Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hand-Painted Signs

At Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony, poet Elizabeth Alexander called for a “praise song for every hand-lettered sign.”

In Asian and in Arabic-speaking countries, where calligraphic lettering is part of the cultural DNA, hand-painted signs are everywhere.

In America, permanent hand-painted signs show up either in wealthy communities with posh boutiques, or in poor neighborhoods, where hand-lettering is an economic necessity or an expression of ethnic pride.

Between those two economic extremes, we have resigned ourselves to machine-made signs. In the franchise landscape, handmade signs are extinct animals.

In North Africa handmade signs are as common as home cooked meals.

This store in Morocco takes an exuberant approach to its advertisement of rose water and fossils.

Another store stacks big block letters like boxes, hoping to grab the attention of motor tourists.

This proud and edgy sign advertises a Tunisian sports club called the “Étoile Sportive du Sahel.”

The lone word “cyber” advertises dingy basement rooms with antique computers and distracted teenagers.

The word “Coca-Cola” still has its swoop in Arabic; the rest is a riot of joyous color.

You have to admire an earnest huckster.

Yes, let us sing the praises of hand-painted signs. Let us show school kids how to write their names in block letters. Let us teach art students the secrets of Copperplate, Old English, and showcard lettering. Let us treat them to serifs and ampersands and ligatures. Let us shape our own words with our own hands.
There are several Flickr groups devoted to this subject:
“Hand-Painted Signs of the World.”
“Folk Typography”
“Signpaintr,” dedicated to the lost art of hand-lettering
“Hand-Painted Signs of Cambodia.”


Erik Bongers said...

Yosemite NP is almost large as Flanders, that's half of Belgium.
(What's that got to do with it?)
Well, most people that I know that have seen Yosemite spend at most half a day there and only made pictures of half dome and the waterfalls.
(See where I'm getting at?)
Artists have a whole different way of looking at the places that they visit. It's not so much 'been there' but more 'really seen it', and I mean *really* seen it.

Now, about that last paragraph's retoric...
("Yes, let us this, let us that and let us some more...")
Someone's been eating to much salad with Obama flavoured lettuce me thinks!

But I hear your voice Mr. Gurney, and I say to you, yes we salad.

craigstephens said...
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craigstephens said...

Great post! That line in Obama's speech stood out to me as well. I was a sign painter for about twelve years before I started teaching and I still teach a hand lettering class. The cost of One-Shot and grey squirrel quills has gone through the roof but I always have at least a couple of kids every year who get pretty good at it.

I love the samples you posted too. A couple of weeks ago I did some gold leafing in a nice restaurant and this summer I will probably do a race car or two who's owners will want to pay me with beer. I think that illustrates the economic extremes of hand lettering for me.

alicia said...
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alicia said...

Thank you, James. This is a beautiful response to the inauguration poetry. I hope I never see a hand painted sign without thinking of the song of the person who painted it.

Colin said...

On that Cambodian sign, the blue lettering has the spray shadows of a stencil, which could explain its perfection. 'Hand painted' but not truly calligraphy.

Super Villain said...

james if you think these signs are funny, you will love this!

Nonie said...

My father was a sign painter, until work in the field dried up. Back home in Minnesota there are a few well-known signs still up that my dad painted. I thought the line in the poem, though, was about hand-lettered protest signs. Means something a little different each way I guess.

Nevenah said...

One of the lovely things about New Orleans is that the traditional hand-painted sign (and hanging sign-board) has been the fashion for centuries now and is still going strong. From elegant professional signs to the free-hand amateur efforts of shoe-repair shops and tire-changing garages, it's a visual delight at all times.

Pyracantha said...

I was so thrilled when Alexander mentioned the hand-lettered signs. As a sign maker for Trader Joe's gourmet store, I do them every day. All the signage in Trader Joe's is done by hand.

James Gurney said...

Pyracantha, yes, I was just thinking of the hand-lettered sale signs that used to cover the front windows of every grocery store. They were beautiful tempera brush lettering, a transient form. I'm glad Trader Joe's has kept the art form going with your work.

Nonie, yes, protest signs are another genre that has had some fabulous hand-lettering and stenciling. There's at least one book devoted to the art of protest signs.

Nevenah, long live New Orleans and its sign tradition. Also Ireland has kept its tradition very much alive. I was so impressed with the shopfronts there.

Craig, your comment reminds me how many sign painters are also easel painters. Eric Sloan is the first one who comes to mind.