize that they are learning about the details of sign painting. Whether it is brush size, lettering process or stenciling technique, the information is slipped in seamlessly amongst the personal stories articulated by artists.
Within the relationship between sign painting and business, the overlap between artistic license and clientele opinion becomes blurry, and at times tricky to navigate. “It’s not easy,” said sign painter Josh Luke during a visit to his studio. Recently relocated from San Francisco, where he was originally interviewed for the film, he and his wife have started Best Dressed Signs in Boston. “People come to me because I have a specific painting style,” he shared as he sat in his captain’s chair, “but it really depends on the job, and what the client is going for.”
“Their task was very difficult,” Luke says of Levine and Macon’s endeavor to document sign painting. “There are so many sign painters that exist. A lot of those stories go untold and vanish overtime. The film solidifies them in the general public.”
Luke had always been acquainted with sign painting, but it wasn’t until he started learning about it from skilled painters that a deeper connection was made. For him, in addition to the steady process of discovering the craft, there was a moment of ignition that sparked his entire career. For unbeknownst viewers, Sign Painters plays that exact role, igniting fascination in those who might not see past the peeling signs on sides of buildings, no matter how intricate they may be.
(For more information about the film and how to watch it, go to the Sign Painters website.)