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HAMTRAMCK, Michigan — With Signs Galore!, a group show of new, old, and collected works at KO Gallery, curator and Detroit-based sign painter Kelly Golden showcases one of the most enduring and dynamic aspects of Detroit’s visual language: the hand-painted sign. All over the city, one can find examples of this genre — from faded old advertisements painted on walls a century ago and left to entropy, to the one-off homemade entreaties for businesses plastering the facades of contemporary and abandoned establishments, to the recognizable stylings of some of the city’s legacy sign painters, like Articulate Signs, or the inter-generational Craig Signs. Artists repping both those shops, as well as many more, made contributions to the show, which plastered the walls of KO Gallery with a heady mélange of vintage signs, contemporary takes on some Detroit classics.
“Detroit is really unique for its abundance of hand-painted signs that are still there,” said Golden, in a telephone interview with Hyperallergic. “I think it’s because so many of the buildings just haven’t turned over, like they have in other cities.”
Golden’s interest in sign painting sparked during her undergrad years at the University of Michigan, working at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. The deli produces a vast array of handmade signs and displays them all over its interior, advertising bread, cheeses, olive oil, and other commodities for sale, as well as highlighting the deli offerings and readymade fare. Once Golden graduated and put down roots in Detroit, she was inspired by the book and documentary Sign Painters to pursue formal training.
“I read that book, and the first person in it is Doc Guthrie, and he teaches a course out in LA, so I moved out there and took that, and that was it,” said Golden. Guthrie runs the last full-blown sign painting program in the country, at LA Trade Technical College in downtown Los Angeles, founded in 1923, is the oldest (and now, only) program that teaches traditional and modern techniques for sign painting. Once Golden completed her training, she returned to Detroit and took up her sign painting career in earnest.
While many hand-painted signs in Detroit seem to be fading on long-abandoned buildings, certain types of Detroit businesses have upheld the tradition: hardware stores, collision shops, car washes, and barbershops all seem to favor the hand-painted aesthetic over the commercially-produced options. Even party stores (Detroit nomenclature for corner shops or bodegas) will sometimes augment their commercial, illuminated signs for hand-painted missives along their parking lot walls.
The show raised some philosophical questions for me about what constitutes a sign: does it have to be primarily text-based? Is it acceptable to include pictures? At what point does figuration take over and the sign becomes a mural? But Golden was not prone to make rigid distinctions in this matter.
“I don’t get too technical, I consider them all signs,” said Golden. “It’s cool to think about the historical context of some of these things. There used to be a time when people couldn’t read, so a shoe shop would have a picture of shoe outside … eventually, more people learned how to read, and then signs started incorporating more text. Sign painters were called ‘signwriters’ in those times.”
Digitized graphic design and typesetting have pushed signage into the realm of standardized fonts, but hand-painted signs remain open to individualized expression, like handwriting.
“There’s really only a handful of sign painters in Detroit,” said Golden, “but you can tell who everyone is by their style.”
For anyone with a love of hand-painted signs, Signs Galore! at KO Gallery is a revelation. Participants in the show range in age from their early 20s to their mid-80s, and present a vast array of perspectives, aesthetics, and approaches to the medium. If you can’t make the show, you can still add Detroit to the list of must-visit places for what Golden calls “LFS” (“Looking For Signs”). Those seeking a sign of any kind need look no further.