Lost Knowledge: Sign painting

Lost Knowledge: Sign painting

The Lost Knowledge column explores the possible technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those just slightly off to the side). Every other Wednesday, we look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of MAKE Volume 17

When I was a tween, one Saturday afternoon, my dad and I went to the barbershop to get our hair cut. Outside the shop, an elderly man was standing there painting a new sign on the replaced plate glass window (which vandals had recently smashed). Walking by, I was mesmerized by the painter, deep in a kind of Zen-like concentration as he worked, his large, beat-up and paint-smeared wooden toolbox overflowing with brushes and small cans of paint, his palette, his maul stick, all of it was so novel and wondrous to me.

Inside the barbershop, as my dad got his hair cut, and then as I got mine, sitting in the cast iron barber’s chair (which also always fascinated me) right by the window, I was transfixed, watching the painter work. I couldn’t get over the idea that those nearly perfect letterforms, with their thick drop shadows, and the starbursts and other ornaments he was so effortlessly creating — all flowed so confidently from his hand, held steady by the maul stick pressed to the glass. It looked like flourishes of magic. I’d already been interested in art and graphic design by then, but this experience made me become even more interested in pursuing commercial art as a career (which I ended up doing). It’s amazing how, in one’s life, a small, seemingly mundane encounter like this can have such a disproportional impact. I still think about that elderly signwriter (what sign painters are called), outside the small town barbershop in Chesterfield, Virginia, every time I see a handpainted sign.

But these signs and building-side advertisements (sometimes called “brickads”) are very much a fading artform. But like a lot of dead or dying media, the form has found an avid and growing following online. There are a number of Flickr pools devoted to old and new handpainted signage, and online archives of “ghostsigns,” signs from decades (or centuries) past that are all but fading away. The art of the “walldog,” a slang term for signwriters, will not be forgotten. And like a lot of retro commercial arts, such as letterpress printing, there are some who claim that handpainted signs are even making a comeback.

Here are a few resources to check out:

Video about a recent Dewar’s ad campaign where six classical hand-painted brickads were created around New York City.

This UK site has a huge collection of ghostsigns and blog entries about the signs and fascinating backstories about the companies that were doing the advertising. Most of the signs are from the late 19th century. And as you might imagine, they’re all fading fast, not only from the elements, but as the buildings are razed or signs painted over. The ghostsign enthusiasts out there are racing to document as many signs as they can.


The folks who run the Ghostsigns Project and blog sell a lovely set of postcards featuring some of their favorite examples.

A piece, on ghostsign “hunters” in Liverpool, England which recently ran on ITV Granada television.

The main Flickr pool devoted to handpainted signs, both contemporary and antique.

HandMade Signs
Another, less active, Flickr group.


Roadside Advertisements
Another site devoted to handpainted signs, brickads, and billboards.

Edward Fella’s website
Site of artist, graphic designer, and educator, Edward Fella, author of Edward Fella: Letters on America, an exploration of American vernacular typography and the landscape of signage.


18 thoughts on “Lost Knowledge: Sign painting

  1. Steve Hoefer says:

    They still regularly paint billboards in Japan. When I lived there I would regularly sit in a coffee shop across the street from Parco in Shibuya and watch them paint the advertising billboards on the side of the building. It typically would take a few days, but I don’t think they ever stayed up for more than a month before another was hand painted over it.

  2. Marc de Vinck says:

    I have a sudden urge to go to Coney Island! Although, I guess most of those hand painted signs are gone. (haven’t been in a long time!)

  3. peterman921 says:

    I’m a signwriter in So Oregon and it is not yet a dying artform. It has cooled somewhat with more and more new signmakers going to vinyl and digital print, but there are thousands of old school signwriters around, not to mention pinstripers. there are several online bulletin boards just for signmakers, letterville possibly the biggest one, another good one is pinhead lounge, and the walldogs who paint murals who are mostly also signwriters.

    Youtube has many videos posted about signwriting, check out swishpixel and monkeysign123 for some good examples.

    my site is at:


  4. KoolAidWino says:

    I used to paint the prices and a little comment on the windshields of cars for a few car lots fun job until dealers started using vinyl cutouts. Makes me want to get back into that kind of work.

  5. revragnarok.myopenid.com says:

    I know I’ve seen some of the old painted ads from Baltimore on http://www.monumentalcity.net/ads/

  6. Starr Studios says:

    There are actually a few of us out there still plugging away who are still working with paint. One of the things that has kept this craft alive is a movement called the Letterheads, which is an informal group of signwriters that got together about 30 years ago with the intention of sharing techniques.

    There are several groups still going from that original group, we are members of the CSA (Creative Signmakers of America)http://creativesignmakers.com/ which contains some of the best hand painted sign makers in the U.S. as well as New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. This group was formed by veteran sign painters Mark Fair and Mike Meyer, both heroes to many in the trade.

    Because the craft is so hard to find, small companies like ours end up getting calls from all over the U.S. as well as other countries for orders that we end up shipping directly to the customer. There seems to be a resurgence in interest in hand painted work as of late and we have worked with companies as large as Sony Music in New York City and NBC Television. For those interested you can take a peek at our portfolio at http://www.restorationsigns.com/gallery.html

    Its great to see an article like this about our trade. When computerized vinyl signmaking came on the scene in the 1980’s it seemed like it was going to be the death of the hand painted signwriter, but we still keep plugging away, the main reason is the passion we all share for what we do.

    United We Paint!

  7. borgie says:

    Gotta give a shout-out to San Jose legend, Rey Giese!

  8. Ghostsigns says:

    Thank you for the mention of the Ghostsigns Project over here in the UK & Ireland. We will be launching an online archive of over 600 examples from across the country on March 18th this year. This is being hosted by the History of Advertising Trust.

    To keep in touch with the project and to ensure you receive news of the launch then you can do so via a number of routes: http://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/contact

    More project videos can be seen on the dedicated Youtube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/samandrum

  9. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Hey Sam, thanks so much for chiming in and for doing your wonderful Ghostsigns Project. You have at least one new fan!

    And thanks to the signwriters who posted here. Peterman921, don’t know if you saw, but I did a follow-up post about monkeysign123’s videos on YT. Her painting on glass so closely follows what I remember seeing as a kid at the barbershop.


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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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