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Advertising’s ubiquitous nature makes it hard for a single message or image to break through the white noise in 2013. But there’s something eye-catching about handmade signs that manages to cut through the clutter.

Attracted to the craft behind traditional public advertisements and handmade signage, authors and filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon set out in 2010 to make Sign Painters, a documentary and book about the subject. A few years and 40-plus interviews from across the country later, they’re screening the movie and raising awareness of the art form, which was hurt by the introduction of cheaply made vinyl signs in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but is now experiencing a resurgence due to a rising awareness about authentic craft and better design.

“Once you become aware of the basic elements of sign painting, it makes you walk down the street and ingest the information you’re seeing in a different way,” says Levine. “It makes you become conscious of your visual landscape in a very different way.” 
 

SIGN PAINTERS (OFFICIAL TRAILER) from samuel j macon on Vimeo.

Nothing Major spoke to Levine and Macon about covering the craft. 

Nothing Major: While traveling around the country and talking to people in different cities, did you discover that certain regions had their own styles of sign painting? 

Faythe Levine:
It was more attached to a person than a region. So-and-so worked at a shop with this guy or under this guy, this is Gary’s 'R' or so-and-so’s 'I'. You’d meet people who knew where that particular 'S' originated.  

Sam Macon: The main regional thing, and it’s not a perfect example, would be window splashes, the bright, often temporary window painting that’s done for a sale. It was very big in Southern California in a way that we didn’t see elsewhere, where the climate allowed you to be outdoors every day painting.

Levine: The easiest way to explain it to our generation is graffiti. There’s a lot of crossover for a certain style in a certain place. 

Nothing Major: How did sign painting and graphic art inspire one another? 

Levine:
The influence [on graphic design] is more direct than most people realize. Sign painting was prevalent until we were kids. Vinyl signs really took over in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, within our lifetime. That’s why it’s such an important conversation to have. The amount of time a sign painter spends talking to people on the street versus sign painting is 50/50 sometimes. People keep asking, "What are you doing? Are you doing that?" What does it look like they’re doing, they have a paint brush in their hand? People are amazed to see people painting things on the street.

Macon: Sign painters were always tied into current trends and designs. Only recently have more people become aware. It’s more a product of a more aesthetically aware culture, especially among younger professionals. Everything needs to look cool.

Nothing Major: How would you qualify the health of the craft right now?

Levine
: People are excited about it. I feel like it’s a growing part of people’s general awareness of their surroundings.

Macon: You have the first generation really tuned into graphic design and aesthetics. There are so many more branding executives or design specialists. One person we interviewed was saying, “I need to sell myself and sign painting to these people. I just need to go to them and say 'Listen, people are coming from the building from this side and that side, and we need to play off the sign on the next building, and it needs to stand out from the sign next door.'” If you don’t know that’s an option, the default is going to your corporate office, and getting a sign, the same image they send everywhere, regardless of local aesthetics and geography. 

Levine: You don’t need to go to a fast-and-easy sign shop where they crank out this ugly vinyl banner. You can actually go to this skilled person. There’s a lot to the trade, you don’t put certain colors together, for instance. To make a 45- to 60-minute film about the history and how things happen, that was probably our biggest challenge. We started off not knowing if we had enough content, and all of a sudden we could make a miniseries. Call Ken Burns.

Nothing Major: Were there any pieces or murals you saw that you thought were masterpieces of the craft?

Macon: Probably the coolest things were old ghost signs from unnamed people. I can’t believe that nobody knows, or has any information about, how this stuff was made. People will pay extra for a refurbished old loft apartment with a fraction of a ghost sign. And some of the most dynamic stuff I’ve seen goes uncredited. I think scale is always impressive. Anyone who does something big, it takes an incredible amount of work. The guys at Colossal, who often do something really big, do some amazing projects, painting 70-foot-plus sides of buildings in the middle of winter hanging over the streets of Manhattan. There’s really too much to name one. Gary Martin in Austin doing flash art design style in his work. A lot of his work has this really cool wild style. There’s someone in Chicago like Bob Behounek, or John Downer in Iowa, their knowledge of alphabet styles, and the ability to wield a brush on a small scale. When they’re done painting, it looks like it was printed out. They can just go through fonts, whole alphabets are learned and programmed in their brains.

Levine: They have the muscle memory. John Downer can paint out the perfect Helvetica alphabet. One of the guys we interviewed said sometimes the best hand-lettered signs are the ones you don’t notice. You just don’t realize it’s there, it’s doing its job so well. He took us to this black-paint-on-white-board "no parking" sign on a church and said this was the best sign in all of Cincinnati. “Look at the brushstrokes, you can see how quickly the sign painter knocked it out.” He picked apart the sign like a science. It was the plainest sign, but it had been there for 50 years doing its job. It was perfectly done.

Levine and Macon will be on hand for a reception and screening of the film May 17 at Chicago's Logan Theater. Future screening dates in San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, and other cities in the U.S., Canada, and worldwide, can be found online