John King is on a Mission to Keep Traditional Sign Painting Alive

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Imagine, if you would, a world without signs— no doubt a terrifying, chaotic concept in any scenario. Like so much in the realm of design, the art of signage is often taken for granted, due to how deeply embedded signs are in our day-to-day lives. But sign painting is a craft that’s been practiced in America for over 150 years, and sign painters have served a vital role within communities since before much of our lives went digital. 

Sign painting first emerged as a means of identification for buildings and businesses, and then morphed into an important arm of advertising. While the introduction of computers, digital lettering, and digital printing changed the industry entirely, there are still painters keeping the craft alive and preserving the human element of a hand-painted sign. Sign painting has even seen somewhat of a resurgence over the past decade, thanks in large part to vanguards of the art form, like traditional sign writer and hand lettering artist John King.  

“I just couldn’t believe my eyes,” King told me of the first time he set foot into a sign painting workshop near his hometown of Shepparton, Australia in 1986. “Straight away, I was like, Yeah, this is what I want to do.

Then 15-year-old King had been pressured by his high school art teacher into doing a two-week long internship at a sign painting business. “He insisted that I do [the apprenticeship program Australia calls] work experience with this guy called Winton Francis, who I had never heard of,” he said. Reluctantly, King obliged. “I remember going there, thinking that it was going to be so boring. For me, a sign was just an entry sign, or parking signs— just boring stuff. That was my view of the signage world.”

But the moment he stepped through the doors of Francis’s shop, and thereby into the artistry of sign painting, King was hooked. “I remember walking in and there were air-brushed, chrome Harley Davidson letters on the wall that they were making for a dealer. They had boats and trucks with all of this elaborate scroll work,” he shared. “Winton was a genius. His whole crew worked in this super creative workshop. I spent two weeks there and I was just blown away by the whole thing— watching guys paint these perfectly straight lines with lettering brushes, perfect circles. I didn’t think it was humanly possible.”

King found himself completely captivated by signwriting in those two short weeks, and has since committed over three decades to the craft. “Basically after that I said, I want to be a signwriter. So I bought myself a brush, and spent every night after school practicing on whatever surface I could find on the farm where I lived; we had sheds, an old truck that I ended up giving a terrible pin-striping and scroll job. It was just practice, practice, practice.”

Not long after that, Francis offered King a full-time job at his shop. For about four years, King honed his craft by splitting his time working for Francis and another nearby sign painter, Arthur German. “They kind of looked after me. I was very lucky,” King reflected. “Honestly, these guys were the best sign writers that I’ve ever seen; they were just real master craftsmen, so I was very lucky to learn from them.”

Francis’s mentorship was particularly impressionable on King, with his clear admiration radiating from his voice as he recounted his backstory to me. “Winton was completely dedicated to sign painting,” he said. “When computers came in and pretty much took over the trade in the ’90s, he resisted it. All he wanted to do was paint signs. It had a severe financial impact on him because he kind of got pushed out of the way, even though I would say, to this day, that he was literally the most talented sign writer in the world. He was just an absolute artist.”  

Despite this change’s impact on some traditionalists like Francis, sign writers who have embraced certain aspects of modernity and evolved with the times have managed to find continued success in the field. King, for example, was an early adopter of sharing his work on Instagram, and he saw an immediate response to his process videos in particular. 

“When I first started posting hand lettering videos on Instagram, I was getting lots of views because people hadn’t seen it before,” he said. In many ways, King is recreating that same awe-inspiring moment that he experienced his first day at Francis’s workshop for his followers. “I remembered how I felt when I first saw someone using a brush— it was just magical. I couldn’t believe that a person could do that with their hands. So I got some camera support to start making some hand lettering videos; I thought people would like to see that. I might have been one of the first people to start doing that. The videos really started taking off, and my account grew.”

The launch of Instagram has served as a major catalyst for sign painting’s recent resurgence in popularity, and artists like King are using the platform to honor and spread the old-world handcraft. “It really reignited the flame,” he said. He also gives credit to the 2012 documentary Sign Painters, which heightened the exposure of sign painting and propelled the movement even further. “Those two things happening around the same time as each other really brought sign writing back.” 

King opened his own sign painting business in Australia at the age of 21, and he ran it for ten years before eventually moving to Los Angeles, California. “A lot of the creativity went out of the business side of it for me, because computers started coming into play,” King explained. “Things were changing, and I started getting hungry creatively again. I’ve always loved movies, film, and TV, so I decided I wanted to be an actor.” He sold his business, relocated to Melbourne for a stint, and then in 2009, won the green card lottery to move to Hollywood. 

“Straight away, I started looking around for work in the sign business, because as an actor or a filmmaker, I was nobody, so I wasn’t going to rely on that,” he said. “I ended up working on a crew of five or six, who went all over California painting Freebirds restaurants. There were about 30 of them, and all of them were hand-painted with interior murals and signs.” 

King worked on this crew for about two years, gaining his footing as a sign painter in the States and building a foundation for his current endeavors as a sign writing instructor. Now, King operates a multi-pronged sign painting empire in Los Angeles, teaching in-person workshops from his studio in West Adams, producing and selling online courses, and manufacturing his own line of sign painting supplies under the banner Letter Art.  

The pandemic forced King to put his in-person workshops on hold, but afforded him the time and space to create more online courses, which allow him to share his love of sign painting well beyond his studio. “I can teach students all around the world,” he said. “I’ve got students in Romania and Switzerland, all over the place. That’s kind of great.”

King thinks of teaching as his way of giving back to the tradition, and making sure his skills are passed down to the next generation of sign painters. “I have so much love for the actual skill of sign writing, and I would hate to see it go away,” he told me. “It’s exciting to see so many younger people being interested in it. I enjoy showing them how to do it and helping them get started.” 

Like all good teachers though, King admits he still feels like he has a lot to learn himself. “I’ll pick up a brush and paint a sign, and I’m never satisfied with it. In a way, I still feel like a student,” he said. “But then I step back and have a look, and I’ve been doing it for 35 years— now I’m one of the old guys! I’m one of the veterans of the trade. It’s funny to end up in that position when you still feel like you’ve got so much to learn yourself.”  

“I’ve basically just built my own little package within the sign world,” King said. “I’ll probably get back into actual signs one day, whether as art pieces or commissions. Once I get my head back up above water again, I’d like to get into doing more workshops and more brush lettering content for the interweb— just producing signs, because that’s what I like to do: just sit down and paint a nice sign.”