Seemingly replaced by vinyl-printed ads since the early 2000s, artists who can paint advertisements by hand are making a comeback.
Sign painter Bernardino Antonio Hernandez, 46, is sitting on a bench in a tree-lined avenue in Mexico City’s northern Gustavo A. Madero municipality and sighing.
“My problem is I think that I failed to keep abreast and learn new technologies. When I started this was a good job, but now it is difficult and instead of painting letters I am helping build metal frameworks for advertising,” says Antonio. “I need to learn how to design on computer.”
Hand-painted publicity on the walls of businesses, schools, and government buildings is one of the defining elements of the Mexican capital’s urban image. But it has been losing its battle against computer-designed, vinyl-printed ads since the turn of the century.
Willie Castro, 56, became a sign painter to accompany his activities as a concert promoter forming a street publicity company. The typically Mexican concert ads written on whitewashed walls is one genre of sign painting which has survived the onslaught of digital culture. His teams paint the name of a band over walls found under bridges and along major avenues and change them every two to three weeks.
“We find the sites ourselves and since painting on walls is not regulated we reason that what is not prohibited is permitted,” says Castro. “We do end up paying a lot of small bribes to police officers. Sometime we pay the private owners of the walls for permission.”
According to Castro, sign painters have divided Mexico City into 10 exclusive regions for this kind of publicity. “Another sign-painter tried to muscle in on our businesses not respecting the territories and threatening people with violence,” he adds. “He was killed.”
Sign painters have recently started making a comeback, especially in the periphery of the city where discolored sheets of of ragged tarp are a jarring reminder of how quickly plastic publicity can deteriorate.
“People like the fidelity of images printed on tarp which makes it hard for us to compete,” says Angel Flores, 60. “But a painted sign on a wall can last 10 to 15 years while a tarp can last less than a year and a print on vinyl plates lasts three to five years before changing color. The price is pretty much the same per square meter.”
One of the secrets to his success is his mastery of letter-painting and cartooning. “Some people can draw, but can’t paint letters and vice versa,” says Flores. “This limits them in the work they can do.” Sign painters in Mexico also occasionally design their own fonts and Flores has designed one for speed and ease of painting on walls.
Though most sign painters can copy fonts requested by clients, all the fine-brush sign painters interviewed say they manage a repertoire of approximately 10 standard fonts from memory. Sign painter Pablo Rodriguez 51, says the basic repertoire of fonts and images has barely changed over the years.
The application of certain fonts to certain businesses depends on the personal vision of each artist. Sign painters can also add personal flourishes depending on their relation with the clients such as a chicken with a bib for a poultry store or molars for a dentist. Rodriguez’s most expensive work is reserved for murals (300 pesos per square meter, 150 for commercial lettering). He says the mark of the true master sign painter is the ability to paint realistic portraits.
Most of the sign painters were once young people who liked to draw and then started in workshops painting background colors while learning the complicated process of drawing letters at all scales. “The best age for an apprentice is about 10 years old when the mind is still fresh,” says Rodriguez. “It then takes about five years to dominate all the techniques required to become a master sign painter. The first exercise is practicing ones and zeros for straight and curved lines.”
Enrique Medina, 43, says that most of his clients—mid-sized companies and franchises—increasingly appreciate the craft. “Aside from letters what I paint most is corporate logos,” says Medina, who works in the streets of the Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl district. “I have restaurant franchises as clients who would never print the decoration of the their restaurants on vinyl. They tend to appreciate the quality of painted signage most.” He adds, “about 10 years ago work almost completely disappeared but it is coming back, clients are starting to see hand-painted signage as a plus.”