Sometimes you'll see a faint image shimmering off the side of a brick building – a ghostly reminder of what ad signage used to be before vinyl banners and precut plastic stick-on letters. Without diving too deep into the technical with a discussion of leading and kerning, let's just stipulate that hand-painted lettering's very imperfections are what makes it so perfect. And whether their words are swooping in flying curlicues or sitting bold and stolidly blocky, hand-lettered signs possess a soul that no machine-made sign can imitate.
Call it an art form or a commercial trade, hand-painted signage is enjoying a revival. Kenji Nakayama, an artist and commercial sign painter from Boston by way of Hokkaido, is in the vanguard on both fronts.
"I wanted to become a craftsman who makes a living off of a special skill set. Commercial art was something more attractive to me than fine art, and sign painting was something I wanted to learn for my future career when I made my mind to leave Japan for Butera," Nakayama says about his mid-2000s education at Boston's legendary (and now closed) Butera School of Art, an institution that was dedicated to teaching and preserving the traditional skill.
Since Butera's shuttering, only one school in the country, California's Los Angeles Trade Technical College, teaches this vanishing trade. But the resurgence in traditional, handmade products feeds the desire for traditionally hand-made ad graphics. That small-batch mustard or artisanal mustache wax can't be repped with a vinyl banner or some janky stick-ons, after all.
Of course, signs can do more than just advertise products; sometimes they advertise need. In 2013, Nakayama's Signs for the Homeless project made an art-world splash. He lent his talents to homeless Bostonians who populated corners holding battered cardboard placards, repainting their messages of hardship and privation with bright colors and attention-grabbing letterforms. It's a project that combines social practice art, performance art and commercial graphic art in one package, and it brought Nakayama to the attention of Alya Poplawsky and Katy Bakker, the partners of AK Art Consulting, who also currently curate Twelve21 Gallery's art shows.
- photo from "Signs for the Homeless" via Kenji Nakayama
"Although his work was not a good fit for our corporate clients, we always had him at the back of our minds, as tends to happen with impactful artists we come across in our [consulting] work," Poplawsky says. "When Twelve21 Gallery told us that a sign painting show was something they had always wanted to do, we were like, 'Eureka!'"
There are plenty of contemporary artists exploring the vernacular of sign-painting in their work (like Stephen Powers and Baron Von Fancy); and of course Ed Ruscha, the dean of SoCal cool, looms over the text-based painting tradition. But Ruscha did actually work as a commercial sign painter for a time, and many artists who figure prominently in the current hand-lettering-as-art movement (Caitlyn Galloway, Norma Jeanne Maloney, San Francisco's New Bohemia collective) ply the trade for a living. Nakayama chooses not to choose between labels.
"Being an artist allows me to do something outside the box, and being a craftsman makes me appreciate the basics and how to make things properly, professionally, and execute them correctly," he says.
In this small show, Nakayama investigates the material, lexical and graphic vernacular thoroughly – idiomatic Americanisms like "Go figure" and "Measure twice" are painted on vintage saws, the careful letters immaculately traced upon the tools' worn, pitted and rusty surfaces. They're "mainly some words related to craftsmen, working-class things and a few randoms," Nakayama says, but like using a hand saw instead of a power tool, like eating Slow Food instead of fast food or taking a long walk instead of a highway drive, these painstakingly lettered texts engage deeper meaning than any instant message ever could.