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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.