Signs are ubiquitous in our modern, metropolitan culture. Most of the time, their purpose is mundane – to sell or direct you to something like a burger and fries special or a parking lot. But they can also be seen as an artistic responsibility to the community at large.
Artists around the world are utilizing the tradition of sign-making to create new and innovative messages. By melding high and low art – combining advertising with art for spiritual and emotional gains – these artists demonstrate how signs can tackle creative challenges and reshape today’s visual landscape.
Left: Powers’ sign-styled artwork in Brooklyn; Right: signs ready to see the world from Powers’ studio
Stephen Powers is an institution in the sign world. Stemming from a history in graffiti writing, his career veered toward hand-painted signs and sign-based art projects in cities that have become important to him; namely Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Powers’ deep seated throne in the “sign scene” is twofold.
First, he creates hand-painted, sign-style imagery in commercial spaces with a message that focuses on artistic and spiritual purposes – rather than commerce. These projects include huge signs on Macy’s parking lots and other storefronts around downtown street spaces and subway lines that he believes have lost their visual flair. He hopes that providing non-commercial messages with hard-hitting themes, he can use the visual communication of the streets to provide art to the masses in an easily identifiable way.
In the spirit of beautification, he also provides free signage for small neighborhood businesses in his area. He’ll not only paint artistic signs on their walls, but also to use the signature style as an attraction to these small businesses. In this way, he uses his creativity to attract people there for the sake of art, rather than the standard commercial objectives.
Way Out West
Billboard art in San Francisco’s mission district as a part of the Way Out West project
Way Out West is an artistic idea that found its footing in the San Francisco Mission district. Using billboard and bus shelter spaces that previously held advertisements as locations for art. Walking through the streets and looking at these common spaces, one can easily overlook these reinvented canvases. While many of these new “signs” contain only visual images, some (like the one above) use standard signage tropes to convey a different kind of directive.
In taking this everyday space and transforming it into art, it brings eyes back to the creative and has the ability to jolt viewers from their routines while managing to bring art to everyday life. Instead of disseminating a capitalist and commercial message, this project aims to use space for alternate means.
Typography by painter Kafeel, recently digitized
Once upon a time, the only signs made were ones that were being painted, elevating the role of designers like you much akin to artists. While today a designer might scroll through free font lists to find one that suits theirs’ and their clients’ needs, in the past this role went to hand-painters, who would create original hand painted lettering. This tradition was rife in India, however the country’s rapid globalization has led away from this custom and towards “the future” of vinyl signs.
In order to save this country’s rich visual history, the HandPaintedType project is traveling India and connecting with the last of these original sign makers. The project is documenting their original lettering and digitizing it so the visual history can be preserved for future generations, as well as allowing the country’s tradition to thrive into the future together with the new technology instead of aside from it as a struggling soon-to-be-lost art.
This project, and the signs that it draws from and will create in the future do so much more than denoting a selling point or information. The imagery takes on a life of its own as it becomes more than just letters and becomes a country’s heritage – a heritage that through this project will, indeed, remain.
No matter the method, these artists and designers prove that sign design can be so much more than an announcement or words on a billboard. By manipulating these signage spaces and and histories, these signs and letters can become a part of a new culture that merges old and new, and art and capitalism.