New York Times

A Signpainters Collection of Love Letters


Published: November 28, 2012

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Hand-lettering, swoopy and bold, and the cowboy sign painters who practice it are the subject of “Sign Painters,” published this month by Princeton Architectural Press. Written by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, who are both artists and filmmakers (their documentary of the same name will be out early next year), it collects the tales of more than two dozen painters, only two of whom are women.

“Like truck driving, it was brutal,” said Norma Jeanne Maloney, 50, a sign painter in Austin, Tex., who knows something about both industries, having driven a truck for two years. “They held on to their secrets.”

Her tale is emblematic of the craft’s recent history: its storied, romantic past, as practiced by itinerant loners, painting billboards across the country; its clinical midpoint in the 1980s, when computer design programs (and the vinyl letters they created) caused many to give up their brushes; and its slow resurgence, fueled by the artisanal movement in food and other commodities, whose proprietors wanted to hang out a shingle reflecting the sensibility of their work. When West  Elm opened its West Elm Market branch in Dumbo last month, for example, the company hired a Philadelphia-based sign painter named Gibbs Connors for its vintage-looking signage.

Ms. Maloney started her career in San Francisco, dropping out of art school to hand-letter signs for tattoo parlors, grocery stores, cafes and coffee shops in the Mission District and beyond, and opened her own shop, Red Rider Studios. At the turn of the millennium she moved to Nashville and painted her way through the honky-tonks of lower Broadway “in about five minutes,” she said, even though she did have repeat business from the rowdier bars, like Tootsie’s, which used to suffer a smashed front window most Saturday nights.

“They paid me well for the effort,” she said. “But Sunday mornings can be tough in Nashville, hence the song, ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.’”

For the last five years, Ms. Maloney has been in Austin, living with Dawna Fisher, a manager at FedEx, her teenage daughters, two dogs and a cat, and painting not just signs but houses, album covers and her own canvases.

San Francisco in the ’90s sounds like Brooklyn right now, with hyper-local businesses hand-making this or that.

Not ever having been to Brooklyn, I think, maybe, yeah. In San Francisco, signage was about branding, and that was what was fun. I did restaurants and vintage stores and produce places, candy stores and women that made dresses by hand and a lot of antiques stores. You wanted the package to look like what you were making. People were really interested in having something different.

Can you explain what vinyl lettering is?

Oh, do I have to? You sit at your computer and do your layout, which prints and cuts the image into vinyl. As a “sign painter,” someone has to weed out the negative space. Good times!

When I moved to San Francisco in 1989, everyone said it was a waste of time to be a sign painter. People were putting down their brushes and saying, “That’s it.” I was really discouraged by my experience in art school. In the graphic design department, you were expected to produce your work on the computer. But I kept hand-lettering my stuff. My professors kept saying,“You’re going to fail if you don’t use the computer, and maybe you should be in the illustration department?” But I really like type. My kids have it now, the type disease. They’ll call me and say, “I saw a really bad sign.”

So what’s a bad sign?

Bad color choices. Bad kerning. Bad leading. Vinyl signs. I’m looking right now at a sign in a tire store in front of me. It’s a deformed Tweety Bird that says, “Cheap Tires. Cheap! Cheap!” A weird-looking, deformed Tweety Bird with a lug gun. I went over and asked the guys that work there if I could paint them a free sign.

Are you going to give them a better bird?

I am. He’s got a little pair of overalls, he’s got the gun, he’s in proportion. He doesn’t look like a Tweety Bird that got in a fight.

Why did you stop painting and go to truck-driving school?

I had a bad breakup and I needed to get out of town, and it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. It worked. But unlike the other truckers, I didn’t have a TV in my cab. So I journaled. I sketched.

What were you hauling?

Everything from Styrofoam to melons. I loved that no matter where you went, the truck-stop waitresses knew your name. I loved how the truckers treated the waitresses, and how they never talked about politics. It was like: “Fred, are we going to go there? Because I’m trying to eat my steak.”

How did you get to Austin?

I met Dawna. My little sister made me go to a gay bar in Nashville. Dawna was sitting at the bar with a friend, and he said to her, “You know, Dawna, I’ve known you all these years and I’ve never known what your type is.” And I walked in the door, and she said, “Her. Right there.” They were five minutes from walking out the door. If I’d arrived 10 minutes later, I wouldn’t have met her.

Then what happened?

I moved to Austin. I drove a city bus. I drove a concrete truck. I didn’t look forward to it. Dawna said: “Honey, I just got my yearly bonus. Why don’t you start Red Rider again?” That was five years ago. Now, I’m playing music in a band called the Texas Ex’s and hopefully doing our cover. I’m painting signs, and living the dream right now. It’s pretty cool.

A version of this article appears in print on November 29, 2012, on page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: A Sign Painter’s Collection of Love Letters.