Watch: Sign Painters

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Article Reviews

By Faythe Levine & Sam Macon (Radar Studios, 2013)

A commercial building in my neighborhood recently underwent renovations to transform the space into a gym. As construction workers pulled down panels of brown ocher metal awning, swatches of bright whites, reds, and blues were revealed. Despite the sign’s vintage look, the carpet store that occupied the building some 50 years earlier had invested in an advertisement with literal staying power.

The old hand-painted sign reminds me that someone, not something, was behind the design and construction—the kind of sign Faythe Levine and Sam Macon advocate for in their documentary and accompanying book, Sign Painters, now screening across the country and around the world.

In rich colors and characters Levine and Macon tell of the disintegration of a once vigorous and fruitful industry through the stories of the sign painters who were the go-to people whenever a business needed a visual message. The field’s decline, as with so many other industries once taken for granted, is thanks to the advent of new technologies that allow anyone with access to a computer and a Kinko’s to design and print their own signs faster and, of course, cheaper.

But some things should be left to the professionals—a message conveyed by the filmmakers right down to their project’s titles and credits. Some are painted by hand and filmed at double speed, while others are rendered digitally and splash across the screen. One wonders how a vinyl sign with block letters could ever suffice. Looking at words in this film is a visual treat.

It is possible to dismiss sign painters as vestiges of the past and any renewed interest in such work as just another shade of vintage chic aesthetics in popular culture. But the work of a sign painter, like many elements of the vintage trend, is about more than aesthetics. It’s about permanence, quality, and meaningful work.

This article appeared in the July 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 7, page 42).