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Sign Painters: A Documentary    cover photo

Sign Painters: A Documentary 2014


Distributed by Bond/360, 42 Bond Street, Third Floor, New York, NY 10012 212.354.2650
Produced by Timm Gable and Jonah Mueller
Directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon
DVD, color, 88 min.

High School - General Adult
Sign Painting, Graphic Design, Advertising

Date Entered: 11/13/2015

Reviewed by Barbara J. Walter, Longmont Public Library, Longmont, CO

I want to make signs that turn into art. --- Phil Vandervaart, from Sign Painters

Told from the perspective of both old hands and newcomers to the trade, Sign Painters documents the resurgence of interest in hand-painted signs here in the U.S. Directors Faythe Levine (Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design, 2009) and Sam Macon blend in-depth interviews with footage of sign painters on the job, creating a thoroughly engaging salute to a 150-year-old American tradition that’s making a comeback.

Sign Painters explains how the craft got its start in the late 1800s in America, when manufacturers began adding brand names to products and using advertising to create demand. As the consumer economy of the 20th century grew, so did the need for sign painters: the craft became a skilled trade with organized unions, trade schools and apprenticeship programs. Companies in every major city employed dozens of letterers and painters, and even in small towns a sign painter could make a decent living crafting signs for local businesses. But the trade very nearly died out in the 1980s and ‘90s as “computer-cut, as cheap as you can get it” vinyl lettering made it easy for anyone throw together and hang up a sign.

It’s especially intriguing to hear these painters tell how they got started in the trade—some coming through formal schooling or apprenticeship to a master sign painter, and some by other means: a tattoo artist looking to supplement his income at slow times of the year; a teenager saved from totally bungling a window sign by a pro giving her the tools needed to finish the job well.

And it’s clear these painters take a great deal of pride in their work: one patiently teaches the distinctions between “font,” “typeface” and “lettering,” terms we uninformed often use interchangeably; another takes us inside a technical school in Los Angeles that’s training a new generation in the craft; others explain the critical importance of solid design in creating effective signage; still others introduce us to the unique tools and tricks of their trade, then dazzle with their displays of sign-painting technique.

Fast-paced, upbeat in tone and message, Sign Painters is an excellent introduction to the trade of sign-painting in America that’s suitable for classroom use at high school and college levels. A strong choice for school media centers and libraries supporting programs in fine and applied arts as well as career exploration in the skilled trades, the film is a great pick for public libraries as well.

30-plus minutes of bonus material include a time-lapse montage of sign painters at work, more in-depth interviews with veteran painters Keith Knecht and Bob Behounek, as well as footage from the century-old (and sadly now-closed) Butera School of Art at Fisher College in Boston.

Chaptered. Some profanity. In English, with English and Spanish subtitles.