The Daily Heller: Hand-painted Signs Have a Brand-New BLAG

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BLAG (Better Letters Magazine) is off press and filled with stories and photographs of hand-painted signs. The current issue (No. 3) even comes with a “gift” poster related to a feature about artists and designers who make miniature signs. (The cover is a photo of a miniature sign show, featuring teeny-weeny signs for grocery stores and other sign-makers, replete with flat files and painting apparatuses on a paint-stained wood-plank floor. It’s a turn on.

I asked Sam Roberts, editor, sign-maker and type maven, to wax on about this feature and the magazine at large.

What distinguishes this issue from the previous ones?
The magazine has evolved in terms of the number of contributors, and the resulting diversity of voices into the publication. In many ways, the first issue was a proof of concept, and so I wrote much of its content. While I am still writing, the role of editor is now a bigger part of my work and, with that, acting as a curator for its content.

Your cover story is about miniature makers of neon signs, wall signs, truck signs and storefronts—a genre close to my heart. It seems to be a trend among artists these days. How did you locate this content?
I’ve been following the work of Emmanuel Nouaillier for 15 years, and Yasuhiro Okugawa for about three. I then saw Carl Fredrik Angell (aka Frisso) dabbling in this world of miniature signs, and he tipped me off about Chris Raley at Route 9 Signs during our interview.

While writing the feature, Danielle McGurran at City Folk Studio published her brilliant piece, The Sign Painter’s Studio, on Instagram, and I absolutely had to include it; in the end it became the first-ever limited-edition poster insert in the magazine.

This world of miniatures was fascinating to explore, and there are at least three or four other artists that I have learned about since publication. I enjoy letting my curiosity take over and seeing where I end up, and this was a brilliant case of just that.

Speaking of content, signs appear to be receiving overdue recognition of late. Is the imminent destruction of these remnants of the past driving nostalgia or something more sociological … or something else?
“It’s a dying art” was always a misinformed characterization of the craft of sign painting. Yes, the trade is smaller now than it once was, but it is certainly enjoying a purple patch. I think that businesses and the general public are demanding something more human and authentic, and that certainly comes from a hand-painted sign.

The movie Sign Painters helped get the craft in front of a wider audience, and social media has also played a big role in making people aware that this kind of work can be commissioned. Social media has also helped to connect the global community of sign painters, which is also an objective of the magazine.

The feature in the current issue devoted to optical illusions is fascinating. Do you see a lot more of this popping up? And is it thanks to the computer in creating models or templates?
Sign painting has a long history of playing tricks on the eye, in particular giving dimensionality to letters painted on flat surfaces. The artists profiled in the current issue are pushing these techniques to extremes, and the results are mind-boggling.

Yes, I think that computers can help in the design phase, although Rachel Joy expresses her desire to work as much as possible without them, wanting her pieces “to have come from someone having to draw it out” and “exercising my brain to try and figure it out.”

How do you see the future of BLAG unfolding? And by extension, where is sign painting headed?
Mainly it is about keeping it going, and bringing more voices into the fold so that that the magazine represents the trade as it is today. I believe it is important to have something print when so much “content” is ephemeral, especially on social media.

Colt Bowden of Gold Hand Signs recently wrote to me about this, pointing out that “our publications on paper will stand the test of time and be what’s left on sign-painters’ bookshelves.” It’s funny to think that someone who isn’t born yet might be flicking through the pages of BLAG in 30 years’ time!

I recently added an online events program to the publication, which offers another way of connecting the global community of sign painters and sign-painting aficionados. I am exploring more ways of doing this, and acting as a conduit between our trade and the world beyond.

Obviously much of the tradition still rests in countries like Argentina, where fileteados are still commonly created. What are the surprise wellsprings of hand-painted signs left to discover?
There is exciting work happening across Latin America, Asia and Africa. These places have rich sign-painting cultures and histories, which are often overlooked and under-documented. From the outset I have taken a very international focus with BLAG, and this will only grow in the future; the next issue will see our adventures in sign painting touch down in Colombia, Ghana, Pakistan and Singapore, among many other locations.

One last question: How do you support such an ambitious project, especially as a print publication?
BLAG is a reader-funded publication and takes no advertising. This places the membership/subscription at a premium versus equivalent industry publications. But this means that every single page is given over to the core content, and that there are no popups or other annoyances.

There are significant costs in curating, editing, designing, printing and distributing a quality publication, but the community of members has been hugely supportive of my efforts so far. As long as this continues, and their number steadily grows, I will continue to do this work that I enjoy so much.

If any readers of The Daily Heller would like to sign up, this link will give a $20 discount on the regular annual membership rate. This includes issue three, and the poster insert, shipped straight away to anywhere in the world.

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