Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Handpainted Signs of Old Atlanta pt. 1 (of 3)

I have been photographing handpainted signs in Atlanta for quite some time now, but not nearly as long as I have been noticing and appreciating their refreshing color schemes, startlingly original compositions, and hand painted letterforms. Like most cities in America, Atlanta has been slowly taken over by corporate chains and strip malls. This transformation, combined with advances in technology, has led to an endless sea of bland forgettable logos, painfully boring signs, and virtually unnoticeable storefronts, all designed by people in cities far away from most of the communities in which their work will be displayed. Where once stood - out of necessity - hand painted and hand assembled signs, now stand digitally printed vinyl banners, window clings, and 3d lettering seemingly available only in Helvetica. Safe corporate design now rules, and risks are rarely ever taken. And most disappointing of all, the elements of surprise and delight have all but evaporated in most modern signage.

However, there are still several pockets of complete individuality remaining in certain neighborhoods of Atlanta. For various reasons - most likely because of the economic level, demographics, and age of the area - corporations have not determined it worthwile to have a major presence in these areas. This has led to certain places maintaining a large proportion of independently-owned businesses, businesses that are not given a style guide to tell them exactly how their store should look. The owners of these businesses rely on a seemingly still-profitable industry of letterers and sign painters, which is all but dead in most other areas of the city. In Atlanta, these artists and designers have created a vast collection of work that represents the last remnants of a fastly disappearing regional design style. I have focused mostly on signs in Southeast Atlanta, just outside the city, where I feel the greatest concentration of these types of signs is. Most of these photos were taken on Candler Rd, Moreland Ave, Glenwood Ave, Memorial Dr, Bouldercrest Rd, and Jonesboro Rd.

The transformation that is taking place everywhere is neither good nor bad, it just simply is. Great design has always been created, and always will, regardless of technology or medium. There is of course a lot of incredible signage, branding, and storefront design made today by many talented designers across the world with new technology and printing/construction processes. To call for a return to the old ways would be nostalgic and futile, and to refer to these signs as 'bad' or dismissible would be just as equally inaccurate. In fact, most of these signs would be considered 'good design', if there is such a thing. They fulfill their function of clearly indicating what exactly the store or business has to offer to the public, and they do this in a creative, surprising and arresting way. Not only that, but they also retain the ability to attract the viewer's attention while simultaneously remaining relatively simple and straightforward.

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 01

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 02

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 03

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 04

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 05

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 06

The only artist that leaves any indication of his name on his work is a painter that signs his name simply as 'TRENT'. Trent has a very individual style and his work can be identified by his signature use of bright primary colors, large letters cut from wood in one of several personal typefaces, and a strange technique he sometimes uses of 'dusting' letters with a glitter that sparkles in sunlight (as can be seen above in '$50 WEAVE'). He is also probably most well known for his design and painting of the Sockman icon, which was visible in several locations throughout Atlanta for many years, but now is much harder to find. Trent is one of the most creative, playful, and prolific sign painters in Atlanta, and I will feature much more of his work in future posts.

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 07

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 08

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 09

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 10

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 11

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 12

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 13

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 14

Above and Below: Notice the images simplified down to pictograms, describing exactly what goods/services are offered inside. The store's offerings are clear even to someone who is swiftly driving by and only has the chance to glance at the sign without reading any text. The sign would also be completely readable to the illiterate or people who cannot speak English.

Atlanta Hand Painted Sign 15

This post is the first of three installments of handpainted signs in Atlanta, and the photographs constitute one third of the photos I have taken. I think it is important to document these signs, as they are becoming more and more scarce and will possibly eventually disappear completely. I would love to see what handpainted signs look like in other cities in other regions of the country, and especially in other countries. Ive seen many beautiful images of signs from other countries painted in a folk-art style, and I lived in Savannah, Ga for several years and vividly remember the city having its own distinct style of hand lettering. Feel free to leave a comment with a link to images or send me an email of signs in your area.

I do want to point out that there is a new resurgence of popularity for handpainted signs. This resurgence is aligned with the trends of food trucks, 'farm-to-table' dining, the indie craft movement, and the overall general enthusiam for referencing old typefaces and old ways of doing things. The current zeitgeist is one that seems to be longing for the past, a nostalgia for a misremembered time ago. This has led to handlettering and a multitude of handpainted signs for trendy clothing stores, overpriced bars, and upper class restaraunts. These types of handpainted signs have not been showcased here, as I feel they have already been over-documented by design blogs, designer portfolios, reference sites, and various other online outlets. The main reason the above signs are so fascinating to me is because they are not just aesthetically nostalgic nods to the past, but instead vital, living, breathing, and relevant necessities of the businessmen and enterpreneurs who require their functioning design.


  1. "a nostalgia for a misremembered time ago" - Beautifully said. The sign for that hot dog place near Trader Joe's on Monroe (across from Grady Stadium) comes to mind. I'm sure you know the one.

  2. This is absolutely beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Yeah no doubt banners printing have very effective marketing and branding impact on target audience. If printing can be catchy and strong content orient that will be more beneficial to get more and more impressions. I like such a wonderful sharing about different businesses.

  4. awesome post. check out these FB pages about hand-painted signs:

    i also just sent ya a FB message

  5. Cool, man. I actually shot a ton of signs in Savannah which Im going to upload to here eventually. Ill be sure to share them on that facebook page as well.

  6. I have been following Trent since a friend turned me onto him about a year ago. I was so happy to find this article.