In the busy and colourful Mission District of San Francisco, a chain-link fence marks the boundary of a one-acre urban farm. It’s called Little City Gardens. With its abundant rows of vegetables and a small greenhouse made of up-cycled house windows and reclaimed timber, it looks like a typical community garden. A closer inspection, however, reveals tidy hand-lettered signs and notices here and there – an irrigation schedule, a ‘no parking without permission’ sign – every letter crisply painted. No vinyl stickers, and no crudely scrawled messages from a sharpie or spray can. Clearly, this is the work of a professional. In fact, the garden is part-owned by Sign-painter Caitlyn Galloway, who learned to letter at New Bohemia Signs, and now divides her time between between wielding a brush and a garden hoe. This week, she tells us about her life as a sign-painter-gardener.
I’ve always had a fascination with handwriting and calligraphy, and without thinking too much about it, most of my doodling and drawing throughout my life incorporated letters in some way. I studied painting in college and late in my process discovered the work of Margaret Kilgallen which resonated deeply with me. It was through my excitement about her work that I was able to identify my own engrossment with hand made letters, and an appreciation for the warmth, history, and character that can be communicated through letters made obviously (or subtly) by human hands.
In 2007, I moved to San Francisco and thought I would try painting signs here and there as a way to make some additional rent money outside my gardening and farming work. At the time, I had no idea there was a rich history of sign painting in the city, and a handful of people still doing it so beautifully! I was walking around my neighborhood one day and saw a shopkeeper hanging a really incredible sign. I asked the shopkeeper who made it, and they pointed me to New Bohemia Signs. My eyes lit up, and I spent the weekend pulling together a now-embarrassing portfolio (I use that term very loosely) with markers and pens, and then went in to New Bohemia and asked Damon if he could take on another apprentice. Weekly practice sessions eventually led to steady work with the shop, which then led to six plus years of involvement in some form or another. I love that shop dearly, and the people who run it. It’s a special place.
Now I’m mostly painting signs out of my own private studio, but still help Damon at New Bohemia with monthly brush lettering classes, and join the crew there for the occasional Friday beer-o-clock to talk shop. I owe my honed skill to Damon, a superbly talented sign painter who somehow makes it all look easy, and my renewed excitement for the craft to the evolving stream of painters that flow in and out of there.
After employing many different techniques over the years at New Bohemia, now in my own practice I’m most consistently inspired by really utilitarian, simply-made signs – the kind of signs that were made without fanfare back in the days when painting letters onto a large board, or a wall, or above a store entrance was just the quickest way to label a building or communicate necessary information. The letters were simple, graceful, functional, and slightly (sometimes only barely) less than perfect. The swiftness and ease evident in a well executed, single color letter will always be just as impressive to me as the most intricately decorated, glittered and bejeweled masterpiece of a sign.
Are there other sign-writers, designers or artists who inspire your work?
Yes, so many! First and foremost, I always feel a particular adoration for my fellow lady sign painters. Candice Obayashi (a tattoo artist & sign painter), and Heather Hardison (an illustrator & sign painter) are both super talented, and are inspiring in the way they integrate sign painting with other aspects of their work. I think an interesting question many new sign painters are navigating is how to make ends meet with this craft, and how we might incorporate sign painting skills into other creative endeavors in order to keep the practice viable and relevant for ourselves. They are each combining their multifaceted talents and interests in a way that I admire.
Ashley Fundora and Pickles are some strong up and coming sign painters (currently working at New Bohemia Signs) with really graceful hands. Wow! I’m inspired to keep practicing whenever I see their razor sharp stroke terminals.
There’s also Yvette Rutledge at Mystic Blue Signs, and Norma Jeanne Maloney at Red Rider, both super talented women who have both been sign painting for a couple decades now and deserve much respect and admiration from all of us newcomers. Their portfolios are massive and their styles are honed, and they’ve managed to keep their shops running strong through the major changes the industry has seen.
And more broadly, I continue to feel inspired by sign painters who may not even consider themselves sign painters. The shopkeeper who paints their own quick sign for their window, and unwittingly adds a really brilliant loop to their O’s! Or the farmers along rural routes who paint the most charming strawberries and letters on a slab of wood using just a brush and whatever paint is on hand. Sometimes, though it’s funny to say, I actually feel a little sad that the more I train my hand in neat, tidy sign painting, the farther away I get from this kind of character that I’m always so drawn to.
There are quite a few projects I was honored to be a part of at New Bohemia – one from my early days was The Stinking Rose. I fondly remember standing on scaffolding for days on end, surface gilding the rough walls of the building til my thumbs were numb, and the wind and noisy traffic below had driven me crazy. This job doesn’t always feel glamorous in the moment! But I was proud to help implement a Damon Styer design that is now one of the most striking in the city.
I also really enjoy being able to offer my skills to friends. One of my very first signs was for a friend’s farm up in Washington, and it’s still one of my favorites because it was so appreciated. More recently I had a lot of fun painting some large menu boards for friends at Mission Pie here in SF, working with them to figure out the best flow for all the information and how to highlight certain components of the menu in a subtle way. It was a challenging collaboration, and it’s an honor to make something for someone that could potentially affect their business in a profound way.
I’ve just finished up a couple of storefront signs for an herbal apothecary here in SF, and am working on some small private commissions. I’m currently only in my studio a couple days a week as my other work keeps me very busy, so I have to limit myself to a project or two at a time. This feels like a good balance for me. I admire my peers out there who are running full time sign shops, but I think having my hands dipped into the craft on a more part time basis suits me well right now.
Have you noticed a growing interest in handcrafted signs, in recent times?
I think so! While I can’t really say how many more people are interested in buying hand painted signs, I can definitely say I’ve seen a huge swell of interest from people wanting to make hand painted signs. I currently assist Damon with his monthly classes at New Bohemia, and the excitement in the air during those classes is contagious. Sometimes it’s people wanting to get away from the computer and get their hands moving, or it’s muralists wanting to incorporate letters into their work, or it’s formally trained typography-lovers who want to learn how to break down letter forms using a new set of tools.
A few years ago, when I was working for New Bohemia, I was sent out to do some touch up on a wall job on a busy street in the city. The painting I was doing was totally unimpressive – I was using a thick fitch brush to just touch up large patches of background color around the edges of the existing design. I wasn’t even painting letters! Even still, passersby behind me would stop in their tracks and be momentarily transfixed by what I was doing. They’d pause and watch in total awe, and they’d tell me I was doing a beautiful job. It was funny, and I think that says something about people’s continual fascination with anything done by hand. In this case, people were really responding to the smooth, quiet physical motion of applying paint to the wall with a brush, even if the final outcome wasn’t anything particularly impressive. Just the tactility of the materials and the motion itself was inspiring to people.
Tell us about ‘Little City Gardens’.
My other work is with Little City Gardens, a small, one-acre urban farm I run here in San Francisco. We grow and sell vegetables, herbs, and flowers to city residents and restaurants, and we also host tours and workdays where people can see firsthand what small scale food production looks like and how it works. It’s an attempt to illustrate the benefits and challenges of commercial agriculture in the city, which then hopefully inspires dialogue about larger agricultural issues, and also to bridge the gap between what are considered appropriate urban and rural activities.
Farming and sign painting sometimes feel like two completely disparate lines of work to be in, and in some ways they balance each other out nicely (the fresh air feels great after a couple days of toxic paint fumes). But for me, they function surprisingly similarly at times. They are both creative outlets in their own ways, offering opportunities to satisfy my perfectionist tendencies, as well as constant reminders to let those tendencies go. It’s not always important to pull every single last weed out of the kale crop, just like it’s not necessary to smooth out every single minor bump in the outer edge of an O. Perfection is always an admirable goal, but there is a gracefulness in efficiency, too.