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Keeping Classic Signpainting Alive

Posted on 22 July 2016

Before the 1980s, nearly all of the commercial art in the country was either hand-painted, bent from neon tubes, screen printed, or a combination of these. Sign men drove around in trucks, vans, and station wagons spattered with stray enamel paint in all colors, sometimes themselves sporting subtle to wild graphics advertising the tradesman's services. Sign painters were often eccentrics, men who had chosen what was a solitary trade. As a craftsperson, it was also one of the few trades one could make a living at from the turn of the century onward. In an increasingly mechanized world, fine woodworkers, blacksmiths, and others of their ilc were being made obsolete by factory-built furniture and modern welding techniques.

It wasn't until the 1980s that we figured out how to replace sign painters with something faster and cheaper. To say the hand-painted sign industry was decimated by computers and vinyl plotters would be an understatement. Within a few years, the bulk of sign work was feeding stock fonts into a machine that would spit out perfectly uniform stickers that any rube could slap on a window or car door. Skill and practice were no longer required. Anyone with the ability to use a word processor could go into the sign business. No longer was it a trade that required practice to develop an eye for colors and composition. There are even faux vintage templates for giving signs that ol' time hand-painted look.

But its not all doom and gloom. In the last decade or so, many younger folks have begun to appreciate the challenge and skill required to create something with their own two hands. There are more young furniture makers and neon benders now than there have been in decades. One of the old trades that is making a comeback is sign painting. Any tattoo shop or fancy bar worth its salt will opt for a hand-painted and gilded sign. Small businesses of every kind appreciate the statement a hand-painted sign makes about them. It suggests an appreciation for quality and tradition.One of the most vocal supporters of the modern sign painting culture is Colt Bowden. Colt runs Mac Sign Painting out of McMinnville, Oregon, where he uses an elderly Vandercook Press in his garage/studio to publish books on sign painting by himself and members of the Pre-Vinylite Society, as well as reprints of books by the now deceased master sign painter, Lonnie Tettaton.

Colt drives a faded red ’63 Ford Pickup that leaks a little oil and has a hole in the muffler — the roar is greatly appreciated by his kid, Fox. The old Ford can be seen throughout Northwestern Oregon as he rambles around emblazoning store fronts with loopy casual letters hocking a good cup of coffee or stern Roman type warning of a no parking zone. He can also be found all over the country with his painting kit in hand taking jobs as far flung as Salt Lake City and Brooklyn, New York. His sign painting chops have been used to decorate album covers and dust jackets of books, and we can now proudly say he has painted Hand-Eye Supply our very own pocket tee.

A couple of us here at Hand-Eye were pondering what makes the best kind of graphic tee. We decided it’s the sort of shirt you might find secondhand, advertising a business you aren't familiar with, but is basic and comfortable enough that you don't feel self-conscious wearing it for twenty years and mourn its loss when the neck seam finally gives up the ghost. The ink only needs be one color, white is fine, and the shirt should be black or gray, as this is a color anyone can wear (not to mention it will hide stains!). It should also have a pocket to stick your pens in. We tasked Colt with whipping up a timeless graphic that could find a home at a 1950s hardware store or right here on the shelves of Hand-Eye Supply.

You can grab the timeless tee here.
Snag one of Colt’s books while you’re at it.
And finally watch his talk on Portland area sign painting here.

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