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- Graphic Design , Typography

Mike Meyer – Sign Painting

Not so long ago all signs were painted by hand. Mike Meyer grew up in rural Minnesota and came into contact with this rather unglamorous craft as a child. Today Meyer is one of the great masters of this craft and he loves to pass on his knowledge to young designers. But for him, too, sign painting is always an ongoing learning process: »You never get perfect, you just get more practise.«

Photo: Rob Smalley


How did you get into sign painting?

I was the middle son of three boys and I had to be watched, because I was kind of a hell-raiser. So I spent my time at my dad’s barber shop. There I saw everything my dad did and in between customers he would paint signs. I loved that and wanted to do it too. He did it just as a hobby. Customers would come and say »Hey, George, can you paint me a sign« and eventually he would tell them: »The boy can do it.« That’s how I got started.
   I also went to a school here in Minnesota for a one-year course and after that I got a job locally at a sign shop. That was my training, Otherwise I sought out the local sign painters in the area and I knew all their letters styles. An??other influence was race cars. My dad took me to stock car races and I was fascinated by the paintings on the cars. Later on I went to the guys, who did those paintings. Some of them were not so friendly and said: »What do you want, you don’t want to do this job, do something else.« But when I said you are my idols, they helped me a little bit.



Was sign painting more common in those days?

Oh yes. The computer didn’t come around until 1982, so when I started in 77 everything was done by hand. The first sign painting shop I worked at, there was a commercial artist, he would do all the sketches and drawings. Then sales men would go out and sell the job and then it would finally come to the painters. We then did all the patterns and this and that, so I was way down the ladder. But I also got to see how everything was produced.
   Tough love it was. »You don’t wanna do this kid. Get out o’ here. Do it like this.« But it was a lot of thumping like this that made me think: You don’t want me to do this? You don’t think I can do it? Well, I’ll show you!
   I tried to turn the negative into the positive and that’s what I try to do with my teaching today: Get on with it, you can do better!



Are you as strict, as your teachers were?

Yes, maybe. It all came from my father. He would never say »Well done«, but he got me into sign painting. The first job I got as a giddy 15-year-old was to paint Mazeppa town hall and I was so excited. When I got to the W in town hall, he came over and he goes »That W is wrong, wipe that off, it looks like a V, get it right!« I just went down the ladder and threw the brush at him. Then I thought, maybe he’s right. Wiped it off, got it done. And he came back, looked up and said »Yes«. That was all. I’ll show you – that was his kind of teaching to me.



Were people back then more aware of good sign painting and the art of writing letters?

I think the difference was: Back then you had bad-looking signs and you had really good-looking signs, but they were all hand-done. Today you have bad-looking signs and good-looking signs, the difference is, the bad-looking ones still have perfect letters. Because it’s done by computer, people don’t know anything about spacing and smash it all together. Now you get perfect letters, but bad workmanship.
   And that’s what I tell at my class: Don’t be so fussy. You are not designing for other sign painters and the general public will not notice the difference. They just want their sign to say »For sale« and a phone number. They just want to make money. That’s the business part you have to know when you want to be a sign painter. Otherwise you will worry about shadows and using airbrush, but that’s not what it’s about. You got to get down to the bare bones of it: We make signs so people can make money.

Lettering by Mike Meyer


But is that still the case, isn’t sign painting nowadays rather an art form?

Yes. People are realizing, the computer just made everything perfect. It’s all the same cookie-cutter stuff. And after a while people wonder, hey, what is it about those old signs that I like? And then they realize, I want it hand-done, I want to see a little mistake. I want two letters together, two »O’s« and I want to see one a little bit different than the other. Now more people want it the way how it’s naturally done, that’s why it’s coming full circle.

What kind of customers do you work for?

That can be anything, someone wanting a giant billboard painting to a little mail box pin striped. Restaurants, store fronts and windows, light signs to race cars. It’s quite a variety.

Over the past few years we saw a trend towards handmade things and old crafts. Is that also true for hand lettering?

Oh, absolutely! Even big companies like Gap, Target and Adidas send their designers to my classes to get that look. And a lot of chalkboard artists who do coffee shops come. But I think it will survive being a fad, because it is something that was always here and always will be. It’s a genre with a distinct look!

Interview: Christine Moosmann

This interview was first published in novum 04.18 (main topic: handmade). Single copies: :


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