You’ve likely heard of artisanal bread, heirloom vegetables, and bespoke clothing — but odds are you’ve rarely given a thought to another carefully crafted legacy product: hand-painted advertising signs. Once a fixture of Main Streets and shop windows everywhere, they’ve been knocked out of the mainstream by cheap, fast printing technology. But as Faythe Levine and Sam Macon’s engrossing documentary Sign Painters makes clear, this is an art that still has a passionate following.
Decades ago, sign painting was a fairly common job — businesses needed their names large, legible, and lasting, and an eye-catching sign was just the thing for the job. But as machine-engineered banners have gained traction, sign painting has become a very specialized craft, with a relatively small number of avid practitioners who have an arsenal of special paint brushes and strong opinions about the definition of the word “font.”
Levine and Macon interview many of the sign-painting faithful, capturing their enthusiasm for color palettes, their passion for precision, and their firm belief that theirs is a skill far superior to anything a computer can produce. Anyone who finds niche subcultures interesting will be fascinated by this group of dedicated artists. Some of them are rough, some are gruff, many are unassuming while others are brashly outspoken, but they all love what they do.
Interestingly, most of them are men, which feels atypical for creative professions — at least, in the modern world. But that’s part of the appeal of both sign painting the craft and Sign Painters the movie: It feels like something from another era, a memory of the way things used to be.