We tapped talented local San Francisco sign painter, Michelle Nguyen to curate our upcoming group show But Where Are You Really From? This show celebrates the work of a group of diverse sign painters from around the world. Read below to learn a bit about a few of the artists before you party with us at their opening!
How did you discover the world of sign painting? When did you know it was something you wanted to pursue?
Erick Anguiano: I’ve always been attracted to letters ever since I was a child. Something about the style of hand-painted signs really attracted me & I started really liking signs and their layouts. I knew I wanted to pursue sign painting since I was young but never knew a pathway to get there. I always tried to learn on my own, but when I found LA trade tech I realized I could get a degree in sign painting and I jumped on the chance, thankful such a program exists.
Napang Boonpaung: After working as a graphic designer for five years in Thailand, I just got tired of it. I knew that I needed to explore for new experiences and to learn new skills. So, I decided to move to LA then I found the Sign Graphics class on LATTC’s website. After I read a description about this class, I thought this might be something I was looking for. And when I started the first semester in Sign Graphics, I totally fell in love with Sign Painting.
Charmaine Chen: It was back in my days at uni, where I was based in Sydney. I took a workshop from someone looking to pass the craft down and that just was the beginning of me falling down the sign painting rabbit hole…!
That one course gave me the courage to take up small jobs of painting random things for cafes and local businesses in my neighbourhood, which eventually led to bigger jobs and meeting and learning from more people within the sign painting community. It was kind of a domino effect - I realised that there was something truly special to me about this craft when I felt lucky to work for hours on end, completely immersed and having a good time without watching the clock!
Lauren D’Amato: I was introduced to sign painting by my father and two uncles who all worked in a shop together. I was fortunate to have them notice my artistic inclinations at a very young age. As Sign painters, they used their technical knowledge to teach me the fundamentals of composition and design which has informed both the way I approach my own painting, and my sign making. I got almost all the way through my BFA in painting here in San Francisco, before I realized that I had landed in the middle of a back to the craft movement; and that picking up the family tradition might actually be a feasible way of supporting myself.
Ashley Fundora: Growing up in Miami I was always inspired by the Art Deco signage in Miami Beach and hand painted signs in Key West. It began informing my art from a young age. After receiving my BFA, I lived in NYC for a bit. It wasn’t until summer 2012, when I moved to San Francisco that I kept noticing all the hand-painted signs around town. I was eager to learn and soon after landed an apprenticeship at New Bohemia Signs. Learning from Damon Styer and my fellow sign-painters in the New Bohemia Signs family created the strong foundation for the sign painter I am today.
Alfonso Garcia: So, the way I discovered sign painting was through a friend of mine that was taking a course at Los Angeles Trade Tech College, which he explained shortly after on what the course was about. I knew right away that I would wanna be doing this as my next career, especially having a graffiti background and already having a love for lettering.
Nick Lee: I was born into the world of sign painting. My father started in the sign industry in 1970 and bought Studio Signs in 1984 when I was 2 years old. I had a showcard painted for my birth by my dad’s co-worker sign writers. I grew up in the sign shop and helped out after school and during the summers. When I finished school I worked for UPS for six years. It was during this time I realized that art was my calling; not driving trucks and delivering packages. I decided to go full time into the sign business and have never looked back.
Michelle Nguyen: I had admired sign painting from afar around the time I got into chalk lettering. It was something I glorified and saw as unattainable since I had zero experience working with paint. I had this fear of paint as a medium and almost accepted that I’d be okay if I never went that route. It wasn’t until my partner convinced me to take a sign painting class with New Bohemia Signs that I felt differently. It was such a thrilling experience finally getting paint to paper that I knew I had to figure out how to do this more—right away!
Emmanuel Sevilla: In my early 20’s I became absorbed with photography and I began to document the city, its grit and its signs. I produced a few books containing Los Angeles advertisements, billboards, decrepit signs, and hand-painted signs. I suppose this was the beginning of structuring my path with signs and making them. After my BFA I began working in a sign shop and wanted to learn more about the traditional methods of sign painting, pre-desktop publishing. I learned about LATTC from a retired sign painter that would frequently visit my shop. The first chance I got, I enrolled in the Sign Graphics program. But I think I’ve always loved hand-painted signs. My earliest memories are of me as a little boy walking with my grandfather, funyuns bag in my hand, and the East Hollywood market advertisements in the background.
Bryan Yonki: I discovered sign painting through public transportation. I grew up in Santiago de Chile in the 90’s and I remember that every single bus in the public transportation was beautifully lettered by hand up until 2007. So basically I’d see it everywhere and I was always amazed by these signs, most of them painted by local legend, Juan Cadena.
My first approach to painted letterforms started with graffiti but eventually calligraphy and hand lettering took over my practice. Sign painting just followed as a natural evolution and even though I painted a bunch of signs in Chile during 2012/2013, I only started to pursue it professionally when I moved to Los Angeles in 2014. As soon as I got here, I realized I came to the right place to pursue this craft.
The sign painting industry, like so many others, is not a very diverse industry. How do you find yourself fitting in?
Erick: Maybe in the past, there wasn’t a lot of diversity in sign painting, but now I see a lot of variation in culture and women painters.
Napang: I am not sure yet if I fit in this industry or not. I am just trying to do my best on every project that I work on.
Charmaine: My outlook of the market in Singapore was pretty bleak when I first moved back home - Faster, cheaper and more temporary options of signage always pop up before the idea of sign painting, so I found it hard to establish a community locally that would support it. However, there seems to be a revival happening now where old trades are making a comeback so I’m riding that wave and I’m not going anywhere or giving up…!
Lauren: The sign painting community is very different now from how I had observed it growing up. Although a lot of the old stigmas around sign painters are undeniably present, I feel lucky at least to be working around a community that is growing out of a lot of that and in a time when the work is desirable again. It’d be much harder to have been a female sign painter say a decade or two ago, and we’ve got a lot of hard working and vocal predecessors to thank for that.
Ashley: Although I am a minority, there are a good group of culturally diverse women artists I admire and feel lucky to call friends. I am just going to continue to work hard and take on clients who value what I do, produce art I am proud of and do my best to share it with my community.
Alfonso: Well luckily in Los Angeles it is very diverse so I had the experience to see other sign artists being different ethnicity, age, and gender from me. As for age range, you would see anywhere from 18 years of age to 50 years old.
Nick: Luckily for me, my father brought me into the sign painting community in Portland, OR and they have been very open and welcoming to me. Yes, they ask questions about my culture but I am happy to share and give them solid information. We are truly building some bridges and increasing understanding about each other.
Michelle: A lot of the time it can feel like a white boy’s club so I try not to let it get to me, especially now since I can see the industry changing. I reach out to other sign painters constantly, whether that’d be for advice or just to be there to hype them up. We’re in this together so we might as well lift each other up! Representation plays such a big role in what we do and how we see ourselves—I happened to come across a video of a Vietnamese sign painter talking about his craft and I got so emotional about it. I definitely know they exist in Vietnam because the proof is clear in the signage they leave, but to see and hear one in the flesh made all the difference. It hits home harder!
Emmanuel: I don’t know if it’s about fitting in, because I don’t really care to fit in. For me it’s about having an influence on the industry, the craft, my peers, and students. And if I could have any sort of influence, it would be to question everything. Question tradition, question your mentors, and really challenge our own cognitive biases.
Bryan: Fortunately Los Angeles is a very diverse city, so I’ve always felt pretty comfortable being a Latinx sign painter here. I have the impression that also it’s been getting gradually less and less a male-dominated industry and last year’s “Pre Vinylette” show in Chicago came to prove that, bringing visibility to this fact. I think everyone involved in the industry have so much love for the craft that is helping to steer it into the right direction in terms of embracing diversity.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Erick: Knowing I can use my work to do everything from providing a service for my community to spreading an inspirational or political message. Letters are magical to me.
Napang: Living in a cool city like LA, there are a bunch of good hand-painted signs around me. I always observe and learn from them. Not only in LA but when I travel to another city I like to walk around and look up signs. I am always so excited every time when I see ghost signs that have survived for many-many years.
Charmaine: I’ve always had a hidden penchant for collecting and sort of hoarding old things - Anything from used tin cans to matchboxes. I do my best to document older style packaging or ghost signs that I come across, I feel that it’s my duty to catch them before they’re gone forever!
Lauren: I love that sign painting can turn every walk I take into an anthropological hunt for the handmade. I find inspiration in almost all storefronts, uninformed signs, painted mascots and characters are also particularly appealing.
Ashley: When it comes to making art and painting signs I love visiting my local sign shop and artist friends. Working alongside my twin sister in our studio. Other forms of art like music and film. My library of books that I reference when I am in doubt about a layout or certain color combo and need to practice some more alphabets.
Alfonso: My inspiration came from the streets of LA and signs I would see driving by or finding in a book. I would soon later be drawn to different lettering from tattoos to graphic designers, calligraphy, and many more. Getting pulled from every direction was very overwhelming, in a good way, knowing that this chapter would be a never-ending learning process and drawing the line on what is traditional sign painting and what isn’t, from fonts to colorways being used.
Nick: I’m fortunate to have a walking sign painting encyclopedia in my father; he always offers examples, constructive criticism, and encouragement when needed. Hunting for old signs out in the wild is also a great way to find inspiration. Besides that, I really enjoy the sign painting community on social media and often find creative stimuli online.
Michelle: I find inspiration through the work of my peers, vintage packaging, and hand-painted signage in Vietnam. I try to incorporate elements from different resources to get something fun going. Sometimes I spend way too much time in this part of the process because the inspiration sends me down endless rabbit holes!
Emmanuel: Living in the city, walking and driving has always been my source of inspiration.
Bryan: I think my aesthetics have definitely changed since my days painting signs in Santiago. The traditional American style of sign painting is where I found most of my inspiration nowadays, especially old signage. I like the work of Mike Meyer where you can see beautiful lettering with a slight imperfection that makes it beautiful. I like Doc Guthrie´s and Bob Behounek´s amazing layouts, Mike Stevens styles, etc. There’s a lot of tradition in this craft to be inspired by. Of course, Los Angeles is also a great source of inspiration for me, there are so many sign painters and hand-painted signs that is impossible not to feel inspired by it.
What are your favorite types of projects to work on?
Erick: I like them all, I really can’t choose.
Napang: I don’t have any specific favorite types. I am simply happy to paint any kind of signs. :)
Charmaine: I like projects that request that I make something look old. I think it’s easier to make a shiny, brand new sign. But replicating the natural patina that come with days and years of weathering, can become a whole lot more fun and challenging.
Lauren: I really love packing up a kit and wandering out to do some impromptu vehicle lettering. It can be very satisfying to fluidly draw and paint something in a short period of time. I’d say my favorite projects similarly take place outdoors.
Ashley: I love custom designing and painting logos/letters for small businesses. Painting signage that incorporates pictorials. Larger scale custom murals and I have a soft spot for working with copper leaf.
Alfonso: My favorite projects to work on would be any that allow me to travel & meet other artists with same motives. As for as a style, I would say big scale gold leaf projects. Because I feel like it is a very rewarding process as you get closer to the final result.
Nick: When working big, my favorite type of projects to work on are hand painted signboards and wall jobs. They allow for developing brush and body control as well as relaxed breathing and effective perspective. After being face to face with a large sign, I love standing back after finishing and taking it all in as a whole.
When working small, my favorite type of project to work on is screen printed reverse glass gilding. I admire the level of fine detail achieved through the screen printing process and it works wonderfully in conjunction with gold leaf and enamel color blends.
Michelle: Working with local businesses has been an enriching experience for me—especially with us both being small, trusting each other throughout projects, and watching each other grow! Commissions that go beyond the typical storefront are favorites of mine too. It’s always fun to hear how open people are and how they want to apply my work into their lives—like when I made a “take off your shoes” sign in a home or grocery-inspired paper signage for a wedding :)
Emmanuel: My favorite projects are ones with creative freedom and suitable working conditions. In recent years I’ve been more interested in calligraphic approaches/single stroke lettering techniques where it’s more about stroke sequence and less about filling in drawn patterns.
Bryan: Definitely my favorite projects are the ones where I get to design my own signs, especially storefronts. Unfortunately these don’t come very often, I think the concept of branding is so strongly built in our brains that even small businesses rely more on graphic designers than sign painters to design their storefronts. Still, it’s very satisfying to paint their logos and see their shops come to life. In general, any project where my client values my work and is able to appreciate the beautiful imperfections that comes with it, is a successful project to me. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of big wall signs for advertisements and I’m really enjoying these type of projects too.
Tools you can’t live without?
Erick: My quills.
Napang: I would say everything in my toolkit.
Charmaine: Brushes, pencils, mahl stick, pounce wheels, pounce pad, ruler, spirit level, the list goes on…!
Lauren: I can’t live without my personal favorites, clear flexible rulers, brown stabilo pencils, and imitation gold color one shot!
Ashley: My Carhartt overalls, self-centering measuring tape, stabilo pencils and of course my lettering quills!
Alfonso: Tools that I could not live without would be my brushes, level, paint, and music!
Nick: The basic tools of the trade are charcoal, brushes (quill & fitch), and enamel sign paint; those are the essentials for painting a sign. But I truly appreciate the computer, projector, and my electro pounce for saving valuable time.
Michelle: This is tough since I feel like every tool I use has its place and I can’t live without any of it! My paint brushes, palette knife, scrappy notebook, pencil, and awl are probably the bare minimum that I’ll need to whip something out!
Emmanuel: A good quality lettering brush, Leatherman multi-purpose pocket knife and a writing utensil of some sort. Anything I can sketch or draw with, a pen, pencil or brush-pen.
Bryan: My brushes, mineral oil, mineral spirits, and a stabilo pencil.
Who or what is your idea of a dream client?
Erick: I love when I’m given full creative control. :)
Napang: Every client is my dream.
Charmaine: I’d be pretty happy if someone approached me to paint something totally different from what I have done, like part a government body or the face of a high-rise building.
Lauren: Dream clients are trusting of my ability to visualize the final product, and desire period correct lettering! If anyone reads this and knows of a Bay Bombs car owner who would like some lettering on their vehicle please give me a call!
Ashley: One that will give me the freedom and trust hand-paint something for their business, compensate me fairly for quality work and expect it executed in a reasonable time-frame.
Alfonso: My dream client would be any brands or artist that I look up to that I can create artwork for or collaborate with. That would range from clothing brands to music, artists, and more.
Nick: We are pleased to have had McMenamins Pubs & Historic Hotels as a client since 1984 and continue to hand paint signs for them on a consistent basis, we really dig their artistic trippy style.
Otherwise, I think it would be fun to do a whole building or big house with eccentric large scale wall lettering, murals and gilded windows.
Michelle: The dream client gives me that good balance of freedom and restraints to get me going, who are down for check-ins to keep us both on track. They are open to ideas, mediums, and reasonable deadlines. I don’t have a specific dream client in particular but I do have a dream project of painting a large scale mural that needs to involve lifts or a swing stage.
Emmanuel: My dream client would be someone that sponsored my creative pursuits. Paid me to paint and letter all of my crazy ideas. But that’s not really commercial work.
Bryan: Basically someone who understands the benefits and limitations of what can be achieved with a hand painted sign. I think in this case tattoo artists would be the closest to that, they always give you full artistic freedom on the design and will never try to bargain the price.
Mark your calendars for Friday, July 6th, so you don’t miss the opening reception of this incredible show. To learn even more about the artists, visit butwherereally.com. Also be sure to follow @butwherereally on Instagram for sneak peeks of the work and upcoming announcements for workshops and other events.