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The living art of painting signs

Barry Newman and Forrest Wozniak are sign painters in Minneapolis. They spoke to Stubble while working on the Black Coffee & Waffle Bar painting in the SE Como neighborhood.

Barry Newman (left) and Forrest Wozniak (right) are sign painters in Minneapolis. They spoke to Stubble while working on the Black Coffee & Waffle Bar painting in the SE Como neighborhood.
Courtesy of Stubble

Stubble: How did you start painting signs?
Forrest: I started painting signs due to contemporary influence I guess you could say. I have a background in construction. My artistic style was like a folk art style — uneducated but charming — and then I lived in Olympia after traveling with a  punk rock band when I was 18. They kept going home and I stayed in Olympia with my buddy Ira who was a well established sign painter in Olympia. I started doing his fills. If there was a bookstore, I’d do the books because my pictorials were pretty decent.I remember that our colors were pretty gaudy at the time — pinks and clouds and bubbles and that stuff.

Stubble: Looks pretty different from what you’re painting today.
Forrest: Well this is pre-existing design stuff by Liz Gardner, but this style is definitely more similar to my own. After Olympia, I came back to Minneapolis and was painting signs really without knowing anything about letter structure. From a business perspective I was getting work from, you know, walking up to businesses all over the place — in Omaha and Albuquerque and Salt Lake City and New Orleans — and I would basically just copy from a book right onto their windows.

They were really receptive because often they didn’t have any signage at all. It wasn’t like I was involved in a boutique culture that was critical of my work. Typically, I would charge for whatever a hotel room would cost and a six pack of beer. That was a good way to sharpen my teeth in a noncritical way. This predates social media, so I would sometimes have a disposable camera to document my work. I have a few pictures, but sadly, I don’t have quite enough.

Stubble: How did you develop your technique to what it is now?
Forrest:Well, I approached this old timer painter and he basically abused me as a worker for the next ten years, pushing me very hard. He would say things like, “take the time to step back and look at your work and ask yourself why does it look like shit and what can you do to not make it look like shit?” He was critical in that way because he was traditionally trained and had many years experience over me.

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He had learned the rules for that long in his life that he could break them. He instilled that same value system of “show me that you know the rules first and then you can break them.” I’d say that probably one of the contemporary weaknesses of sign painters today is that they come from a background of breaking the rules and then they try and find the rules. They consider the years of breaking the rules as their qualifications to finding the rules, but it’s actually backwards. Find the rules first, stick with your block letters and years and years and years later you can start breaking them.

Stubble: What else do you think does make a good sign painter?
Forrest: Correct fonts. Correct layouts. A lot of sign painters and people who are up-and-coming really consider it to be the control of the brush. There are plenty of people doing a quarter inch thick letter with a quarter inch thick brush, but I come from a much more vaudeville Coney Island educational system. In compromised systems in the wind and the rain and the hail, the flick of the brush is just thrown out of the window.

Stubble: These bricks look pretty textured too. I can’t imagine that’s easy to work with using a “flick of the brush” system.
Forrest: Exactly, I mean this surface took us 40 hours to bury to make it worthy of a sign. Design will always trump rendering. You can be a sloppy renderer as long as your design is solid.

Stubble: Really, I thought it would have been the other way around, that bad rendering would always mean bad product.
Forrest: It’s important, but I mean just don’t get carried away with the rendering. You see a California style of rendering that is all the flick of the brush and it ends up looking temporary and casual, because it sort of is. It shouldn’t say something permanent, it should just say “sale today” or “sale tomorrow” something temporary. Solid design and understanding of lettering is for permanent pieces of art. That’s just where I come from.

Stubble: I feel bad saying this, but I guess I never knew how alive of an art sign painting is. I probably just assume some machine does it all these day.
Forrest: Actually, it’s really super in vogue right now. At least I think it is, I could live in an insulated culture though, with only other people who are doing it. It appears to be in vogue. And then this is Barry Newman.

Stubble: Hi, Barry.
Forrest: Barry, do you want to tell your life story?
Barry: I’m a brush monkey.
Forrest: Barry’s actually been to school.
Barry: I went to MCAD. I studied landscape painting and drawing mostly. I do some murals.

Stubble: How’d you get into this racket with this guy?
Barry: Uh, I know Forrest and I got a job to do First Ave, the stars and all that stuff. So I called him up and said, “I don’t know anything about signs! Can you help me with this?” and then he badgered me into working. I paint houses, murals, art stuff, posters.

Stubble: Doing the stars on First Avenue seems like a pretty big honor.
Barry: Yeah, and I’ve probably been to maybe a third of the shows whose names I got to put up. I grew up on First Avenue. That was back in my college days when they had comp tickets.
Forrest: They don’t have those anymore?
Barry: Really, rarely.

Stubble: What kind of comp tickets?
Forrest: You used to be able to walk into The Electric Fetus and there would just be a stack of tickets for First Avenue. It was just a way to get bodies in the door.
Barry: For the really good shows you’d have to talk to somebody who was on the in. It was a good way to go to a lot of shows.

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Barry Newman and Forrest Wozniak are sign painters in Minneapolis. They spoke to Stubble while working on the Black Coffee & Waffle Bar painting in the SE Como neighborhood.

This post was written by Tom Johnson and originally published on Stubble. Follow Stubble on Twitter: @stubblemag.

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