Dimitrios Klitsas, Master Woodcarver

Dimitrios Klitsas

Dimitrios Klitsas

It’s nearly six months ago now that I spoke to Dimitrios Klitsas on the phone. Dimitrios has taught woodcarving to dozens – if not hundreds – of craftspeople in New England, and he is held in high regard by anyone associated with the craft. Well-known sign-crafter and gilder, Francis Lestingi is among his many students. But where did Dimitrios learn to carve? I was interested to find out the story; hence, my lengthy phone call to Hampden, Massachusetts.
Dimitrios Klitsas

I learned to carve in Greece, my homeland. I took a four year training at a technical college under my great teacher, Angelo Moshos. At that time, a young man could learn the trade of carving. That is what I did.

I use Pfeil chisels from Switzerland, and some older chisels that I brought with me from Greece. Not knives. Knives are limited. If you know how, you can make anything with chisels and gouges, whether it’s something small or large, elaborate or rough. Whatever I do, I try to make it very very beautiful, so it would look at home in a palace. I want everything I make to be a piece of art.


Every Wednesday I do a three-hour carving class with local people who are interested. They can come back again and again. I also, three or four times a year, hold a longer carving class – a week long. People come from farther away for those classes. I’ve even had a student from Australia!

Now, some of my students are becoming very good carvers too. One young man comes every year, for thirteen years. He is a farmer in Washington state. He stays in our home, and he is very committed to learning. He even carves until late at night. Now, he has a lot of skill. It all depends on the attitude and commitment.

Handcarved Wood Ornament

Student work at one of Dimitrios’s classes (image courtesy of Anthony Hay)

At your company, you carve signs. I also carve signs sometimes, but I don’t specialise. I’m just a woodcarver. Every customer loves something different. I can’t say why. There are a million things that you could carve! Once you know how to handle a chisel and a gouge, you can carve a sign the same as you carve anything else.

Carved Wooden Sign

The economy is not great right now, but I stay busy. I just finished a five-and-a-half by four foot sign for the Maine Fish Market in Windsor. It includes a crab and a lighthouse. It took me a month and a half to make.

Maine Fish Market Carved Wooden Sign

Maine Fish Market Sign

(image courtesy of Maine Fish Market)

Now, I am sixty-five years old, and I am still learning. You can never learn everything! It says in the Bible not to bury your talents. If God gives you a talent, use it! I know how to carve wood, somebody else knows how to do something else. Keep learning and improving, even when you are old, there’s no reason to stop. Once you have a skill, you can make anything!

Steven Heller

Steven Heller

Steven Heller (image courtesy of Masters in Branding)

Both Damon Styer and Christian Cantiello mentioned his books as a source of inspiration. He has written a small library of them, and his name can be found on many a dusty bookshelf in sign shops and design studios around the world. The American Institute of Graphic Arts wrote this of him:

In this process of impossible Herculean output Heller has managed to completely chronicle the past hundred years of graphic design to such an extent and depth that his influence cannot help but be felt by every design student and practitioner everywhere in the world.

Steven Heller's Bookshelf

Steven Heller’s Bookshelf (image courtesy of A Walker in LA)

Many of his newer works have been co-authored by his wife, Louise Fili. For today’s post, Steven Heller kindly took some time to answer a few of our questions.

How and why did you first get interested in design?

I was a wanna-be cartoonist, publishing in underground papers. Design was not an issue. I learned to do paste-up and the next step was composition. Design or layout was what came next. My interest evolved as I saw what could politically be said through type and image.

Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller

Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller (image courtesy of Manuel Gomez Burns)

Do you still see design as a political tool?

It can be. Look at the first Obama campaign. Graphic design is a means, it can be a tool for anything.

Design for Obama Cover

‘Design for Obama’, a book by Steven Heller, Spike Lee and Aaron Perry-Zucker (image courtesy of Taschen)

You’ve written a lot of books about design. Is there any danger that you’ll run out of ideas?

I’ve done 168 books more or less. Ideas come easy. But I am in a niche. There are some ideas I wish I Could do, but don’t have the chops.

Design Literacy

Like what?

I’ve always wanted to do a full length feature film on the history of propaganda.

Propaganda Poster

An image from From Steven Heller’s “Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State”
(image courtesy of Studio 360)

Do you prefer designing/art directing or writing?

I prefer saying things. I loved designing until I reached my limits. I loved art direction but after 40 years I was spent. I love writing, but I’m not that good.

Typography Sketchbooks

A Page from ‘Typography Sketchbooks’ by Steven Heller and Rita Taraliko (image courtesy of Otaku)

Louise told me that she has another book on the way (Grafica della Strada), Were you involved in that one at all?

Only moral support.

Grafica della Strada

(image courtesy of Creative Bloq)

What projects are you working on currently?

A book on Edward Gorey covers, a book on “anti-design,” books on Stencil Type and Slab Serif type, book on design entrepreneurship, a book on design education, a revision of my Becoming a Graphic and Digital Designer, and a bunch of other things.

Masters Series: Steven Heller exhibition documentation

Steven’s SVA Masters Series exhibit 2007

Here in Australia, the stencil is almost an icon of rural culture, because of the stencils used on wool bales. Each farm had its own stencil, with the name of the property. Many still do. That book sounds like an interesting one.

I wish I had known. I don’t cover Australia. The book is part of the series with Scripts and Shadow Type. It’s a compilation of how faces are used as stylistic language. Lots of examples that show the roots of the style and its long running applications.

Wool Bale Stencils

Australia Wool Bale Stencils (image courtesy of Steve Swayne)

Which designers do you admire the most?

Louise, Seymour Chwast, Paula Scher, Ross MacDonald, Milton Glaser, Mirko Ilic, and dozens more.

Bread Alone Bakery Logo

Glaser’s Bread Alone Bakery Logo, branded into a loaf of bread (image courtesy of Milton Glaser)

How did you first meet Louise?

I admired her work and invited her to a book opening.

Have you noticed a resurgence of ‘craft’ in the design industry, in recent times?

Yes. I see students more interested in the hand than ever before. Its great. It will be integrated into common practice. Craft is essential.

Michael Doret Sketches

Michael Doret Sketches from Typography Sketchbooks, by Steven Heller (image courtesy of Grain Edit)

What do you think is behind this trend?

Stuff happens. Too much computer, perhaps. The need for the unique.

Do you photograph old signs on your travels?

Sometimes. But I leave that to Louise. I buy paper and artifacts for my books.

A Page from Shadow Type by Steven Heller and Louise Fili

A Page from Shadow Type by Steven Heller and Louise Fili (image courtesy of 37 E 7th St)

Steve Heller and Louise Fili Discuss Their New Book: Shadow Type from Designers & Books on Vimeo.


Golden West Sign Arts

Derek McDonald

Derek McDonald

Derek McDonald has left his mark around the Oakland area in the form of crisp, hand-painted signs on local businesses such as Siegel’s Tuxedo Shop, Temescal Alley Barbershop, and many more. Further afield, he is possibly better known as ‘The Signpainter’ from the short video Jack Daniel’s Meets The Sign Painter. Coming from a background as a veterinary technician, Derek could almost be described as a ‘neo-luddite’ (in the best sense of the term) for his computer-free approach to sign-making:

‘The computer is a tool. It’s a useful tool, just like a hammer is, just like a paintbrush, but living in the world where everybody does that, why not not do it?’ – Derek McDonald

Showcard Lettering Derek MacDonald

Derek paints a showcard.

Here are a few of Derek’s thoughts about his own work, at his shop (Golden West Sign Arts) and the future of hand-lettered signs in general:

I got into sign painting through a general interest in car pinstriping. I soon found that often the two are closely related and the same paint is used, et cetera. My first sign person I looked up to was Jimmy The Saint of San Francisco, California. He had some work around my neighborhood in Oakland and I was – and still am – amazed at a really nice script he did on a transom. It really got me excited about learning to letter. That was in 2004.

Silver-Leafed Transom

A Silver-Leafed Transom Window, by Derek

How did ‘Jack Daniels meets the Sign Painter’ come about?

We got an email from the ad agency doing the ad campaign for them [Arnold Worldwide]. They simply asked if I would be interested in designing and painting some stuff and having a little short film made to show the process. Of course we felt – and still feel – extremely lucky to have had that opportunity and I can say that it was certainly a blast even though not something I was used to being involved in. It was a total coincidence but a friend of mine in Los Angeles who makes music for film [Neil Cleary] was the guy who got hired to compose this song playing in the background so that made it even more cool!


Derek’s little hand-lettered sign transformed into a billboard in Los Angeles

The shop here works just like any old school general sign shop, I suppose. I am happy to reproduce logos if they are within reason to be painted by hand or I’m happy to draw up my own patterns and layouts. If I lived in a dream world all the customers would let me make everything look a certain way but I know that that is not being realistic at all if you expect to pay the bills doing this full time.

Derek MacDonald

I think that’s a big difference with trying to be a ‘general’ or commercial sign painter versus using sign painting techniques in your art. If you’re doing it as a pure art then you get to do whatever you want, use whatever colors, do the craziest letter styles, et cetera, and in the sign painting in a commercial sense your main goal is to give the customer something that fits their business and most importantly it needs to read well. It’s art that is functional. But it needs to be functional before it’s art. If it’s just art and not functional (doesn’t read well) then we’re not doing our job. Luckily for the past couple years we’ve had a steady flow of jobs and haven’t needed to do any advertising other than posting pictures on our website etc. Although we have a street shop on a main avenue, the majority of our customers contact us via email and then we might meet later to go over designs, colors, et cetera.

Golden West Sign Arts

Inside & Outside the Shop (image courtesy of Christina Richards)

I enjoy so much of what I get to do. That’s not to say there isn’t any stress, haha! I think I just enjoy the fact that this craft is a constant lesson. As long as you have the ambition there is always plenty to improve upon. I like doing loose work like paper banners and show cards but I like the end result of a nicely done gilded window. I equally enjoy setting up my scaffolding and doing walls. So, it’s hard to say. I think I’m happy I don’t have to do the same thing over and over. It’s a variety of types of jobs and the techniques change a little with each one.

Hand-painted Paper Banner

A Freshly-painted Paper Banner

What’s in the shop right now?

Let’s see…I just finished a small showcard for a vintage clothing store in San Francisco. I just finished lettering a motorcycle tank for a guy in New York. It is engine-turned gold leaf, with black outline and shade. I’ll be starting six A-frame signs for a small chain of butcher shops called Belcampo Meat Co. We have quite a few little signs to make for a circus. Coming up shortly I will be gilding a large carved inscription in a mausoleum for the Family of the Borax Mining Company. There’s more, but those are the ones I need to get going on in the next week or so.

Belcampo Sign

Hand-Lettered Trampoline

It seems handcrafted signage is becoming more of a commonly known thing. It’s good that customers are more aware of it. I just wish we had mentor or apprenticeship programs here in the U.S., or more ways for younger people to learn the traditions and the written and unwritten rules. If we have a whole new generation of sign painters out there skipping the fundamentals it may not be such a pretty sight, haha! Seems like a lot of workshops are popping up here and there. Some are being offered by amazing professionals and some are being offered by people who just picked up a brush six months ago themselves…haha! Be careful out there!

Derek McDonald & Mike Meyer

Derek McDonald with veteran Sign-Painter Mike Meyer

My all time idol is E.C. Mathews. I look through his books and really try to soak in that era of layout and design. Of course, I don’t come close to his awesomeness in the least bit but I do go to him for inspiration. Also the letter styles of Alf Becker, his letters work well for show cards, board signs or gold leaf on a bank window – timeless.

E.C. Matthews

A Page from ‘The Sign Painting Course’ by E.C. Matthews (image courtesy of Public Collectors)

I just really love the 1930s, 1940s and the early 1950’s stuff. I love good classic storefront window layouts and good old classic truck door layouts! It’s the stuff I feel most connected to for some reason. Not the overly elaborate filigree, scroll filled stuff, even though its a nice look too, but I just love the simplicity and efficacy of the more streamlined stuff; a simple thick-and-thin letter style with a nice personalized loose script and some good shades and shadows in the right colors will blow most stuff away. I myself am no master and have a life’s work ahead of me, but I do try to stick close to the masters I look up to as far as how to approach a sign. I think Pierre Tardif in Canada is a living example of the previous guys I mentioned above. If you look at his work it is clean, simple, loose and professional all at the same time. It always does its job as a sign in that it reads well. He usually sticks with the basic four: Egyptian (block), Thick and Thin, Script and Casual….and it works beautifully! He is my favorite living sign painter by far. The work he does is what I wish my work would look like.

Pierre Tardif

Pierre Tardif (image courtesy of Pierre Tardif)

To end with, here’s a short video about Golden West:

Gibbs Connors

Gibbs Connors

Gibbs Connors (image courtesy of Aaron Igler, Greenhouse Media)

Today we catch up with sign-painter & VW bus collector, Gibbs Connors. From an industrial former garage in Philadelphia, Gibbs travels the country like a modern-day traveling-sign-man, putting paint on walls and gold on windows.

I got into sign painting in 1986. I had finished college and was working as a laborer for a high school buddie’s construction company. We were finishing a project when I saw this ‘old guy’, who, when I do the math was about the same age as I am now. I can remember watching him work, he had laid down the black outlines first and was stippling in the colours on the letters so they looked like the stained glass lamps that the store sold. I stood there and watched almost in disbelief and certainly amazement at how the paint flowed off the brush and how clean and straight the outline work was. I wanted to talk to him, I know he knew I was there but I didn’t want to bother him. We spoke briefly, he handed me his card. ‘JOHN DALY SIGN PAINTER’. I went by his shop, showed him my portfolio from art school. He patiently watched me flip through the work I had done and said, ‘I don’t know anything about art but if you can draw and paint like that, you can paint signs…frankly I think you’d be selling yourself short but you could do it’. I asked him how to go about getting work. His response was, ‘It couldn’t be easier…just walk down the street and look for businesses that are opening…or someone who needs a new sign….or someone who you think could be use a better sign”. My response was “Yeah? Then what?’. He told me to give them a price, get a deposit and go over to Paragon Paint, buy a brush and a couple of cans of paint “and you’re in business”. So I did. Not much time later I was in the window of a storefront painting ‘CHINA PAGODA’ on the glass, just like I saw the old guy doing!

China Pagoda Philadelphia

Gibbs’s First Lettering Job

Gibbs Connors & John Daly

Gibbs Connors & John Daly

Last year was an incredible year as far as projects. I was working in Los Angeles at LAX painting a mural for Starbucks. I was working in Chicago for a long time client ‘La Colombe‘ gilding a window, I was working in Washington, DC doing a bunch of gold work, lettering and striping for a fancy restaurant ‘Le Diplomate‘…one of my favourite and probably one of my best projects to date was for ‘Kermit’s Bake Shoppe‘ right here in Philadelphia about ten blocks from my shop. The project is a wall painting project (hard to call it a mural) but it’s designed to look like a vintage wall paper pattern. Aside from the logo in the middle of it, it’s my layout, color selections and design. It measures about twenty-five feet high by fifty feet long and was painted in two days by me and my assistant, Bill Sanders. I made two patterns and planned it out on the wall so those two patterns are stacked alternately and repeat like a true wall paper pattern. It gives the design structure and your eye connects the repeats almost subconsciously to make the eye flow through and explore the pattern.

La Colombe Window

Gibbs works on the La Colombe Window

La Colombe Van

La Colombe Coffee Van

Kermit's Bake Shop

At the moment, I have a wall lined up for ‘La Colombe’ as well as some gold work. I have a wall lined up for a plumber who saw the Kermit’s job. There are a couple brew pubs that want ‘ghost signs’ painted on their facades. I’m also doing the graphics for a Cezanne show at The Barnes Foundation here in Philadelphia.

Faux Ghostsign

Bill Sanders paints a Faux Ghostsign

The work seems to go in phases and I’ll do almost anything if I think I can do it successfully. Being a ‘sign-painter’ involves a whole lot more that lettering enamel. One of my old sign painting books by Heberling even shows you how to tie knots! Lately I’ve been really focusing on upping my game in the world of gilding. It’s something I have always done. Right out of the gate on that ‘China Pagoda’ job I wanted to gild. I learned eventually by making myself a gold leaf sample box showing a bunch of different types of techniques, mirror, matte, two tone, mirror with a damar center and so on. Now I’m doing chipping, gold blending, trying different carats, more typefaces. I’ve done about thirty of them in the past few weeks. This is after having the opportunity to take a glass sign workshop with Roderick Treece in Encinitas, California back in February of this year. That really unleashed this monster in me that I can’t, and don’t try to contain.

Gilded Glass Samples

Gibbs’s Gilded Glass Samples

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1989 there were a few guys around still painting signs. Occasionally over the years I’d see signs that local art student had done. They were good but I could tell that they weren’t done by a sign painter. How? The lettering was the worst part and they lacked layout. Or maybe I’d see one that was done by a graphic designer. Maybe the designer painted the sign for some extra money at the end of the project. The sign would be a decent design but the brushwork and paint application was lacking. Now here in Philadelphia there are some young-timers coming up that are very talented. I was driving around one day and saw this great hand painted sign and thought ‘Who did that!?’ Then I saw a gold job one day. I could tell it wasn’t by the other person in Philly that does gold… hmmm, what’s going on here!?. I knew something was up. I was getting a lot of calls for people wanting apprenticeships, so I started getting the people together at my shop for sign painter solidarity meetings, kind of like a guild or trade group. We’d talk some technique but more-so solidarity among ourselves. Namely ‘the code’ that the old-timers that I know would talk about. It happens to all of us from time to time where you really need the work. Situations arise. I like to think long term and never ‘mow another guys lawn’ over a project. If someone calls me on a job and I know one of the other guys work for them, I’ll call the other sign painter and let them know so they don’t think I’m poaching their clients. That’s important because that stuff can get ugly.

Moriarty's Pub Philadelphia

Sculpted & Gilded Letters for Moriarty’s Pub

There are a lot of fresh faces out there doing incredible work. Work like I’ve never seen before. I think certainly the New Bohemia crew and the folks that came up through Damon Styer’s tutelage are second to none. I had the opportunity to stop by LA Trade Tech this past February to do a little guest lecture spot. The Young folks there are absolutely killing it. On an earlier trip to California I met Derek Mcdonald. Derek is incredibly talented. He’s the true definition of a sign painter plus, like me he’s self taught. I met a whole bunch of guys at a ‘Conclave‘ in February, Holy Smokes! Gregg Heger, Sean Glaspy, “Coolhand Ken” Davis, certainly Colt Bowden is a tremendous contributor to the efforts with ‘How to Paint Signs and Influence People‘ , Steve Vigeant‘s work really impressed me, Roderick Treece is absolutely incredible, Sean Starr has an amazing understanding of what’s happening and has been in it forever, James Thomas is a young-timer that’s made tremendous strides. Let’s not forget Dave Smith, Will Lynes and Nathan Pickering…I could go on and on.

Derek MacDonald

Derek MacDonald (image courtesy of Golden West Sign Arts)

Locally in Philadelphia, my old buddy Harry Lowe has been painting signs since he was about 10 years old. He is ‘a natural’ the likes I have never seen. With me the tradition continues, from the guy that got me into sign painting, John Daly, to those that came before him and who he learned from, John Snyder, to the people coming up that I can pass it on to, Bill Sanders, Chriss Russo, Christian Cantiello, Darin Rowland, Jaime Cartagena… these are folks that have only been painting signs a couple years and are coming at it with ‘the fire’.

You collect VW buses. How did that start?

I can’t say exactly how or why but it is the obsession of obsessions. The Japanese use the word ‘Hotaku’ to describe this. There is no end to it. I heard this interview with Bob Dylan one time. He was asked about what the song ‘Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ was about. He said he couldn’t begin to explain. He did say that a book could be written about each line in the song, for instance ‘What have you done my blue eyed son?’ Well that’s about John F. Kennedy and many books have been written about him. It’s the same way with me and Volkswagen buses. If I see a part I hadn’t noticed before or an accessory I don’t own, it opens the door on a new chapter of collecting. I’m a freak about roof racks. Nearly every bus I own has one on it. There are more hanging on the walls. I’d buy more buses to put those roof racks on, but I don’t have the room for more. Then I decide from time to time that it’s ridiculous to have all these buses. I decide to unload some… but which ones? They all have their story and fit in my collection. This is nearly thirty years of collecting. So now I am facing all theses quandaries I’ve created for myself. What happens? I end up buying another! Mental!  I guess it started when I was a kid, before I can remember really but I had a yellow beetle Tonka toy that was my favorite toy.  When it was time to drive, even though I was long since done playing with that Tonka toy, I had to have a yellow VW Beetle as my first car. In fact, my second car was a yellow VW Beetle too. Somewhere along the way the buses came into my life. Then more buses, then different models of buses. My first was a “single cab”, after that I think I got a twenty-one-window, then a twenty-three-window, then who knows. I bet I’ve owned seventy or so buses by now, I usually have ten to fifteen at any one time as well as Porsche or two, a couple Beetles, a Syncro DOKA and some daily driver late model cars.

Gibbs Connors

Gibbs with his vans (image courtesy of Kyle Kielinski)

Have you noticed a growing interest in handcrafted signs, in recent times?

Yes, definitely! I’m not sure why the growing interest is there but it’s certainly a great time to be a sign-painter. I’m going to guess and say that ‘The Sign Painters Movie‘ had a fair amount to do with that, though most people I’ve talked to outside the trade haven’t heard of it. I’ve heard people call sign painting ‘a lost art’. I call it ‘a living history trade’. The way sign painters do things now is much the same way it was done one-hundred years ago except most of us have a computer that we use one way or another. Speaking of the computer, I think of and use the computer as a tool, just like any other tool in my shop. It has a purpose. The main purpose I use it for is making paper patterns. I’ll scale up a design on the computer, whether it’s a client’s logo or something I’ve drawn by hand and scanned in.  The plotter draws out the pattern with a pen, then I’ll perforate it with the electro-pounce. Occasionally I’ll cut vinyl letters for body copy in some of the exhibit work I do in museums. I still prefer and always recommend that we vertical screen print in museum spaces. Vinyl letters on walls can’t come close to the quality of the vertical screen printing. I’ve always said that sign painting has been under-appreciated, overly scrutinized and often disregarded. It’s lived in the shadows of whatever new computers can do, cutting faster, routing, laser, water-jet and digital printing. Computers undeniably do ‘perfect work’. The problem with the ‘perfect work”‘ is that it lacks the character that hand painted work has. The computer also has some very defined limits. It can’t do water-gilding for example. Now the clients are starting to get it. A restaurant for example will market itself as ‘organic’ and ‘farm to table’. They name the farm that raised the beef they serve, where the mushrooms were grown. Hell, I’ve even seen ‘artisanal marshmallows’ on a menu in a restaurant. Nostalgia is a powerful drug and smart marketers know it.  It all looks like a hoax if they hang a vinyl banner across their front window that says ‘LUNCH SPECIAL’. Instead, they want a hand lettered menu board that’s aged to look like it’s been there since 1954 and a hand drawn chalkboard with their lunch specials. I think it’s all about an inverse reaction to technology.  You want the new iPhone? Cool! I wanna find Al Imelli’s ‘Alphabet’s and Letters’!

Gibbs has a website and an extensive Instagram page. Take a look.

Linsi Braith: Some Musings on the Past & Present of Australia’s Sign Industry

Linsi Braith

Linsi Braith

A sign-painter from the 1950’s would surely be baffled by the equipment and terminology of today’s sign-shops, just as many of today’s digital sign-makers would feel useless in a mid-century shop. The trade, here in Australia – as in other developed counties – has changed so drastically that it’s barely recognisable.

Linsi Braith was witness to all this. Today, as a semi-retired sign-painter, she volunteers her time and skills at Katoomba’s Paragon Cafe (the oldest cafe in Australia). Besides that, she loves to document the old handmade signs that can still be found in the streets and shops of the Blue Mountains area. In today’s post, Linsi reflects on the past and present of sign-making:

I was into lettering early. Colour TV and Hollywood had something to do with it. I remember being fascinated by fancy movie title lettering; Pirates, Robin Hood, Sinbad, Cowboys and Indians Disney movies and cartoons of course. There was also the occasional colourful Circus visiting our suburb and the annual Royal Easter Show. I remember the early paper sample-bags with tiny replica goods exactly like the real product in the shops. It wasn’t a family or school influence. An attraction to lettering was just always there. Can skill be in the DNA? There were some fine craftsmen amongst our ancestors.

Royal Easter Show Poster

Royal Easter Show Poster (image Courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery)

When I was young, I loved doing school projects where I would put together the story of sugar, iron or The Great Barrier Reef. This was required to be a poster on a sheet of thin cardboard, purchased at the Newsagent. It required writing points of knowledge, drawing and colouring things and sticking on any paraphernalia I had gathered about the topic. I loved making things.

I also relished making my school exercise books neat, covering them accurately with paper and drawing ornate labels on them… Math, English, Science, Home Economics. I remember being taken to see the brand new Roselands Shopping Center and its tall Raindrop Fountain, also the new Bankstown Square at night with endless corridors of bright shops. I kept scrapbooks of illustrations cut from Mum’s magazines. I painted large posters copied from these and some 1960’s LP record covers in my older brothers growing collection.

Roselands Shopping Centre, 1966

Roselands Shopping Centre, 1966 (image courtesy of Glen H)

I liked making things (Dad had a shed full of tools) but my drawing and construction talents were generally disregarded by adults in control and simply did not fit in with the streaming of most schoolgirls into a life of shop assistant, nurse, secretary, or bank clerk. If you were very bright, teaching might have been encouraged, but only work was discussed in my family, not University. That just wasn’t a family tradition or aspiration.

Fortunately in those days, one could get a job, rent a flat, choose from a wide variety of affordable evening classes at the local Tech, gain qualifications and so make one’s way into or through a career. I found a ‘Showcard- & Ticket-writing’ course at my nearby Technical College: 6pm to 9pm, two nights per week for three years, the final six months included screen-printing. It was in nearly every college across the state, a very popular course and I loved it too. I have a crystal clear memory of my teacher demonstrating Old English with nib and ink and putting a quick red shade on it. I think that particular moment was the dawning of an awareness that I could learn all of that wonderful fancy lettering I’d seen. I loved the ways of varying block lettering and putting decorative shading against it. I struggled with a flowing freestyle script because I had not learned a cursive handwriting at school. I only printed, and only in capitals.

Lettering Design by Eric Roberts

A page from ‘Lettering Design’ by Eric Roberts

I loved learning about colour, loved painting tint and shade charts and colour wheels. I still have most of my practice from that course. Other courses such as Fine Art and Graphic Art each had a shorter very good hand lettering subject at that time. Sign-writing was available in only a few colleges.

Journeyman Signpainter Letters

Some of Linsi’s Class Work

Before the three years were up I was working as a full-time Ticket-writer in one of Sydney’s large stores, and soon stepped up to an even better job with a team of ticket-writers in a department store. My showcard and ticket-writing course was immediately followed by the two-year part time sign-writing journeyman’s course at Sydney Technical College in Mary Anne Street, Ultimo. I was one of two females in the class, the other one dropped out and I was alone for a while but I think two or three females enrolled the following year and I was very pleased to see this happen.

Sydney Technical College, Ultimo

Sydney Technical College (now the Sydney Institute of TAFE), Ultimo (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

In sign-writing, I loved the larger and more accurate drawing up of lettering and layouts. I loved the slower enamel paints, long hair brushes and working with a mahlstick. I learned to paint on glass, make a decal and use gold leaf. The department store had a large display section that included screen printing and ticket-writing. I was eventually doing a wide variety of hand work; small tickets, window showcards, large department signs, and finished artwork for the screen-printing section where stencils were hand cut from it. I still have some of that fine art work and guess it needs to be given to an archive one day! More type setting machines were purchased, other early price ticket printing processes were being investigated and computerisation occasionally got a mention. The ticket-writing team reduced and obviously I had caught just the tail end of that era.

Sho-Card Layouts

A Page from ‘Sho-Card Layouts’ by W.L. Mitchell

There followed another step as I became a teacher of show-card and ticket-writing – a long journey that saw many changes to the industry of ticket-writing, window-dressing and sign-writing in New South Wales.

Apprenticeship enrollments in sign-writing plummeted as computer-aided sign production swept in, and franchised small businesses producing fast vinyl signage popped up. Education departments were demanded to show cost savings.

The style of education changed. ‘Modules’, ‘projects’ and ‘units of competency’ arrived. Vocational education course fees increased. Teaching sections were pressured to run very lean and even at a profit by offering ‘fee for service’ courses. ‘The Budget’ became the focus in vocational education and there were cascades of tedious meetings and discussions. Hand-lettering subjects vanished within the other art courses and any small or fading courses were targeted to be chopped out altogether. To reduce risk of losing the sign-writing course, the ticket-writing and sign-writing courses were merged and became ‘Sign Craft’, thus showing up as a larger body of students on the razor gang’s printout of state-wide statistics. It was high time for change anyway, so within this new Sign Craft course, computer signage was added. Also, the many topics of both old courses were carved up into new, separate, very thin slices, with precise delivery hours and a brutal ‘competent’ or ‘not competent’ marking system.

The sign industry demands came first in the carve-up, with some obvious struggle between the old and new guard. The fancy new equipment was slow to be obtained by colleges with a budget too tight to keep up with the evolving industry. ‘Sign Craft’ was a course of mix and match ‘units’. Employers and students could select what they needed and this was often not hand-drawing and painting of lettering. Eventually, when sign-painting fully gave way to computers, the course changed again and became ‘Signage’. A few of the old hand skills once learned and practiced over three years were now being attempted in a few hours and then ticked off the competency list. I think I experienced the tail end of another era. No doubt it will all change again and ‘signs’ will become only a single short unit amongst a broad range of mix-and-match ‘design’ training options.

What’s your connection with The Paragon Cafe, in Katoomba?

Firstly, I love old things and old places – the towns, buildings and shops, the awnings, windows, tiles, colour, the overall architecture – just the feel and look of old rather than new. Old is interesting and I don’t want to see it demolished and replaced by identical rows of chain stores, where you can hardly tell the difference between one suburb or one town and the next; same branding, same goods, same fast food, same-same-same-plastic-glass-concrete-metal and same awful large signage everywhere! There is too much sameness happening and – in my opinion – not enough protection or restoration of Australian heritage towns such as those through The Blue Mountains region of New South Wales.

Katoomba Street, circa 1940

Katoomba Street, circa 1940. Note the Paragon Cafe. (image courtesy of Blue Mountains City Library, Local Studies Collection)

For many years as I witnessed the ticket-writing and sign-painting industry vanish, I imagined that when I retired, I would try to find just one old nearby shop that needed an old hand like me and I would just volunteer to do as much as they wanted. Well, I retired slightly early due to hearing loss and sometime afterward received numerous hints that The Paragon Cafe in Katoomba needed me. I now help the owner with visual merchandising in general. In particular, I provide a variety of hand-painted things to boost the feel and awareness of the cafe’s history. I’m just helping by putting some good old fashioned lettering around.

Paragon Cafe Window

The Paragon Cafe, with window full of Linsi’s signs

The Paragon building is from 1909. The Paragon Cafe was opened in 1916 and has remained fairly unchanged since Zac Simos gave it a series of significant art deco makeovers, during the next three decades. As other old Greek cafes were modernized, (including the nearby Niagara unfortunately) the Paragon remained largely untouched inside and out. The Simos family sold it in 2000 and during the occupation by a couple of odd lessees, it’s contents and reputation severely shrank. A new owner since 2011 is putting the love back, The Paragon was recently described as ‘the quintessential Greek cafe’. Efforts to save and protect it are strengthening and it’s gaining fresh attention from the National Trust.

'The Paragon stands alone.'

‘The Paragon stands alone.’

For those blog readers not familiar with your area, could you tell a bit about the Katoomba area?

Katoomba is surrounded by the spectacular landscape and forests of The Blue Mountains National Park which in turn sits high up along the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales. At 3,337 feet above sea level, snow often fell here in winters past. In the 1920’s and 30’s, it became a famous holiday destination for restorative clean healthy air, sightseeing and outdoor activity and a razzmatazz town night life.


Photos by Harry Phillips & Louise Bishop (courtesy of Louise Bishop)

It remains popular for the first two reasons. It is three hours west of Sydney by car and is probably best known for The Three Sisters rock formation that sits just south of the town. Some tourists often stay a night or two and explore the town as well as the surrounds, but bus loads of day tourists are funneled to Echo Point for the view, then to Scenic World nearby for a ride, and they don’t come into the town itself. Some town tourists have actually asked ‘Why is this place promoted as a tourist destination?’. I guess they see the lichen-spotted cracked facades, the faded peeling paint, empty shops, offbeat cafe fronts pasted with ragged notes and odd stickers…they see the general grubbiness and, of course, that everything shuts at 5:00 PM.

Faded Lettering on a Katoomba Window

Faded Lettering on a Katoomba Window

On the other hand, many people – both locals and tourists – see Katoomba as a vintage town that is quaint and I think that’s its future. That vintage quaintness should be worked on. If I had a magic wand, I would bestow Blue Mountains City Council with a debt write off, appropriate funds and much better influence over Katoomba’s landlords. I would bring a spectacular renaissance to Katoomba where its many art nouveau and art deco features were highlighted and the old style resort nature of the place was wonderfully polished up. I would create a new, dynamic night life with Theater, Music, Dance and Penny Arcades of course!

Recently, a new Blue Mountains Cultural Center was opened, but the sameness is arriving by way of Coles, Big W, Target, Liquorland, Dan Murphy’s, et cetera.

Art Deco Facade

One of Katoomba’s Art Deco Facades

At least Katoomba Street has not been destroyed for such big shops, but McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC Gloria Jeans and Wendy’s are yet to infiltrate. There are a number of nearby villages that retain a charming ambiance. Blackheath is lovely, a little higher and colder than Katoomba. Leura sits just to the east of Katoomba and, in my opinion, has succumbed to tourist madness. The ‘sameness’ is inspected and purchased . The traditional street-scape is being ruined by those ugly digital prints along the awnings.

The Victory Theatre, Blackheath

The Victory Theatre, Blackheath (image courtesy of Sandra Arrell)

When did you start taking pictures of ghost-signs & vintage lettering?

I enjoy looking at old packaging, posters & signs and I purchase lots of books about them. I started taking photographs of hand-painted signs decades ago, partly because they are all so unique, with their own place and time and character. Knowing how to paint by hand myself, I would ponder the age, the thought, the time and effort behind the result. I would admire the workmanship and wonder about who painted it – things most people don’t pause and admire, because signs are just the background wallpaper as they move through their busy days. I am a pain to travel with!

Dimensional Letters in Berry, New South Wales

Dimensional Letters in Berry, New South Wales, photographed by Linsi

As I saw vinyl and digital signs creeping in like a slow virus I also realized that ‘hand-painted’ was disappearing under a layer of sameness of fonts, colour and often awful layout design. I realized that many negative changes were happening.There was little effort to design traditional-looking signs, perhaps partly because layering and aligning vinyl is time-consuming and costly, perhaps partly because inexperienced people were diving into the business.

I saw large, raw-edged sheets of tin and aluminium being glued onto walls, the traditional shop verandah fascia obliterated with huge strips pop-riveted on…again often with bad choices of font and colour.

Peeling Vinyl Letters

Peeling Vinyl Letters

I didn’t realize I had some photos of ‘ghost-signs’ until the word and the worldwide enthusiasm for them emerged, and then I started to look more carefully for them while looking for ‘hand-painted’ in general. I became a bigger pain to travel with!

A Ghost Sign at Hill End

A Ghost Sign at Hill End

Are you in touch with any modern-day sign- or lettering-artists?

I haven’t connected with many like-minded lettering enthusiasts lately. There aren’t a lot nearby, but there are a few arts groups I could mix with if I tried. I’m often tempted to stimulate the local possibilities for young and old people to enjoy hand lettering skills together. It tugs at me because I know it’s such an enjoyable and rewarding skill. I’ve got the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment for when I do decide to start teaching. This quote by Gerard Siero is a favorite of mine: ‘There is a body experience to reading, writing, making and drawing that cannot be experienced via electronic media, no matter how good the programs. This body experience is an essential aspect of the learning experience and the development of the mind, skills and unique abilities of each person.’

Sign in Process

One of Linsi’s Signs in Process

Katoomba Sign

The finished Work

I’m very happy to see a new growing interest in hand-lettering and sign-painting across the world. A close-by example is the workshops run at Pocket Design in Newcastle. The popularity of these courses clearly shows that people love sign painting. And of course ‘The Pre-Vinylite Society‘ and ‘The Sign Painters‘ book and movie! How fantastic! I do keep tabs on quite a few typography and lettering points on the web but hate that what feels like twenty minutes on the computer has really been one-hundred-and-twenty minutes of my precious time!

Brett Piva at Work

Brett Piva at Work (image courtesy of Pocket Design)

There are many anonymous artists who produced early Australian labels, packaging, logos and other commercial symbols. Just how many of them were sign painters? Their work presented the business, the brand became recognized and sometimes famous like ‘Arnott’s Biscuits’ or ‘Bushell’s Tea’, but the name of the specific person who actually made the design was lost. They inspire me. So firstly, I’ll honour them with a ‘Thankyou’!

Arnott's Biscuits Ghost Sign

An ‘Arnott’s Biscuits’ Ghost Sign in Portland, New South Wales

For example, I only recently discovered that the person who painted the blue-and-gold signs on the front of the Paragon Cafe, was Richard Beresford Mills, (also known as ‘Berry Mills’) I then found his daughter and we talked. I value the knowledge of him, as here I am in 2014 respecting his work because it’s hand done, good, still right there on the shopfront and a very real part of The Paragon’s history and fame. His work has become precious and protected, his name needs to be included in the history of the place. Presently he is inspiring me. I am taking his design and colour into serious consideration as I paint a new under-awning sign.

Paragon Cafe Sign

One of the Original Paragon Cafe Signs, by Berry Mills

There are many whom I admire. Most certainly the commercial artists who produced the beautiful Australian travel posters, like James Northfield and Percy Trompf. There’s Harold Freedman and Eileen Mayo, there are so many people! There are many famous painters whose work is inspirational: Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Grace Cossington Smith and most Australian artists who use very strong line and colour. I’ll add Reg Mombassa and Martin Sharp. Then I could swing to Mike Stevens, or ponder the beautiful legacy of J. C. Leyendecker and Patrick Nagel. My inspirational books include ‘Lettering Design’ by Eric Roberts, a couple by F.H. And G.W. Atkinson, ‘Symbols Signs Letters‘ by Martin Andersch, & the ‘Great Australian Book of Nostalgia‘ by John Larkins and Bruce Howard, to mention only a few.

Reg Mombassa Poster

A Poster by Reg Mombassa (image courtesy of Reg Mombassa)

What’s next?

Next? Well I’ll be lugging the camera everywhere as usual. I have numerous books of sign and typography ‘collections’ but making my own hasn’t tugged at me yet. I’ll continue to paint things for The Paragon Cafe, build my personal collection of signs just as a hobby and post a few things on Facebook that people might find interesting. I’m sometimes tempted to video as I work and upload the result to YouTube, but that would be time consuming. My friends encourage me to do more with my reproductions, other than decorate my home and give them away, but copyright law applies to some of them. So next is just continuing to love, enjoy and explore the art of lettering.

Here are a few more of Linsi’s photos:

Albion Hotel Sign



Metal Letters

Erskineville Hotel

And, yes, even some of our own handiwork has made it into the collection:

Treasured Teapot Sign

Sofala Public School Sign

St Christophers Church Sign

Thankyou Linsi!

Keystone Sign & Company

Christian Cantiello

Christian Cantiello describes himself as ‘a full-time, self-taught sign-painter from Philadelphia.’ He is also one of the sign-painters featured in Colt Bowden‘s How to Paint Signs and Influence People, Vol. 3 – which is how we first found out about him and his Keystone Sign & Company. Although he’s only been a serious sign-painter for the past two years, Christian is a passionate advocate of traditional hand-lettering. But, enough said, let’s hear from the man himself:

I studied graphic design in college and also took classes from everything from screen printing to photography and figure drawing to air brush classes. I’ve always been attracted to letters from a young age and enjoyed looking at and writing graffiti as a teenager. Graphic design, for me, was never a way to really pay the bills. The field is so competitive, I never held a full-time design job and was only doing freelance here and there while bar-tending to support myself. Ever since I first became aware of sign painting as a trade and a craft I thought it was something that I could do well. It appealed to me because it was a way to be creative and express myself and at the same time I could study an old craft, help people or businesses get a point across and to make money. I know it’s been said a lot before but the fact that you can study for a lifetime and still never learn it also was appealing. Always something new to learn and challenge myself with. I starting sign painting about three to four years ago but only got serious about two years ago. Last July I quit my job as a bar-tender and have been sign painting full time for almost one year now. It’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I feel so lucky that I am now able to support myself and pay my bills as a sign-painter. It’s truly a dream come true.

Christian Cantiello Promo Badge

I love participating in art shows. It really gives me a chance to try something new or something I’ve been thinking about doing but haven’t had the opportunity to do for a client. All of the work on my site under the “shows” page was done for particular sign/art shows, everything else was done for clients. I’d say it’s probably split about 80 percent vs. 20 percent client work compared to self initiated.

Virtue Script by Christian Cantiello

A piece Christian painted for an art show called ‘Its Virtue is Immense’ (image courtesy of Best Dressed Signs)

Gibbs Connors and Darren Rowland are both good friends of mine and great at what they do. Gibbs has been a great resource and source of inspiration for me. His shop is only a short walk from my house/studio so that is great for me. He’s been so kind to answer any question I have or let me come by to use his electro-pounce. Most recently I borrowed a twelve-foot A-frame ladder from him that made a job go so much smoother than it would have without it. Darren and I met a little over a year ago. I was hired to paint an exterior of a new store (Jinxed) and the owner had known Darren for some time and asked if I would like a hand with the job. I said yes and he introduced me to Darren. Since then we’ve worked on quite a few jobs together. We both pretty much work alone but if there is a job that requires more than one painter that Darren is my go-to guy and vice-versa.

Gibbs Connors's Studio

Gibbs Connors’s Studio

Jinxed Philadelphia

Christian and Darren paint a sign at Jinxed.

I enjoy doing all types of work but sign painting is definitely my favorite. When I was making my old website I kinda wanted to be able to advertise a bunch of stuff that I could do. After doing that for a while I decided that I really wanted to concentrate mainly on sign painting and promote myself as just a sign-painter. I still do a lot of designing on the computer like when a client wants a sign but doesn’t have a design. I will usually start with a round of sketches and refine them and they usually end up in the computer being vectorized or something. I don’t enjoy working on the computer nearly as much as I do with a pencil or a paint brush. Something about clicking the mouse or choosing filters in Photoshop and Illustrator isn’t nearly as gratifying as pulling a line of paint with a brush. Especially knowing that it’s been done the same way for over one hundred years. It’s great to be able to be a part of that history and keep those techniques alive. Gibbs calls sign painting “blue collar graphic design” and I totally agree. The touch of the human hand in painting is so much nicer that a printed out font. No matter how nice the font is, it never has that human feel.

Christian's Drawing Table

Christian’s Drawing Table

I enjoy almost all of the sign painting jobs that come around. I do love being able to create a design from scratch and then make it come alive on a wall or something. And when the client is happy it makes it even that much better. Sometimes a generic design or a boring font isn’t the most fun to paint but in my opinion it still beats anything else I would be doing.

Lettering Brushes

Right now I’m working on a few jobs. The spring has been off to a great start for me and my new company. I just received a sign blank in the mail that I will be finishing up today. I was contacted by Bailey Robinson (a tattooer based out of Brooklyn) who asked if I would paint a sign for his parents property in Daphne Alabama. I was told the original sign was from 1910 and has been on the property ever since. It’s a black metal sign cut into a shape of a scroll. The previous lettering was rusted so bad that you couldn’t read it. It was sandblasted and re-coated with black paint. I felt really privileged to get a project like this and be apart of that history. I can only hope that my lettering will remain on it years after I’m gone and that another sign-painter will get to repaint it another 100 years from now.

The Sign for Bailey Robinson

The Sign for Bailey Robinson

I’m also currently working on a logo and sign for a reclaimed timber yard which has pieces of wood that are from all over the country and some dating back to over 100 years ago so that is really exciting as well. I love the old aesthetic of these job and am really happy that these people are seeking me out to do this kind of work. I am constantly looking at other artist’s work and nowadays with the internet and Instagram you can spend forever just looking at stuff. I think these resources are great for networking and pulling inspiration. It’s hard to just name a few people who I like because there really are so many out there. The two most recent books from Steven Heller and Louise Fili are amazing and jam packed with tons of inspiration. David Smith is a beast and in my opinion probably the best glass artist alive today. Right up there with him is Roderick Treece. I love the look of Dave Gunning‘s paper signs. He makes everything look so easy and effortless. I just really look up to the guys who were doing this stuff before I was even born. They are constant reminders that I can do this for the rest of my life.

Logo Sketches

Concept Sketches for the Lumberyard logo

The “Carina Tea & Waffles” video was all the customer’s idea and I’m happy they did it. It’s the best video I have of myself painting. That was a design that I did from scratch. I was looking at a lot of old beer label designs around that time and sorta based that sign off of that. I would have never chosen those colors (hot pink and baby blue) but the customer really wanted them to match some of the other things they had going on design wise. That design took a while to nail down because the customer wanted a lot of revisions but in the end it all came together and turned out pretty nice.

Keystone Sign & Co. – Carina from Christian Canteillo on Vimeo.

Keegan Meegan & Co.

Keegan Wenkman

Keegan Wenkman

The deeper I delve into the world of traditional sign-making, carving, gilding and hand-lettering, the clearer it becomes that print-making and sign-making are first cousins. Both industries are populated with passionate creatives who love typography, colour, hand-tools and old machinery.

Keegan Meegan Workshop

Keegan Meegan Workshop (image courtesy of Design Work Life)

Back when we interviewed Peter Vogel, the subject turned to a print-house in his city called Keegan Meegan & Co. The business is run by Keegan Wenkman and Katy Meegan, and continues to produce amazingly detailed handcrafted prints from a former paper factory. In today’s post Keegan tells us a little more:

You’re an illustrator, printer & designer. Which came first?

 Officially I went to school for web design during the flash craze of the early 2000’s. I hated it straight away and started talking with all the graphics and illustrator teachers. One in particular pulled me aside and took me to the library to show me a bit of history. He showed me the old master painters. So having said that, I was a oil painter for ages before I turned my rough drawings for paintings into a means to make a living. It wasn’t until I wanted to reproduce the drawings that I learned printmaking, which I took on with a fervor.


What prompted the move from Minneapolis to Portland?

 I was born in Fresno, Ca originally, so the west coast has always been in my blood. My parents moved to Madison, Wisconsin early in my life – a move I wasn’t too happy with. After finishing college in Minneapolis, I took the first opportunity to move west. Portland wasn’t the first choice but in the end to be a working artist, affordability of a home and studio was major factor.  I have no regrets. The city has been incredibly supportive and encouraging.

Poster by Keegan Meegan and Co.

(image courtesy of Seizure Palace)

On your blog you wrote ‘our printing is a throw-back to time when quality and beauty were a necessity in everyday life.’ Do you think this appreciation for authenticity is growing among people of our age bracket, or will it always be a small & committed group on the fringe, so to speak?

I’m not really sure what to say about quality these days. Some of us really care about the history of industry and manufacturing that is slowly disappearing from our modern landscape. Our current culture has a way of erasing all that is not current, people call letterpress or sign-painting a dead craft, but I have to disagree. It has always been around. It just wasn’t that special until the internet casts its gaze upon it. All of a sudden people get all bright-eyed and lusty for it, which – honestly – is good, allowing craftspersons to re-educate folks. Personally, for myself, I need to work with my hands. I’m just not happy working on a computer and love the mechanical problem solving one must do in a analog workplace. As for others, I believe people just want to connect to something more permanent and meaningful, such as a craft. It will make you quite a grumpy stubborn person – beware!

The Pressure is Good for You Poster

Poster designed by The Pressure & printed by Keegan Meegan (image courtesy of I am the Lab)

The Pressure Is Good For You – Poster Printing from Adam R Garcia on Vimeo.

The building I work from is an old paper manufacturer. The train tracks are still outside, that allowed each freight car to pull right up to our roll up doors. I believe it was built in the nineteen-twenties. The timber structure was salvaged from retired clippers. Going back to the last question, workers built the five-storey building made of wood and hand-laid brick in two weeks. Imagine that happening today!

Keegan Meegan Building

What’s the ‘Steamroller Smackdown’?

Traditionally, in recent history, when printing with a steamroller, those gatherings are called a ‘Wayzgoose’. A Wayzgoose formerly was gathering in each city, where the largest print house would throw a party and cook a nice fast goose for everybody. These days it a bunch of folks usually printing large sometimes five-by-four-foot hand-carved linoleum cuts.


One of Keegan’s prints at a wayzgoose in 2012

How did you come to love type & graphics?

I learned the now dead art of paste-up early on. Paste-up was how all design happened for ages – literally hand-composing type and graphics as cut-outs and pasting them in place. It’s a tedious yet loving endeavor,  since you learn to make most decisions about type and layout before you even touch the design. Over the years I’ve learned most things out of necessity for getting work. I don’t see that ending anytime soon.

Here’s a few more images from Keegan & Kate’s very artisanal workshop:



Printing Workshop

Linoleum Cut


Keegan Meegan & Co.

Thanks Kate and Keegan!

Ken Davis, Sign-Painter

Ken Davis Signpainter

Ken Davis

The name Ken Davis is not new to this blog, but – being his birthday today – it’s time we devoted a post to this very original sign-painter from Northern California.

What got you into sign-painting?

The short answer I give to strangers is I found something worth dropping out of community college for.

Hand-Lettered Bike for Benny Gold

Hand-Lettered Bike for Benny Gold

In reality, it’s been something that had been waiting for me all along.  I remember very early on noticing signage and typefaces in our town above anything else.  I wouldn’t draw a Metallica logo on a backpack I had unless I could guarantee it looked correct.  If it wasn’t right I’d never wear the backpack again. That neurosis of precision probably prepped me into hand lettering. I had been drawing letters for a while when a roommate told me to try using a brush and something called OneShot.  He clarified that it was a sign-painters enamel.  I bought the only two dusty old colors the art store nearby had (dark brown and ivory) and began fooling around.  I bought every single book I could find, I’d look up ISBN numbers and track down the rarer ones.  Within three years I had a good library, an understanding of old sign making, and little to no skill but a fire to learn and do some kind of justice to the craft.  Then I met Josh …
Josh [Josh Luke] and I began hanging out after we met at an art show he was in that my friends at Cyclops Tattoo held.  We both skated and Potrero Skate-park in San Francisco had just opened.  We would do morning sessions and I would follow him to Newbo and hang out for a tasteful amount of time and go home.  After a short while of this he called me up and mentioned that a space might be opening to take on an apprentice.  I got an early morning job in a produce department so I wouldn’t have to worry about food and began apprenticing.  It was a fast tracked one.  A few months into working with Josh, he and Meredith made plans to move to Boston.  That year I worked with Josh was invaluable.  He broke me of all my horrible habits that I had developed as a feral sign-painter.  Once Josh left, I had some large scale shoes to occupy and I did to the best of my ability.  As the shop became more renowned and successful I was able to work alongside some other really great people.  Eventually I saw my time was closing in there and moved towards going fully on my own.

Ken Davis

Ken Davis, at New Bohemia Signs (image courtesy of Austin McManus)

What’s the connection between skateboarding and sign-painting? A lot of the new sign-painters come from the skating background (for example Josh Luke, Yourself, Colt Bowden, and Will Sears, to name a few)

To me, it seems simply that they’re both environment-based art forms. And they draw similar personalities so naturally there will be overlap.  A good sign-painter uses the environment to draw attention to and compliment the sign or wall they are creating.  A good skater uses the environment around them to their advantage as well.  I skate a lot less now that my hands are the only things supporting me enough to stay away from pushing a shopping cart down skid row.

Skateboard decorated by Ken

Skateboard decorated by Ken (image courtesy of Oakland Sweetheart)

–       You’ve been called a Luddite, and you don’t seem too keen on technology. On the other hand, you have a blog and an Instagram page. Where do you draw the line with computer use?

To use the 20th century term I’m a fence-walker plain and simple.  It’s a case by case for me. But bottom line is I have a business and I’m not doing any prospective or current clients any services by hiding from them in this age.  I use technology as a tool like an electropounce over a pounce wheel. I’m very cautious with how much I use it.  I will rarely use image searches for reference material unless a client brings it up.  I have a few professor friends that will fail their students projects if they can search the subject and find exactly where they Googled it.  I love that!  I’m a book hoarder and a romantic over old world craftsmanship and would never want to live in a world where tangible books aren’t regarded highly.

Sign by Ken Davis

Sign by Ken Davis (Image courtesy of Empire Seven Studios)

I blame my Father in the best way possible for my outlook on tech. He was a first generation techie.  He worked with HP from almost the beginning of the company but had no interest in it.  He saw it as a smart paycheck that would enable him to support a wife and a child as well as all of his creative hobbies.  We didn’t have any form of computer in the house until the school gave me grief at 16 for still submitting typewritten papers and handwritten homework.  By that time my brain had already developed the grooves to live fine without it.  I wouldn’t trade that upbringing for the world.  Though I’m technologically feral, I feel more present in my day to day and love the idea of always having my hand in the beginning and end of a project.  Like Prince.  I like Prince a lot.  You will never see me using a program to design a sign I’m working on.  That is a guarantee.  For me, the act of drawing out the skeleton of the layout, sketching in placeholders for the letters, and finalizing the pattern is a very important process.  The checks and balances that occur in the process of that really exercise your critical thinking and I think end up with a stronger product of your toil.  I can say that I learn something new each time I make a pattern or a sketch.  The extra time it takes is worth it to me.  By drawing it out first, you really gather your head on how to approach painting it in my opinion.

Monogram Sketch

Pencil Sketch for a monogram-style logo, by Ken

–       Many of your signs are simply pieces of art, rather than functional signs. How much of your work is commissioned, versus self-initiated ‘artwork’?

Though I am flattered when people refer to what I do as “pieces of art”, I have serious conflicts agreeing with that idea.  Like I have said in earlier interviews, I am a firm believer of learning the traditions that everyone else before you took the time to execute before you go taking the world by storm; if nothing else out of respect for all those that came before you that did flawless work without any acclaim.  Though I do run off on my own take on lettering and design, it comes from a very solid foundation that Josh Luke, Damon Styer, Larry White, and several Letterheads have been kind enough to teach me.

Go To Helvetica sign

One of Ken’s non-commissioned signs

If I look at my calendar over the next few months and think back over the past 6 years I’d say the amount of commission work I do has jumped from 60 to 90 percent.  At this point I have a daunting backlog of personal projects to get to.  Commissioned work is priority number one.  Anyone that believes in what I do enough to pay me my pound price for it deserves the best that I can do.  I am by no means  a tourist in this craft and it humbles me that so many people several of whom I really look up to commission me for work.  There are very few openings in my month to work on self initiated works now and that’s fine.  I’d rather put something out there that has immediate use for someone that appreciates it.

A Commissioned Sign

A Commissioned Sign

–       Can you tell us how the video ‘It’s Alive!’ came into being?

In a short synopsis, my friend in San Jose runs a gallery called Empire Seven Studios and met with a gold leaf distributor about collaborating to do a promotional video on a craft that not many people are aware exists anymore.  He called me and I was on board so long as I didn’t have to go out of pocket for any supplies.  And so it began.  It was a seriously hearty amount of work.  He only had the filmer for two days so that five-foot by eight-foot gold leaf glass sign which normally would take four full days to complete had to be camera ready in the cameraman’s schedule.  I think one day was sixteen hours and the other was eighteen, maybe more.  I learned a lot from that and got a nice confidence bump that I could gild a sign that large in a serious time crunch.  That window took an entire pack of gold to do (twenty books) and a full quarter pint of back-up paint.  People still refer to that video which makes me happy since it was a lot of fun to make.

–       Your first appearance on our blog was as a disembodied hand, wearing a ‘PVS’ ring. Have you had a lot to do with the Pre-Vinylite Society?

By lineage I do.  I remember walking to food on a lunch-break with Josh and having a conversation about how we all need to create a forum to corral all these new and old painters together so we can all share what we do and as a whole further the education and potential of our craft.

Josh and Meredith run the show on that.  I contribute on occasion but as outlined above I’m not a sorcerer with computer communication and online sharing.  It hinders my ability to be a part of the online enthusiasm but I’m always open and willing to share with another PLU (people like us). All it takes is a call, letter in the mail, or email.  And for the record I hide a PVS in every major sign I do.

Sign Detail

Detail shot from Ken’s Empire Seven Studios Project.

–       Where do you think the sign industry is heading?

I had a good conversation with Meredith yesterday that touched on that.  While there’s a lot of enthusiasm for hand-painted work in the design community right now there’s a few glitches in it.  Not every design that comes out of a graphic designers portfolio will look as good hand-painted.  Though I’m not afraid of money falling in my pocket, as a professional it is important that I give a client exactly what they need.  Sometimes that means saying “I can’t do that”  “Perhaps a silkscreen” or “That design doesn’t lend itself well to a brush.  If I retool it a little it will read better as a hand-painted sign and likely cost less”. We sign-painters need to keep educating clients on what we do as opposed to complaining about a design we have to paint.  If we all communicate our capabilities more we will all be creating stronger work.

I also see a small faction of sign artists which I likely fall into as well.  Painters that people go to because a client wants their unique take on a custom sign.  I can definitely see that growing as a market.

Funny Sign by Ken Davis

Ken Davis & David A. Smith

Ken Davis with the legendary British gilder, David A. Smith

Chewing the Rag with New Bohemia Signs

Damon Styer

Damon Styer (image courtesy of Printmag)


It’s often said that a good sign-maker changes the whole appearance of the town or city in which they work. In San Francisco, a small shop by the name of New Bohemia Signs has been quietly but effectively beautifying the city, with their hand-lettered artistry. In fact, it could be said that this little shop is responsible for spawning the contemporary sign-painting revival. An overstatement? Hardly, when you consider that some of America’s best-known sign-artists – Jeff Canham, Caitlyn Galloway, Josh Luke, Ken Davis and others – all learned their craft under the tutelage of New Bohemia’s Damon Styer. Many of them have, in turn, passed on the skills to others.

Hand-Painted Alphabets

Hand-Painted Alphabets at New Bohemia Signs

Recently, I had the chance to find out more about this sign-making powerhouse from Damon himself:

Could you tell us the history behind ‘New Bohemia Signs’? Also, why the name?

New Bohemia Signs was created in 1992, by Steve Karbo, who’d been involved in various entrepreneurial exploits in San Francisco for decades prior. I remember him telling me he was the first (or one of the first) businesses selling bell-bottom jeans on Haight Street, back before /during the “Summer of Love”.

Steve Karbo

Steve Karbo, founder of New Bohemia Signs

There were still sign painters in San Francisco in ’92, but very few, and Karbo’s old-timey style-sense and knack for marketing helped N.B.S. take off immediately, as a sign shop offering exclusively hand-painted signs. I think within a year, he hired Yvette (“Eve”) Rutledge to help, and she’s got a preternaturally graceful hand and eye for design, which I think did much to establish demand for “New Bohemia” style signs. They partnered up and business grew exponentially, to the point that, by ’96, they’d decided to light out for less hectic urban environs, and moved to New Orleans, opening Mystic Blue Signs, which Eve still runs today.

Eve Rutledge

Eve Rutledge (image courtesy of Mystic Blue Signs)

They left New Bohemia under the management of Norma Jeanne Maloney, herself a sign painter of exquisite grace, but before long, she left to open her own shop, Red Rider Studios, nearby (which eventually she took with her to Austin). A few other people managed the shop for Steve and Eve, before I came by, inquiring about an apprenticeship in June of ’99. Maurice O’Carroll was handling it then, as well as servicing his own free-lance sign clientele. He said, “Come in tomorrow, you do a half-hour practice on your own time, every day. Then I’ll pay you $7/hr.”, and so I did.

Norma Jeanne Maloney

Norma Jeanne Maloney (image courtesy of Samuel J. Macon)

A few months later, he’d found his freelance work had started demanding more time than would allow him to stay atop New Bohemia’s clients needs, and he recommended me to take over his role, which I did, basically transferring my apprenticeship over to Steve and Eve. I’d still practice at least a half hour each day, then document it and mail photographs to New Orleans. They’d call back with suggestions for what to practice the following week.

Casual Ampersands

Casual Ampersand Practice

The arrangement proved untenable, and they decided to either close up shop, or sell it to me if I’d like. Not having any other income streams in the offing, their low asking price was enticing, and I found some friends to loan me the cash to swing it. So, here I am.

We Can Make it Work Sign

‘We Can Make it Work’ – a good slogan for Damon’s early years at NBS. This sign was painted by Caitlyn Galloway for an art show called East on Sunset.

“New Bohemia” was a name chosen to reflect the then-burgeoning artsy hip climate of the Inner Mission neighborhood in which we were situated. Since then, I’ve read that my surname, Styer, is an anglicization of Steiger, which might just mean “from the hills”, or more specifically, “from the Styrian Alps”, which I’m choosing to believe is roughly analogous with the historical realm of Bohemia, although the analogy may be so rough as to be abjectly untrue.

Europe as a Queen

Map of Europe as a queen, printed by Sebastian Munster in Basel in 1570. Note that Bohemia is centrally located. (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

What attracted you to sign-painting?

When I came looking for an apprenticeship at NBS, I’d recently begun trying to inculcate a ‘creative work ethic’ in myself, because I’d sussed out that in exercising my creative ‘muscles’ I was able to channel something much bigger and more beautiful than I could understand into existence. I’d say this insight came much later in life than it ought to have, after I spent much of the nineties laying relatively fallow, creatively, slogging away at a loathsome job, largely squandering whatever practice and skills I’d developed pursuing a BFA in painting, at the start of the decade.

With a few thousand dollars to tide me by in the near term, left over after some globe-wandering soul-seeking, I started looking for an apprenticeship somewhere. Initially, I called various Bay-area cabinetry shops, since I’d built assorted pieces of furniture for myself and for friends, but lacked any ‘finishing’ skills, and that seemed like an attractive thing to develop. None of the places I called wanted to take on an “apprentice without experience”, which maybe speaks to the deterioration of the concept of apprenticeship in this day and age.

New Bohemia Sign

The sign at NBS current location (image courtesy of Asterisk San Francisco)

I dropped in at New Bohemia, on a whim, since they were only five blocks from my house. I’d asked someone there a couple years earlier about an apprenticeship, also on a whim, and been spurned (which is just as well, as I wouldn’t have had the time for it back then), so I didn’t have high hopes – but this time, it worked! I feel like maybe I should start spinning this as, “Yeah, they turned me down for a job, so I came back and bought the place!”

New Bohemia Signs

NBS has moved several times, since its inception. Pictured here is the Harrison St. location, where they were based for nearly a decade, from 2002 until 2011.

But anyway: I could say “what attracted me to sign painting” was proximity. I’d taken a course in calligraphy as a child, and growing up, my doodles often involved letterforms, although little of the art I worked on at school did so. I drew and pasted up letters for posters and record jackets for a band I was in, in my twenties; but other than a basic understanding of letterforms and layout and a natural skill, primed to develop, for brushwork – oh, and what I’d guess you and all your readers might recognize as an easily understood, broadly shared and completely normal appreciation for the inherent beauty and charm of hand-lettering – the main things that attracted me to sign painting were the short commute and low start-up costs!

New Bohemia Signs

Inside New Bohemia Signs (image courtesy of Naz Hamid)

What do you think of the contemporary idea of ‘signs as art’, signs being displayed in art galleries and such-like?

It’s fraught!

Ah, y’know, pretty much whenever anyone asks me how I am or what’s going on, these days, I respond with, “Oh, the usual: signs, signs, everywhere signs, breaking up the scenery, breaking my mind”, and we share a chuckle or an eye roll, or whatever, because those half century old song lyrics point out how long it’s been a tiresome cliché to feel awash and overwhelmed by the ubiquity of signs. There are so many different ways signs, or even just parts of signs – a well-formed letter or a fading brushstroke, for example, or just a color combo – can affect us emotionally and intellectually, right?

Damon Styer Sign Painter

Damon at an art show entitled ‘It’s a Sign’ (image courtesy of artbusiness.com) ‘I’m in front of a sign by Josh Luke that, of course, became the name of his shop in Boston. It was inspired by his, and Jeff Canham’s and my efforts to get ourselves listed in the SF Bay Guardian’s annual “Best of” issue, as the city’s best dressed signpainters (which entailed wearing ties under our aprons).’ – Damon

Anyway, my art school education was geared toward “fine art” (viz. focused on releasing one’s muse, albeit with zero employment training) and I came out of it feeling, unfortunately, pretty stifled; like, enthralled with other artists’ concepts and work, but nearly incapable of coming up with any conceptual framework for my own art, commensurate with my technical skills. That’s certainly why I’m making my living in a commercial art/graphic design field, comfortable, to the extent I am, with being given assignments by clients: I know what this sign needs to say, my only task is to make it suitably pretty.

Pencil Sketches

Pencil Sketches

Having “something” to say, and a fixation on putting it somehow at cross purposes to actual words, within a medium (sign painting) that, to great extent, depends on direct verbal communication, is the puzzle I’m forever trying to solve for myself, when we’re approached by someone who’d like New Bohemia Signs to be part of an art show (a.k.a. making “signs without a client”). Fortunately, the other painters who’ve worked here don’t seem to get quite so hung-up about it.

Signs at an Art Show

Signs by Ken Davis at the ‘It’s a Sign’ show, painted during his tenure at NBS (image courtesy of Art Business)

I mean, I try so hard to resist “clever phrases” and pun-smithery, because I’m less interested in selling posters and t-shirts, than in striking some kind of numinous chord… or somehow finding how to apply this practice and these materials to tickle myself in some unique way… But in case you can’t tell, I’m a bit wordy, so, like, word play is a compulsion, and I all too easily succumb. Virtually every short set of words I read or hear or invent, that holds my attention for longer than a moment, gets subjected to, “How can I make that into a sign?”. I often doubt I’m in the “right” line of work for me, but if I’m a sign painter for any reason at all, it must be to mould words into visual art. Must get better at it.

New Bohemia Sign Art

A piece by Jeff Canham at the same show, painted when he was a NBS employee (image courtesy of The Bold Italic)

Are there sign-makers and artist you take inspiration from, for your work?

 I don’t know quite where to begin… I feel pretty parched for artistic passion and enthusiasm, for the most part, so I like when I see it in others, like, especially, the other painters in the shop. They’re a rather enthused lot, by and large! I think this is also why I get a kick out of teaching. The kids are so excited, it’s infectious.

Ken Davis

Ken Davis (image courtesy of Austin McManus)

  • Ken Davis, who used to work here, is certainly doing well for himself now, not least on account of his bubbly zest for sign painting. He’s been doing a little gallery work in collaboration with Colt Bowden, who is, as you may have already surmised, another guy with irrepressible zeal for the craft. They’re good to tap when my outlook’s grim.

    Erik Marinovich Lettering Artist

    Erik Marinovich (image courtesy of Like Knows Like)

  • We’ve worked on a few projects recently with Erik Marinovich, who’s plainly head over heels about lettering, and a lot of fun to work around. He shares an office with Jessica Hische, who’s got pretty keen taste-buds for a letter’s flavor.

    Lettering work by Louise Fili

    Lettering work by Louise Fili (image courtesy of Louise Fili)

    Shadow Type Book

    (image courtesy of Louise Fili)

  • I guess, when I’m sifting thru reference books, I often return to Heller & Fili collections.

    Jon Bocksel Artwork

    (image courtesy of Jon Bocksel)

  • I’ve been enjoying looking at the invented letters and “possible curse words” Jon Bocksel has been producing. They’re pretty good for shaking off the dreck of accumulated meaning, separating the sign and the signified, or some such thing.

    Art by Tauba Auerbach

    (image courtesy of Tauba Auerbach)

  • Tauba Auerbach, who also worked here for a few years, appeals to every sublimated science-y, math-y artistic urge I’m possessed of, but too timid to explore.

    Wayne White Artwork

    (image courtesy of Wayne White)

  • Wayne White

  • Ed Ruscha

  • Wim Delvoye

  • Faig Ahmed

  • I wish I’d devoted more of my professional life to date, approaching sign painting the way Gerhard Richter approaches painting, but I don’t expect I’m quite serious enough a man.

Favorite project?

Usually, whichever one I just got finished with. As a matter of fact, right now we’re working on a billboard for out in front of our nearby Rainbow Grocery co-op. I’m not so in love with it at the moment – it’s in a delicate space, and feels like it could go off the rails quickly, because I’ve got everyone in the shop working on it and they’ve all got ideas coming into play that could ultimately collide with and/or hijack my overarching vision, such as it is. But I’m pretty optimistic, based on the enthusiasm of everyone involved, including the clients, that it’s gonna make shopping there an even more delightful experience than it already is, for me. It could end up feeling like, ‘Okay, I did this job for these clients, and got paid; but ultimately, I’ve given this gift to the City’, which feels pretty cool when it happens.

Sign Pencil Sketch

Sketch for the Grocery Billboard

New Bohemia Sign in Progress

Sign for Rainbow Grocery Co-Op in Progress

Rainbow Grocery Sign

The finished sign gets wheeled to its new home on a dolly.


Some places come to mind, off the bat, when I think about feeling that way: Far West Fungi, The Stinking Rose, Mike’s Liquors.

The Stinking Rose

Far West Fungi Gilded Signage

Mike's Liquors Signs

I’ve also done a few cornhole boards, relatively recently, for local wedding receptions: I think that may be a growth industry! (I don’t know if that’s a game familiar to Aussies: it seems to be rooted in the American southeast, but it’s definitely on the rise. I just like saying it. For the latest gig, the client sent me a file of design inspirations she titled “cornhole moodboard”, which just… I wanna use that again and again, with other clients: “Perhaps you might see something you like here on this cornhole moodboard?”)

[I am familiar with the game, although it’s not well-known in these parts. We do have our own cornhole set here at the shop, albeit not nearly as typographic as the ones pictured below.]

Cornhole Boards

Cornhole Boards by Damon Styer

Could you tell a bit about your sign-painting classes?

That’s definitely the most rewarding part of the job for me right now! I’ve kinda always felt a bit like a caretaker for sign painting, or like… how to describe… like the industry got passed through this fine mesh strainer and I’m one of the viable seeds that made it through? Or no: like I’m a piece of manure, dropped onto the desolate landscape of sign painting in the wake of the vinylocalypse, here to fertilize the ground for nutritious crops of sign painters to come! Yeah, that’s more like it! Remember, up there, when I wrote “If I’m a sign painter for any reason at all”? Well, it’s not to mould words into visual art: it’s definitely to goose young whippersnapper signwriters along their way, to light a path for the people who are going to champion this craft in the coming century. I mean, my light’s perhaps not the brightest, but I can definitely steer you off some rocks! And mix up a few metaphors along the way!

Damon Styer

Damon demonstrates how to hold a brush (image courtesy of Typotalks)

I’ve been teaching weekend workshops, the past couple of years, once or twice a month, just basic introductory level stuff, for people who’d never touched a lettering quill before. We spend a day practicing basic strokes and tracing simple alphabets, then another day developing a pattern and lettering a signboard – and I’m frequently bewildered by how enthusiastic they are, after a day of repetitive stroke after stroke. Some really take to the meditative nature of the craft, the opportunity to focus their attention on such a narrow set of small, subtle, coordinated movements… Actually, maybe that’s just me: I don’t know what, necessarily, they’re taking to, individually, but I’m bowled over by how often I’ll hear how much fun they’re having, or “Best weekend ever!” And I’ve even had a handful of students hang out their sign painting shingles, in the wake of the class. When I started with the classes, friends would ask, “Aren’t you training your competition?”, and I’d respond, “Not unless they all start teaching their own sign painting classes.” And actually, that’s starting to happen: I saw an Instagram shot of an early student conducting a small brush lettering class at Cal State Fullerton, recently! This stuff happens fast! They’re gonna sweep me out of the way before long.

New Bohemia Signs Painting Class

One of Damon’s recent classes

So, I’ve got to keep advancing, somehow. I just started teaching my “level 201” class, focused on script lettering. Whereas, in the first class, we focus on single-stroke gothic letters, and casual (or “speed”) letters, always paletting the brush out to its fullest natural width, in the script class, there’s a lot more modulation to the stroke width being developed, and different approaches taken to that. I’ve only taught one, thus far, but it went well, and students are clamoring for more. I’d like to maybe set up an intro-to-glass-gilding next…

What effect does creative signage have on a business, neighbourhood or city? You’ve been at it for a few years & have probably noticed results.

Well, for my own business, I’ve found several times in the past that, whenever I invest some time in sprucing up my storefront with new signage, business immediately spikes. We’ve been in our current shop space for three years now, and I haven’t focused the time and energy on decorating the storefront the way I’d like, partly because we haven’t really had any down time in that period. We’re simmering along at capacity, so I can’t even guess what the elaborate plans in my sketchbook are gonna lead to.

New Bohemia Signs

The exterior sign at the former location on Harrison Street

As for San Francisco, the City’s had no shortage of creativity on display since time immemorial. Nonetheless, back when I started with New Bohemia, Steve and Eve (and subsequently, Norma Jeanne over at Red Rider), had really established themselves as sources of a particular hand-crafted style that harkened back many decades. I walked into a situation wherein we were really respected and cherished as a premier source for “old fashioned” signs, and my challenge was to maintain that image, to the best of my abilities. But back then, there was definitely a greater sense of being unique, as though we were practically the only place churning out attractive hand-painted signs here. I’d just argue that the more attractive signs we’ve painted, the more attention they’ve gotten, and the more local businesses have chosen to get hand-painted signs; and thus, the more need has arisen for more sign painters.

Hand-Painted Sign

It pans out in a lot of directions, too: people see a sign and they know they like it, but they’re not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s hand painted – “I should get a hand painted sign!” And then, regardless of how appropriate is the design they’ve already had put together, or whether or not anyone but themselves is going to be in a position to appreciate its hand-painted-ness, they’re bent on getting a hand-painted sign! I can only applaud that urge. It may not result in the most beautiful or proud signs, but it’s an opportunity for practice, and if it works out well, it keeps hand lettering in the conversation and on the advance across the landscape.

Make Signs Not War

We’re currently tending our niche as “sign painters to the tech industry”, which is pretty interesting on a lot of levels. Their assorted campuses are ersatz neighborhoods that we’re having a hand in transforming. The places where high tech intersects with our comparatively Luddite craft are interesting to chart. I was just thinking about that (well, really, I think about that a lot), watching the video link you recently sent me, talking of “a time before the industrial revolution, when there was no mass production”, as you pass some kind of sign foam substrate through a band saw. A few years back, we applied the budget allocated for getting a giant pattern printed, to instead purchasing a mechanical plotter with a pattern pouncing attachment: essentially the very same machine that ran the majority of sign painters out of business a few decades ago, churning out vinyl appliques! It’s a slippery slope! I enjoy navigating the digital divide, figuring out how to apply tech, while still striving to keep the work connected, as much as I can, to the way my arm swings from my shoulder – pencil-based design, and the brush being the final arbiter, etc. Let me underscore here: we don’t produce ANY vinyl lettering, or digital printing. Everything that comes out of New Bohemia Signs, comes off the end of a brush or roller (the exception that proves the rule).

Internet Sign

You’ve trained up some very creative lettering artists such as Jeff Canham, Caitlyn Galloway, Josh Luke, Tauba Auerbach and Ken Davis, to name a few. Do you think there’ll ever be real competition in the lettering industry, or will it always be as positive and collegial as it is now?

I remember, again, back when I was starting, characterizing the old hands I’d meet as all having “wild hair, and one wandering eye, and conspiracy theories about all the other sign painters”. Nowadays, I’m well into the wild hair, but my eyes still seem to triangulate well enough, and I don’t think the other sign painters are conspiring as much as just, y’know, hustling, working hard, making a wave when they can – good times!

Josh Luke

Josh Luke (now the proprietor of Best Dressed Signs in Boston), back when he worked for N.B.S.

I’m sure, if – perish the thought – San Francisco’s economic bubble ever bursts (which, what folly!), those among us with keener marketing skills than I, might keep their heads above water, while the rest of us simmer in resentment. That sounds like the sort of thing I imagine went on in sign painting everywhere, at the dawn of the vinyl age: “Augh, why didn’t WE get that gig?!?”, stings a lot more when we don’t have a couple dozen other gigs in the pipeline.

As it is now, you do good work, you can expect to reap the adulation of your compadres.

bohemia signs from Mission Local on Vimeo.

Jeff Canham

Aaron Draplin

Aaron Draplin

If you didn’t know any better, you could be forgiven for thinking that this blog is based in Portland, Oregon. We’re not, of course. We’re proudly publishing out of Inverell, New South Wales, Australia. But today we catch up with one of Portland’s better known graphic designers. This is a man who dresses like a lumberjack, sporting a work jacket and trucker’s cap, even when delivering lectures to the turtle-necked design elite.

Aaron Draplin

(image courtesy of Vimeo)

I’m referring to Aaron Draplin of Draplin Design Co. (DDC). Aaron’s love for vintage signs is so great that he once bought a broken-down motel sign in Missouri and drove three days to pick it up. When he arrived, the sign was much too big for his little Passat. I think he would make a great sign-maker, but he has earned a reputation in the design community for his solid, no-nonsense design work. It’s a privilege to have him on the blog today.

Wiener Dog

(image courtesy of Hear Hear)

(Aaron): My favorite things are designed with function in mind, or, are “undesigned.” No irony, pure in form and free of extraneous, or even worse, pretentious extras. Each little piece on the page means something. I find the same amount of beauty in a grid with a mountain of information successfully laid out, as I would some ornate piece of typography. Beautiful communication and clarity really turns my screw. Get what you need to get across first. And then go from there. Sometimes, design drowns in “style.” And you can’t even figure out what the thing is communicating. Not good. And yes, I know there’s a schtick to my stuff, with all the Futura Bold and orange riff raff. But remember, that’s just my personal stuff. When I’m on the clock for someone, it’s my job to make them appropriate solutions. If it calls for wild, then you go wild. It it calls for simple, then strip it down. I never force styles on a project. If it fits, it fits. If it means inventing something that I might feel a little uncomfortable with, then that’s my job to get it to that place and make it work. What’s the problem? How we gonna fix it? How we gonna tell ‘em what we need to tell ‘em? What’s the marketplace look like? I answer these, and get down to work making something that can stand on it’s own legs.

Memo Books

A small part of Aaron’s extensive collection of memo books. (image courtesy of Beard is the New Black)

I love old signs, and not just around Portland! Around greater North America! Hell, the world. The old signs remind me that optimism and color can transform how the viewer perceives that hotel or watering hole. In the end, it’s the same bed or cold beer as the next place, you know? But with a little extra icing on the cake, you’ll savor their good service, or selection, or whatever the hell they are calling attention to. Or the idea of simply telling it how it is. You look up at some old “BAR” sign and there’s three characters: B, A, R. Done. Doesn’t need to say anything else. straightforward and beautiful in its unapologetic sparseness. I love that stuff. A good reminder in a world of overwrought graphic complexity. Sometimes it’ll be the type. Or the optimism of the forms. Or the scale. Or the copy-writing. And I like to document it, file it away and remember the options it offers to the work I do. Don’t forget the old stuff!

Neon Bar Sign

(image courtesy of DeAnna’s Restaurant)

I haven’t had the chance to design a sign just yet! Have my fingers crossed for that opportunity. And when I get it, I won’t force the old vernacular on anyone. The sentimental quality of the old signs simply represents a different time in design for me. A simpler time, graphically. And ultimately, how much more successful it was considering the landscape of ugly work people keep whipping up, littering the world. Need a sign? Let’s talk.

Sunset Motel Sign

The sign Aaron bought (image courtesy of Vimeo)

Saul Bass is my number one inspiration, with Paul Rand right behind him. Their logos, their restraint, their big picture/global thinking for the brands they built…those principles will never die. Effective communication shouldn’t be a ‘style’ we pick from. It’s a system. A set of principles. And I have to say, when you subscribe to that, just about everything else feels like cake decoration. And don’t get me wrong, I love the “everything else-ness” too. I’m just in awe of the beautiful logos they made, and how they transcend time and generational differences.

Paul Rand Ford Logo

A logo Paul Rand designed for Ford Motor Company (image courtesy of Logoness)

A ton of my work is what I call ‘micro-design’ – for regular people! Hell, I just signed off on a logo for a construction company [Duco Construction] for $1000 a couple emails ago. And the guy was blown away. He thanked me profusely, surprised I’d even take the job. Other people shot him down? I don’t know. I just liked how he talked about his company, how he knew he needed help, and how he dug my work. And for that $1000, I’ll treat him the same as treat the $10,000 gig. In the end, it’s my job to make him something that gives his company sturdy graphic legs. I love that exchange. I want him to be fired up to get it on the side of his truck as soon as I hand him that final vector. Design shouldn’t be something that only “those who can afford it” get to tap into. Does that cheapen our trade? I don’t care if it does. I am a working designer and I make things for whoever will trust me with their project. Big, small or hell, sometimes for no loot. I dig making things. I dig how a logo or graphic feel can propel a cool idea or sagging company. Everyone deserves good design. So yeah, I do a ton of stuff for the little guys. And when you stack ‘em all up, it adds up big time. In loot, and in pride.

Field Notes‘ is, hands down, the best memo book ever made. Ever. Let me expand on that: Back in 2004 or so, after being frustrated with the current offering of memo books in the marketplace, I up and made my own. Started out by screen printing and assembling a couple hundred for friends and colleagues. Made the first batch by hand! Then I made 2000 books for 2000 bucks. And gave a stack of those to Jim Coudal, and a couple of handshakes later, he took me under his wing and built out an incredible, little company. Thank you, Jim Coudal. For 999 lifetimes. The guy rescued me from obscurity! And all these year later, we’re a scrappy, little company dedicated to making cool little books, writing instruments and leather pouches.

Field Notes

(image courtesy of Field Notes)

Everything is made in America, proudly. We pay insane attention to detail, from the staples to the inks to the printing processes to the extra goodies each order gets. We’re always scheming up a new set, a movie to launch it and then openly sharing and celebrating the simple, unassuming beauty of writing things down on paper. How it frees you up! We live in a fast world that’s only gonna get faster. Slow down with Field Notes!

Field Notes Calendar

Records are my favorite print pieces to make. All the different pieces, surfaces, papers and spaces. I love considering all of it. From the record down to the CD and back up to some poster. Feels oddly antiquated in a world of MP3s and digital this-n-thats. I always enjoy making records.

DDC Action Cap

Right now we’re working on a 7-inch record for Dawes/Conor Oberst, a record for The Old 97s, a four-record set called ‘Divided & United: Songs of the Civil War’, a logo for Resolved Records, a logo for Insieme Music Publishing, a logo for a construction company, a poster for Red Wing Boots, branding and packaging for Finex Cast Iron Works, new binding logos for the Union Binding Co., a limited edition hat/patch set for Coal Headwear, new DDC action caps, prepping for the next seventeen shows on our winter/spring tour, a record for Willy Vlautin’s new band The Delines, a logo for a Seattle gaming design agency and a couple other goodies I can’t talk about just yet. Let’s just say, I keep myself busy. Always.

State Posters