'Sign Painters': A Close-Up Focus On An Endangered Art

Apr 30, 2013
Originally published on April 30, 2013 5:31 pm

Before the age of computers and vinyl printers, sign painters worked by hand to illustrate storefronts, billboards and banners. Local craftsmen often developed a signature style that could distinguish a neighborhood, or even a city.

But technology made creating signs less expensive — and less expressive. Sign Painters, a new book and documentary written and directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, focuses on dozens of artists who are keeping the art alive.

Before Macon began working on the film, he said never thought much about sign painting.

"I had never really given any thought to the fact that this is someone's job, and the fact that individuals across America were painting signs regionally that defined the way the United States looked," Macon told NPR's Neal Conan.

Once word got out about the project in the sign-painting community, they were flooded with personal stories. "We were totally inundated in the best way, and we ended up having more content than we could track down," Macon said.

One of the painters featured in the project is Norma Jeanne Maloney. She opened her business, Red Rider Paint and Sign Studios, in 1996 in San Francisco, then relocated to Nashville; she now lives in Austin.

She says she's been captivated by typography since she was a child.

"I wouldn't do anything else regardless of what the pay is," she says. "It's like having canvasses all over town of your art."

She remembers moving to Nashville and trying to make a name for herself. She offered to paint the sign of a Nashville bar for free and got six other job offers that day.

"I handed out my cards, and I basically painted lower Broadway," says Maloney.

Macon says he hopes the project will bring new life to the craft. "Whenever you set out on a project like this, you sort of have an idea that you're going to go out and define sign painters. And as we shot more and more, and met more interesting people, we realized that you can't define a sign painter any better than you can define a radio host."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Before the age of computers and vinyl printers, sign painters worked by hand to illustrate storefronts, billboards and banners. Local craftsmen often developed a signature style that could distinguish a neighborhood, even a city. Technology made signs less expensive and less expressive.


NORMA JEANNE MALONEY: But how many people dropped down the brush and got a machine is astounding to me. I mean, hundreds of sign painters just threw in the towel. Like they've been lettering signs for years and said, well, we got this plotter and it's faster and there's more money in it and might as well - how do you walk away from your craft like that, you know? I just felt I can't wrap my brain on it at all.

CONAN: That's Norma Jeanne Maloney, one of the few who still hand paint signs. She's featured in the documentary and a book about her endangered art. What's the sign in your neighborhood that defines your town? 800-989-8255. Email us:talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Norma Jeanne Maloney joins us now. She's the proprietor of Red Rider Studios and she's with us from her studio in Austin, Texas. Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

MALONEY: It's good to be here.

CONAN: You describe a moment when you move from San Francisco to Nashville, and nobody there knew your work. Tell us what happened when you made an offer to a bar owner?

MALONEY: Well, basically I wanted to get my foot in the door in Nashville so I told her I would paint a sign for free if she'd let me do it because I knew one sign is on the ladder, I'd probably drum up some business.

CONAN: And did it work out?

MALONEY: It sure did. I got six jobs that day.

CONAN: So people just saw you doing and said wait a minute, that looks good to me.

MALONEY: Absolutely. There weren't any real sign painters in Nashville, and there was a lot of old faded stuff on the street, on lower Broadway and they'd go, ah, I didn't know anyone do this anymore and so I handed out my cards and I basically painted lower Broadway.

CONAN: But those owners of businesses must've known that the computerized vinyl is cheaper and faster.

MALONEY: Absolutely, they did. But, you know, I didn't make a lot of money in Nashville but I did paint a lot of signs.

CONAN: And is that its own reward?

MALONEY: Absolutely. Absolutely I wouldn't do anything else regardless of what the pay is.

CONAN: And I know you say when you go back to San Francisco, some of your signs are still there.

MALONEY: Yes. They are, and that's quite a treat. It's like having canvasses all over town. That's (unintelligible) of your art.

CONAN: How did you get into this business?

MALONEY: Well, I was 18 years old and somebody asked me to repaint some lettering on a window and I said I would be happy to do it. They said, you're good at art. I was using the wrong paint and the wrong brush and this guy came up on a bicycle, he had a long beard and he said, are you a sign painter? And I said, no, and I don't want to be because it was a horrifying experience. He said I'll be right back and then about 20 minutes he came back and he had some one-shot sign paint and a lettering quill and loaded it up for me and said try this, honey and it was - the gates of heaven opened up and it was a whole different experience. And he was just riding away and I was like thanks, stranger.


CONAN: Who was that masked man?

MALONEY: I have no idea. I'd like to thank him now. It changed my life.

CONAN: I'm sure you've had your share of disasters, though.

MALONEY: I absolutely have.

CONAN: Like?

MALONEY: Well, it's always nice when you fall off a ladder. It's really great when you put a pattern up and it takes you two hours and a big San Francisco wind comes and blows it down the street.


MALONEY: Even more amusing is the painting a sign and slipping it over to paint the other and painting it upside down and not realizing it until you've installed it at the client's location.

CONAN: That might require a few extra hours of work.

MALONEY: Absolutely.

CONAN: Now, you've worked as a sign painter. We mentioned in San Francisco, Nashville, and now Austin. What are the differences in those places?

MALONEY: Well, Austin, like San Francisco, has a great aesthetic quality. People here really care what their storefronts look like. So it's similar to San Francisco, but the sign painting is kind of taking off and having resurgence, basically, I think, based on this film and this book and kind of the revitalization that people are feeling about the craft.

CONAN: Well, let's bring in one of the people who's worked on the book. They're both called "Sign Painters." Sam Macon co-wrote and co-directed the documentary with Faythe Levine, and he joins us now from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Nice to have you with us today.

SAM MACON: It's great to be here. Thanks.

CONAN: And this is one of those crafts that I guess I didn't realize truly existed until I saw your book about it.

MACON: Well, and that's actually, sort of, the origin of the project in a lot of ways. Faythe Levine, my co-director, we had collaborated on a number of projects in the past, all like shorter format. And we wanted to work on something longer and she said, what about a documentary covering sign painting? And I said the same thing that people for the past four and a half years have said to me since we started this whole thing. I said, what do you mean sign painting?

CONAN: What do you men, yeah.

MACON: And just by asking that question and myself being a relatively aesthetically minded person, I gravitate towards, you know, good signage or, you know, the interesting looking cafe on the corner as opposed to the, you know, the chain, you know? I was surprised that I never really given any thought to the fact that this was someone's job. And that is, you know, the fact that individuals across America were painting signs, sort of regionally, you know, really developed a lot of my aesthetic preferences and defined the way, you know, the United States looked.

CONAN: There is so much expression - and I've seen some of your work in the book, Norma Jeanne Maloney. There's so much expression in what you do and yet, in a way, you're invisible.

MALONEY: Invisible? I never thought of it like that.


MALONEY: Yeah, I guess so. I guess so.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking about sign painters. What's the sign that defines your town? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Cathy is one the line with us from St. Charles in Missouri.

CATHY: Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CATHY: Oh, thank you. Actually, it's Crystal City, Missouri.

CONAN: Oh, I apologize.

CATHY: No, it's not your fault. Don't worry. First, let me say this is really an honor to be able to talk to you, and I'm devastated about the news about the program.

CONAN: Well, thank you.

CATHY: And - well, my dad was a sign painter all of his life, and he always liked to say he started at age 13. He lettered - or he just drew his sister's name on one of her schoolbooks and then everybody started wanting to have it. So he - that's what he did until just before he died at 76.

CONAN: Is there some of his work that's still around?

CATHY: Oh, absolutely. And I was just - I was so enjoying listening to her talk about, you go back to the city and you can see the work.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CATHY: I see my dad's work all over town. And people don't get their - the sides of their trucks and their store signs and all kinds of things re-lettered because they know they're not going to get the quality, and it just kind of goes on forever.

CONAN: Which - of your dad's pieces, that are still around, which is your favorite?

CATHY: Oh, gosh. Well, he painted for Crystal City, we're on the Mississippi River. And for the entrance into town sign, he hand painted this (unintelligible) the steamboat.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CATHY: And it was beautiful. And they let that go until almost you couldn't see it anymore. And then they had to take it down. But he did a huge tire in town for a tire company, and you could see it for a long way away, and everybody talked about it. So - and (unintelligible) there's a dump truck company that still has their name painted on the sides of their trucks, that he did, and don't want to paint it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, Cathy, and thanks very much for the kind words too.

CATHY: Oh, no problem at all.

CONAN: Sam Macon, there are so many examples of great art like that like Cathy's father did, these wonderful signs that are fading. And she's right, they'll never be replaced.

MACON: Well, we're hoping that they will be. And though they won't be, you know, replicated or replaced exactly the same, you know, in the - we began the film not sure if we would be able to find enough people to, you know, get the content that we needed. And then once we began - the word got out that we had begun, you know, assembling this project, we were totally inundated in the best way, of people giving us calls or emails just like that saying, you know, my dad is a sign painter, my friend is a sign painter, my grandfather was a sign painter.

And we ended up having more content than we could track down, and these were, you know, living people, working sign painters that are still out there. So just because ultimately a sign that her father painted years and years ago may be fading into non-existence, when they need to replace it, they could connect with one of the, you know, sign painters still at it, of which there are many, and get them to replace it as opposed to, you know, whipping something up at the local, you know, Fast Signs.

CONAN: Let's get Stephanie on the line. Stephanie is with us from Waverly in New York.

STEPHANIE: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

STEPHANIE: This is so timely 'cause I jumped into my car to go buy more supplies for a project I'm working on right now, and here's the story on air so I had to call.

CONAN: You're a sign painter.

STEPHANIE: I don't do it as my primary employment, but it's something I'm always doing. And, you know, I don't think I could make a living off of it, unfortunately, but there's always people who need hand-painted work, which is, you know, which is my passion and it's so fun to do.

CONAN: And what are you working on today?

STEPHANIE: Today I'm doing a t-shirt design for a dirt bike racer, kind of a custom design. But I mentioned to the screener, my favorite project from recent times was an old scuba tank that my husband welded fins on the bottom and kind of made it look like an old World War II-style bomb. And it's for a photographer friend of ours who does like pinup-style photo shoots. So this prop bomb needed some hand lettering.

And, of course, you can't go to the vinyl cut sign computerized place and have it done, so had me paint cherry bomb on the side of this bomb and he plans to use it in his photo shoot. So, you know, it's very pleased to be able to provide something for another artist in his art form and then my have work be - memorializing whatever photo shoot that ends up being used in.

CONAN: Norma Jeanne Maloney, I know it's not the only thing you're concerned about but it must be difficult to make a living doing this?

MALONEY: Actually, no. I've been making a living at this for 25 years. They've been some years that were, I think, say, in Kentucky gravy on a biscuit and some years that were kind of lame but I always have just, you know, stuck it out. But, yeah, I make a living at it. Absolutely.

CONAN: And do you have a lot of competition?

MALONEY: Actually, there aren't that many sign painters, and the sign painters that are here in Austin are my friends. I don't think we look at each other as competitors. It's more like a family. So if a job comes in now that someone doesn't want to handle, they'll refer it to me and I do likewise. So I enjoy about the trade.

CONAN: And, Sam Macon, looking at your book, it does seem that this is a - well, I was going to say fraternity but obviously a sorority as well.

MACON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it really does - certainly when it was, you know, a very robust industry, lots of different people were sign painters, and that remains true today. And, you know, whenever you set out on a project like this, you sort of have an idea that you're going to go out and define sign painters. And as we've shot more and more and met more interesting people, we realized that, you know, you can't define a sign painter any better that could define what is a radio host.


CONAN: So, Stephanie, thanks very much for the phone call.

STEPHANIE: Thank you guys. It's a great topic. Keep up the good work out there.

CONAN: Thank you. And we'd like to give our thanks also to Norma Jeanne Maloney, the proprietor of Red Riders Studios at Austin, Texas. Thanks very much for your time.

MALONEY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Sam Macon, the co-director and co-author of "Sign Painters," a book and documentary. He collaborated with Faythe Levine. His film is screening in Milwaukee on May 16th, Chicago May 17th, and you can find a link for more information on the movie at our website. He joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks very much.

MACON: Thanks for having me. It's fun.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.