One of the first things I noticed when I moved to L.A. was all of the signs. From the old flickering neon outside of liquor stores and donut mom-and-pops, to auto body shops with their services charmingly painted from top to bottom, I was immediately taken by this recurring visual flourish. I am far from alone in my reverence for L.A.’s old world advertising; custom letterer Bryan Yonki has been helming the hand-painted sign appreciation club for years. After moving from Chile in 2014, Yonki began documenting his love of L.A. signage on his Instagram account, @handpaintedinLA, where he’d post photos of the very many windows, walls, trucks, and more that caught his eye around the city. Now, he’s converted this account into a book, which was released earlier this month.
I jumped at the chance to learn more about Hand-Painted in L.A. from Yonki directly, as he generously offered to answer a few questions from a fellow sign lover. Below, Yonki unpacks his journey as a sign painter, and dissects his general infatuation with an old world craft that I can’t get enough of either.
What’s the origin story of this book?
The book originated from an Instagram account I started in 2017 with photos of hand-painted signs taken with my phone around Los Angeles.
At the time, I had been living in L.A. for three years and had been consistently taking photos of signs, pretty much since the day I arrived. Around that time, I started to notice the disappearance of some of the ones I had photographed. The idea behind the account was to give these signs a place to live and be appreciated after the commercial life they served in our urban landscape, and create community with fellow sign enthusiasts.
I later decided to transform the Instagram feed into a printed book when I moved to Portland, Oregon in 2022. It became clear to me that not living in L.A. anymore was the end of the documenting process. That was the catalyst to turn this project into a physical version.
I love books and have a fascination with physical ones, so it felt like a natural thing to do after going through my archive and realizing I had collected over 1,500 signs between 2014 and 2022. I had been posting fairly consistently on the account, and now I wanted those signs to have a life of their own outside the Instagram grid— something I could hold in my hands.
What was the process like adapting @handpaintedinLA into a book? What was your favorite part of the process? What was most challenging?
This is my first book, so I was totally unfamiliar with the process of making one, and I had to learn all the aspects involved in self-publishing.
After collecting all the images, I got in touch with Ethan Hassi, who had attended one of my sign painting workshops in Portland. I explained the project to him, and together we looked at several books that served as inspiration for what we wanted this book to feel like. I handed him all the photos, and he took on the arduous task of editing it and creating the collage-like layout that you can see on the book. He worked on that for about a year while I was working on the visual aspects of the book: coming up with the book title, the book cover, and creating the graphics I painted for it.
My favorite part was to share the project with others and feel their excitement. Once I had the printed book for the first time in my hands, I was so eager to start sharing what I’d been working on for the past year. I really enjoyed the process of planning how to tell people about the project. It involved doing some research and taking the time to write my ideas clearly in order to share the decision-making process involved in the book. English isn’t my first language, so that came with its own challenges, but to my surprise, I found myself enjoying that part of the process a lot.
I think the most challenging part was staying motivated and keeping the momentum going throughout the whole process. As an artist, I’m used to working on projects for weeks at a time, so I had to adapt to the pace of a longer deadline. This demanded me to be really patient in order to see the idea through.
Why are you so captivated by hand-painted signs?
It’s challenging to put into words, but my fascination with hand-painted signs stems from personal experiences and my own curiosity. The first time I saw someone painting a sign was in Chile when I was around 12 or 13 years old. One of my aunts was opening up a beauty salon near my middle school, and one day, I was walking back home and saw a guy painting letters on her storefront with a brush. I didn’t make much of it, but something clicked when I understood that there was a person holding a brush behind the sign, and I’d look at the sign whenever I’d get haircuts from her.
When I went to high school, I started taking public transportation buses every morning. All the signs in these buses were hand-painted, so I grew up surrounded by them on a daily basis. In 2007, the public transportation system in Santiago changed, and all the new buses came with standardized vinyl signs. It was then that I noticed the disappearance of this art form and became aware of how captivating these signs were to me.
There’s a charm to these signs. I believe it relates to the fact that usually it’s the small imperfections that serve as evidence of how it was made, and the way it was made is evidence of how much the owner cares about their business. Today it’s cheaper and easier to get something printed on vinyl, and businesses are becoming more and more aesthetically corporate, so perfection has become the standard.
There’s something of value in the small imperfections that a human hand can add when conveying a message for a business. It’s emotional, it’s visceral, and that’s how this art form can help businesses thrive in a way other mediums can’t. The medium is part of the message.
When did you first dive into the world of sign painting yourself?
I initially delved into sign painting during my college years in Santiago, Chile. I got into graffiti during high school, which led me to start observing and drawing letterforms consistently, but I didn’t really grab a paintbrush until I was in college. I was still attending school for psychology when I got paid to paint my first set of windows. It was for a burrito spot I’d have lunch at every week and ended up befriending the owner. He trusted my amateur skills enough to pay me for putting some paint on it.
This experience opened my eyes to understanding the commercial value of hand-painted signs, while also witnessing how more and more businesses preferred to have stickers on their windows, so I didn’t really see a path forward in pursuing it. It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles that I realized this trade was very much alive there, and decided to pursue it more seriously and leave behind my plans of becoming a psychologist.
I learned mainly through practice and workshops. Although I was aware of the L.A. Trade Tech Sign Graphics program, after attending college for six years in Chile, I wasn’t ready to go back to school for another two. So I chose the path of teaching myself this craft.
What makes L.A. such a particularly ripe city for hand-painted signs?
While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for the city’s suitability for hand-painted signs, I believe its rich cultural diversity plays a significant role. I’m originally from Santiago, Chile, then moved to Los Angeles in 2014 and lived there for eight years. It’s the first city I lived in that wasn’t my hometown, and it’s the city where I became a sign painter, so it holds a very special place in my heart.
While living there, I met so many different people from so many different backgrounds that I believe we all bring those different influences to the trade. In my case, for example, the signs I grew up seeing in Chile are definitely part of the aesthetic DNA of my imagery, which shows through in my work. Sign painters are partly in charge of what cities look like, and I believe L.A. represents its diversity through the vernacular graphics you can find there.
Do you have a favorite hand-painted sign in L.A. you find yourself thinking about more than others, or that you try to emulate in your own work?
Absolutely— my favorite hand-painted signs are the ones on the front and back cover of the book. Both located in Highland Park, they exemplify the unique aesthetic I’m drawn to.
Due to my early influence back home, I gravitate towards a certain type of aesthetic that exists outside of the tradition and doesn’t necessarily follow any design or sign layout rules. These are signs where the brushwork is evident at first glance. Purists of the tradition might call it “bad,” “sloppy,” “untrained,” or “poor work,” because it doesn’t fit into the academic knowledge of letterforms or layout, but that is the type of work I find myself referencing or emulating the most. That is probably the common thread between the hundreds of signs that you’ll find in the book.
In your expert opinion, what makes a hand-painted sign worthy of snapping a photo of and sharing with the masses?
Appreciation for hand-painted signs varies from person to person, as beauty is subjective. Personally, I believe any sign that resonates with someone’s aesthetic sensibility is worth capturing and sharing. I refrain from labeling signs as “good” or “bad,” since we’re all on a learning journey.
The signs included in the book are the ones that simply caught my attention. They weren’t chosen based on perfection, but rather their unique visual appeal and the stories they tell about the city’s vernacular. Fellow sign painter Bob Dewhurst said to me that it’s one of his favorite books because it’s full of “real signs, the kind of signs real sign painters paint to make a living and serve the public.”
He gets it.