“Sign Painters” at the Jam Handy celebrates the art of hand-lettering

Arts / Article

On Wednesday, August 20th at 8 p.m., the Jam Handy building hosted a screening of “Sign Painters,” a documentary that highlights the colorful personalities and craftsmanship behind the once-massive and now cultish profession of hand-lettering and sign painting. The film was revelatory on many levels, and especially relevant for a Detroit audience, in a town where the vestiges of hand-painted signs can be seen on numerous buildings, designating businesses both active and defunct. It showcases the basic humanity of sign painting, and the application of fine art skills and fanaticism in a field that manages to be both humble, highly promotional, client-oriented and ego-driven.

A wall piece in progress by Brooklyn sign painters Colossal Media. Photo courtesy of the filmmakers

The complexities of the sign painting profession are expressed by the various subjects within the documentary, who reside in cities nationwide, carving out their niche practice from San Francisco, Denver, Austin, Minneapolis and New York City, to name a few. Some of them are sign art superstars in their own realm, and there is a uniformity in their attitudes around sign painting (best profession ever) and its increasing loss in this modern world (technology is problematic, killing off and diluting the old, good things). There is a deep, aesthetic horror at the prospect of vinyl lettering, whose mechanized rise in the early ’80s has gone a long way toward killing the once-venerated profession of hand-lettering. I was invited to the screening by artist Corrie Baldauf, who takes a great interest in hand-lettering and signage, collaborating with veteran father-and-son sign-painters Craig Signs to create original works that have shown at the MOCAD. The documentary served to underscore Baldauf’s instinctive attraction to the authentic, the art that lurks below the surface of the everyday.

One of Baldauf's collaborations with Craig Signs.

One of Baldauf’s collaborations with Craig Signs. Image courtesy of the artist

Artist Corrie Baldauf, with a pair of her signature signs.

Artist Corrie Baldauf, with a pair of her signature signs at the MOCAD.

On the way home from the Handy, it was impossible not to notice signs in a new light; approaching the corner of Russell and Gratiot, Discount Candles jumped out at me with a side-by-side contrast between the old, hand-painted approach and the new vinyl style. Detroit, more than most places, still maintains these vestiges of the old ways, holding out or left behind by the signs of our times.

Discount Candles. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Discount Candles. Image via Google Maps