Discover the art of sign painting with Mike Meyer

AUTHOR:  
Published:  October 9, 2015
Eloise Mahoney

Mike Meyer, a sign painting legend from the US has been hand painting signs for over 30 years and is travelling the globe teaching the craft of lettering through his personal and causal workshops.

Lucky for us, Meyer is bringing his popular one and two-day intensive workshops to Sydney and Melbourne in November.

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The workshops break down the traditional craft and hone the bread and butter skills needed for hand lettering which Meyer believes the modern printing process just can’t achieve. Forget using the computer; it’s all about using your hands and getting paint on your clothes with plenty of laughs along the way.

desktop recently interviewed Meyer to ask about his extensive and successful career painting signs and his passion for passing down his knowledge to students. Meyer says if he wasn’t a sign painter he could be a stand-up comedian and is keen to crack some jokes with us Aussies when he travels down under in November. Tickets are available at BetterLetters.

Tell us about your background and how you got your start in the sign painting world?

My dad was a barber in a small town in Minnesota; only 800 people and still there today. I was a hell-raising kid of three boys and I was being babysat by the old man in the shop and I saw him paint signs in-between cutting customers hair and thought that’s what I want to do. And that’s what I’ve done ever since and I love it.

There is something special and personal about hand-painted signage. Why are you so passionate about keeping this tradition alive?

I think seeing peoples eyes when I teach is great, because now they know what they can do. They can put the carrot in front of themselves and just know what they put out there is done by their own hands and I think that’s what really drives it for me. You can’t put a price on something where you did it, and you designed it, from the idea to the final product with the customers going ‘boy this is great’ and it makes money for your business. There’s really no feeling like that at all, you can’t put a price on it, it’s awesome.

Better Letters Workshop 17 Norman Hayes

The hand-painted sign industry can go unnoticed as art for an act of commerce. Do you consider your work as a piece of art?

As far as arts sake, yes, there’s sometimes where I consider it art. But I look at it more of the old billboard guys who would paint and have to do it real fast. I call it a ‘hack’ paint. You gotta make that cold beer look good, they only have a few seconds to see it, but it still has to look cold and like they want it. So if that’s my version of art, that’s all I got but I take a lot of pride in it. It’s nothing where you really pick it apart. There’s gotta be somebody from one to 10 in this business and I don’t know where I am on that but at least I’m a number. And I know there are some people who think they are a Number One but we all start at number 10. If I’m number four or five, that’s fine, there I am. But it comes from the heart, damn it.

The craft of sign painting suffered a decline during the 90s due to a boom in technology. Why do you think people are showing interest again in hand sign painting?

I think young people are showing interest again because they come from different backgrounds like graffiti and tattoos where there really isn’t any rules. And in signs there are some rules, but I think as we go along and these others different mediums get involved with signs, the rules are being knocked down more and more. Why can’t a graffiti person get big money for a mural? They can. They are all tied in together. Same as a tattooist. And the print people want to back away from the computer and do something with their hands. All these young people come to my workshops and I can see it in their eyes. They are so excited and they really didn’t think there was a voice they could talk to, and that it was just videos or something they could read. And now, there’s a voice and there’s people and I want them to continue to be that voice.

Better Letters Workshop 16 Norman Hayes

We are very excited you’re coming to Australia in November to conduct your hand-lettering workshops. Talk us through the workshops and what aspiring sign painters can learn from your lessons?

We are gonna break it right down to the skeleton, the structure of how things are built and made with only four alphabets, not fonts, alphabets. A gothic (kind of a block), a think and thin, a casual and then a script. And these are the only four you need to do anything, you can go with other stuff after that, but that’s all you need and it works. I’ve done it for 30 years and that’s all I used in the beginning, those four alphabets are your bread and butter and that’s what gets it done.

Those who attend can take away the excitement that they can do it themselves and see what they can create. I don’t focus on money, money, money and be this money guy that makes all the signs. It isn’t about that. If it is, go do something else. This is about enjoying it and you don’t worry about the money. If your stuff looks good enough and you put enough time into it to make it look good, they are going to be the path to your door to have you do that and you can name the price.

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Over your expansive career as a sign painter what has been one of your most memorable or favourite painting jobs?

I would say recently I did a floor mural in Chicago, that was interesting. I didn’t know how I would do it but I had the confidence. The person organising it was told that I did a lot of them and I had only maybe done one or two. But I had landed on thick that I do them all the time and wondered just how in the hell I would get the job done and that’s what made me do it even better. They were happy, I’m happy, and it still looks great.  Some of the other ones were painting naked girls, back in New Zealand and in Minnesota to make them look like they had clothes on. It was really confusing, but I got through it.

If you weren’t a sign painter, what other career would you have pursued?
Well, I’m sure some people would say stand-up comedian, or they would say a garbage man or a truck driver. I would work at a lumber yard. I’m fascinated about how they know all these things, they can measure things, they look at things and if I had done that first before getting into signs I would be a hell of a lot more knowledgeable about things. I love going to the lumber yard. I just tell them the project I’m doing and they say here you should use this or that. I have a guy that does construction at my shop and I just learn so much from him.

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Where are you now in life and what does the future hold for you?

I’m 54 years old and it’s really nice. But you never want to sit back and think I’ve got it made. I’ve got a lot of people come to me for a lot of jobs. And now I have the opportunity to bring in students from all over the world to my shop in the United States to help me on those and I have been and I want to do more. These students get to see America, they get to see the middle of America, which is totally different to the coast and they get to interact with real people and real jobs. And that’s really nice. I thought some day at the end of my sign painting career I could be a teacher somewhere. And it’s already come true, plus I can still do my jobs. Well it’s perfect.

Final words of advice…

If you hear of a letterhead meet or workshop, go to it. You’ll never experience anything quite like it again, it will change your life, it will change your mind. My first meet was in 1988 and I’ve never been the same since. It’s been great. I want to tell people to please go and experience if for yourself, the people you meet along the way and the places you go. It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.

Better Letters Workshop 09 Norman Hayes

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Click here for dates and tickets to his Melbourne and Sydney workshops.
Images courtesy of Caroline Roberts

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