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Sign Painters, The Film: In Talks With The Director

. 3 minute read

Across the pond, a nation’s artisanal past is meeting its present day need for something indie, off the mainstream, and freely expressed. Hand painted signs are making a slow but sure resurgence – bringing back the human faces behind the typefaces.

Just a generation or two ago, every street, storefront, barn and billboard in the US featured a public notice, brushed on in coat upon coat of quality and individuality. Now it’s a real and rare pleasure when you do spot a painted sign. 

Along with filmmaker Sam Macon, director Faythe Levine tracked down more than two dozen of the sign painters accountable for today’s works of art and documented them in an 80 minute movie, because despite the industry’s death by vinyl, it is somehow self-resuscitating.

Scouring cities stateside, their film profiles the stories, philosophies and styles that are personal to the characters, each piecing together the remnants of a craft in crisis. In spite of a few cowboy hats, the film feels contemporary and relevant. Faythe explains why:

What’s your creative background?

Letters have always held my interest. From a young age I was interested in design and layout which was manifested through making zines and flyers for shows. Currently my freelance work revolves around being an independent curator, photography, writing, painting, illustration and educational programming. I spend a lot of time travelling so most of my current work is done on the road.

How did your interest in sign painting begin?

I was living in Minneapolis in the late 1990s and some of my friends sought out the local sign painter who ended up taking them under his wing. After my first documentary Handmade Nation (a film on the resurrection of indie crafts in America) was done, I was surprised that there was still very little information accessible about the trade. The more I learned the more it interested me and so I approached my friend and now co-director, Sam Macon, about doing the project and it unfolded from there.

Can you tell us a bit about the process?

We followed the story very editorially, starting with the core group of friends I knew growing up, who had since all opened full-time sign shops around the country. Through them and their mentors we began our research and established the project online. With the online presence we started to get emails from people all over the country about their own practice, stories about family members, etc. Our largest hurdles were financially rooted – making a documentary as independent filmmakers is a huge commitment.

You go on an extensive tour around the US in the film, what was your journey like?

Sam and I have both travelled substantially around the States so I think for both of us it was natural to be zipping from coast to coast for interviews. We found that a lot of mid-size American cities had amazing signs due to lack of development, and of course hubs like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles will always have old signs that remain through growth.

Why is it important to tell this story?

There are many themes and threads that run through our documentary we feel are equally important. First and foremost is to bring awareness to younger generations that within most of our lifetimes being a sign painter was a viable trade, and now hand paint is often considered a novelty (although we think the film proves otherwise). Then there’s the conversation surrounding the homogenization of urban landscapes being parallel with the lack of human touch. And of course the general topic of process.

There’s a huge feeling of sign painters being undervalued running through the film, is there a renaissance of appreciation happening?

Absolutely. Personally I believe the current generational interest in process, whether it’s with where your clothes are made, how your food is grown, etc. has a lot to do with why folks are interested in or paying attention to hand painted signage. This renaissance of awareness in general is going to keep a lot of trades alive that would have otherwise slowly faded. The hand painted sign industry will never be what it was even if there is a revival, but we know that after watching our movie you will look at the world differently.

Check out ‘Sign Painters’ the book here and for screening info visit signpaintersfilm.com

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