Where letters, art collide

While indie film highlights US renaissance, the talents of Tacoma artist already surround us

Staff writerAugust 16, 2013 

Sign-painter and Tacoma artist Chris Sharp works in his home studio.


Chris Sharp’s signs won’t blare in your face as you exit off Interstate 5. They don’t scream at you from buildings or walls, don’t hit you with a blast of computer-generated color.

They’re small, funky, matching the groove of Tacoma businesses such as the Grand Cinema and Satellite Coffee. And they’re all absolutely original, because Sharp, like the two dozen artists in the new indie movie “Sign Painters,” makes signs the old fashioned way: by hand.

“There are a lot of great sign shops in town,” says Sharp. “But they began making a machine and paying some guy minimum wage who had no design skills as a way to save money. (Now) people want to have more of an experience, want more connection with their branding.”

And so they choose Sharp, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts from Washington State University, and a string of local awards and commissions to his credit (the 2008 Foundation of Art award from the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, City of Tacoma murals). Sharp was interested in sign painting in art school in the late ’90s, but no one wanted him to make typefaces by hand.

“It was all computers,” Sharp says. “You weren’t allowed to do hand-drawn images.”

Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, co-authors of the book “Sign Painters” and co-directors of its sister film of the same name, make exactly that point in an introduction: “Like many skilled trades, the sign industry has been overrun by the techno-fueled promise of quicker and cheaper. The resulting proliferation of computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering and inkjet printers has ushered a creeping sameness into our landscape.”

Enter the renaissance of the artisan sign painter. Whether trained in digital graphic design or painting (Sharp does both), people such as Sean Barton in Seattle and Ira Coyne in Olympia – both featured in “Sign Painters” – embrace the idea of the slow, the personal, the original.

“We think sign painting is benefiting from a renewed interest in process – how things are made, where products come from, and who provides a quality service,” write Levine and Macon. “People seem to be disenfranchised with quick, cheap and disposable. ... They want to know where their clothing was made. They want to know the farmer they get their tomatoes from. And when they open up a new business, they want to know who paints the sign.”

For painters themselves, there’s also an attraction in hand-creating signs.

“I like mixing color, the physicality of interacting with the medium,” says Sharp, who works out of his East Tacoma house to create the signs he’s made for the Grand, Satellite, Tacoma Bike, Teaching Toys and Books, Puget Sound Pizza and other places around town. “I (also like) the ability to reproduce typeface with paint.”

But these days it’s not easy to learn how to do that. First copying typefaces out of old 1930s trade manuals he’d find in antique stores, Sharp then took some classes from local painters, getting tips. He feels like he’s still learning.

“It’s like oil painting,” he says. “It’s an oral tradition. You can’t pull it out of a book, you have to see someone do it, have them talk about it. There’s something about that that I like.”

To create a sign, Sharp begins by getting to know the product and style of the client. He thinks about it for a week or so, comes up with a design on paper, puts it into the computer, studies it for problems, reprints it and hand-fixes it. He’ll then email it to the client and make necessary changes. When everyone’s happy, he’ll paint – sometimes freehand, sometimes using a kind of stencil that he creates using an “electro-pounce” machine that burns out holes in paper along a design with an electric pen-tip.

The result is a cross between art and business. While Sharp’s signs don’t scream out on the freeway, they’re definitely giving a certain tone to local businesses: personal, casual, a little quirky; retro fonts with strong diagonal forward motion and no-frills flourish.

In fact, it’s that originality that drew the Grand to hand-painted signs.

“We loved the chalk-looking idea of the Satellite Coffee sign,” said Rachel Marecle, director of community development at the downtown cinema. “For us, it was the original look of the art. The Grand is an art-house cinema, and while a lot of our other signs are printed, we like to keep that art to show to our patrons. It’s a certain look. And the affordability is spot-on.”

While sign painting isn’t a full-time job yet for Sharp (he also works as an art handler for museums and galleries), it’s a possibility. It’s also carrying over into his fine art, affecting both the style and the medium. Murals are easier now that he’s getting more comfortable working outside on a wall, he says, and his smaller works are plugged full of juxtaposed words, symbols, and signs.

The hardest part of the job, says Sharp, is negotiating with clients who can’t make up their minds – but when it works, it works.

“Most of the signs I think are good are true collaborations, when the client and I had a real marriage of ideas, or both of us come up with something I didn’t know I could do,” he says.

Ask him his favorite sign, though, and Sharp is typically diffident.

“The mural in the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation boardroom is the one where I really thought it went well for the first time,” he says. “I had to meet the technical proficiency with typefaces, but (you also) had to see that it was hand-painted. Otherwise, why bother?” The ‘Sign Painters’ book

Along with the movie, Faythe Levine and Sam Macon created a book about the painters they interviewed, “Sign Painters” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). See ‘Sign Painters’

The film about people who create hand-painted signs, features Ira Coyne of Olympia and includes a brief appearance by Olympia’s Vince Ryland. Here are two opportunities to see it.

In Olympia

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Where: Capitol Theater, 206 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia

Tickets: $8.50 general admission, $5.50 for Olympia Film Society members, $4 for children 12 and younger

Of note: Directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon will answer questions after the film.

More information: 360-754-6670 or olympiafilmsociety.org or signpaintermovie.com

See the signs: Among the many hand-painted signs and murals in Olympia are Coyne’s at Orca Books and Rainy Day Records and Ryland’s at Tugboat Annie’s.

In Seattle

When: 7 and 9 p.m. Aug. 19-22

Where: Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle

Cost: $10 and $7

Information: 206-329-2629, nwfilmforum.org

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com

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