Before the age of computers and vinyl printers, sign painters worked by hand to illustrate storefronts, billboards and banners. Local craftsmen often developed a signature style that could distinguish a neighborhood, or even a city.
But technology made creating signs less expensive — and less expressive. Sign Painters, a new book and documentary written and directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, focuses on dozens of artists who are keeping the art alive.
Before Macon began working on the film, he said never thought much about sign painting.
"I had never really given any thought to the fact that this is someone's job, and the fact that individuals across America were painting signs regionally that defined the way the United States looked," Macon told NPR's Neal Conan.
Once word got out about the project in the sign-painting community, they were flooded with personal stories. "We were totally inundated in the best way, and we ended up having more content than we could track down," Macon said.
One of the painters featured in the project is Norma Jeanne Maloney. She opened her business, Red Rider Paint and Sign Studios, in 1996 in San Francisco, then relocated to Nashville; she now lives in Austin.
She says she's been captivated by typography since she was a child.
"I wouldn't do anything else regardless of what the pay is," she says. "It's like having canvasses all over town of your art."
She remembers moving to Nashville and trying to make a name for herself. She offered to paint the sign of a Nashville bar for free and got six other job offers that day.
"I handed out my cards, and I basically painted lower Broadway," says Maloney.
Macon says he hopes the project will bring new life to the craft. "Whenever you set out on a project like this, you sort of have an idea that you're going to go out and define sign painters. And as we shot more and more, and met more interesting people, we realized that you can't define a sign painter any better than you can define a radio host."