Sam Roberts is the driving force behind Better Letters, one of my favourite type workshop/events providers. He is an authority on hand-painted lettering. Not just contemporary work, Sam knows the ghost signs of London intimately after researching the cities fading painted signage remnants for the last 14 years. Ahead of the upcoming Taupo Letterheads event, I caught up with Sam to learn more about his journey, passions and collaborations.
What is your career background?
My first ever job, aged 13, was as an electrical assembly contractor for a company my dad was working for at the time. With some oddities along the way (e.g. lifeguard, student radio station manager) I eventually ended up plying my trade in the advertising industry, first in marketing and account management, before transitioning into the organisation of training for agencies and their staff.
Following two years of voluntary work in Cambodia I returned to London and gradually started to develop my own initiatives, including the seed of an idea that has now become Better Letters. Straddling, and facilitating, this transition from the advertising industry to championing signwriting through Better Letters, was my interest and work, since 2006, with ghost signs.
You became an aficionado of your city's past through documenting relic graphics, how did the ghost signs project come about?
I first noticed the rading remnants of a hand-painted wall sign in 2006 and this led to an obsession with what was once a widespread form of outdoor advertising. My motivation was intially one of documentation and archiving, but evolved into a series of projects, including writing a blog (currently on 'sabatical'), curating a digital archive, co-editing an academic book, producing a series of 'light capsules' and researching, leading and digitising a series of walking tours in London.
How do you go about hunting for ghosts?
As I say at the start of my walking tours, the key thing is to look up, down and over your shoulder to see aspects of the urban environment that are often overlooked. Good hunting grounds are areas that were developed and populated in or before the period 1870-1930, but where modern redevelopment hasn't yet laid to waste these surviving relics of advertising's past.
(This is true for the UK and other 'developed' economies, but different timings would apply in many other parts of the world, for example Cambodia which I've written about.)
I believe that once you are 'tuned in' to the frequency of ghost signs, it is hard to stop noticing them wherever you travel. Tolerant close family are a great help in indulging frequent stops, especially on holiday, to view and photograph new specimens.
How did that project lead to Better Letters and your teaching collaboration with some of the worlds best sign painters?
While my work on ghost signs allowed a recognition and celebration of signwriting's past, I quickly became aware of those still wielding the brush in what is a vibrant, albeit smaller, industry. Better Letters' underlying idea is to increase the volume of signwritten work being commissioned and, by association, the number of people able to take it on. Through this I hope that today we can create tomorrow's ghost signs.
I operate in two main areas. First is taking on projects from clients, from lettering and sign design through to the physical production of this type of work.
These are done for clients, and in locations, all over the world. Second is our programme of workshops which offer opportunities to learn in the wider context of schools having closed and formal apprenticeships all but gone these days.
In support of the wider world of signwriting, Better Letters also initiates and supports a number of activities in a not-for-profit capacity. These include hosting last year's London Letterheads event, and supporting these events elsewhere in the world. We've also produced a series of films about retired signwriters (latest here), and are in the process of publishing the first mainstream book dedicated to the practicalities of signwriting since 1985.
Is BetterLetters your full-time gig now?
Yes, over the last five years my work on Better Letters has increased in volume to the point where it is now full-time for me. It's like coming full circle to my days as an electrical assembly contractor, giving me the satisfaction that I get from self-employment, but with the added pressure of rent to pay and a family to feed.
Do you paint letters or is your passion the output rather than the process?
I've taken all of our workshops as a participant so that I understand what's involved when answering queries from those interested in attending. However, my own work has only ever been in a 'hobby' capacity. My real work is making the space for sign painters and lettering artists to do their best work. I've always liked the theatrical analogy of setting the stage for the actors to perform and, in this sense, see myself primarily as a producer.
There has been a global resurgence in interest in hand-painted signs. Most letterers I know now also paint be it at scale or as part of their production practice. What do you think is the driver behind this (enduring) trend for the brush?
There is definitely something relating to fashion at play here. The decline in painted signs in the middle of the 20th Century coincided with the explosion of neon, backlit and moulded plastic signs i.e. shops wanted to look modern and so shunned hand-painted work. Vinyl stickers then came onto the scene in the later years of the century, sparking another shift away from painted signs, although this time on more pure economic grounds.
I think that now there is a desire to convey humanity and authenticy through signage and hand-painted fits the bill perfectly. This is perhaps a backlash against copycat printed and digital signage, but could also be fashion at work again. Whatever it is, I am convinced that the hand-painted sign will never die, despite fluctuations in demand that might be experienced along the way.
In terms of the individual, I think that there is immense satisfaction to be gained from the process of learning the craft. It is meditative, and also gets you away from the computer where so many of us now spend so many hours. Creating something from scratch by hand is a feeling that's hard to beat, and I think this has wide appeal.
What do you recommend for anyone looking to get started with the brush?
I think it's important to try learning with someone who can show you, in person, how they do it. This can be a local sign painter, a teacher on a workshop, or a friend that has a little more experience than you. It's a practical craft and so getting hands-on practise is vital, and this has more value with someone that can give you feedback on your technique. However, you will then need to put in the hours until the basic strokes become second nature.
I would also recommend looking for videos on youtube, and following professionals on social media. Lots of these folks regularly post tips and advice, and just watching them work will teach you a lot. Hashtags like #signpainting #alwayshandpaint and #signwriting are a good place to start searching.
I'd also give a little plug here for the 2020 release of the Better Letters Book of Sign Painting by Mike Meyer & Friends which will be an introduction to the basic tools, materials, processes and techniques. We'll obviously be making a lot of noise about it when it's released so follow our social media to get alerted.
How did you become involved with Letterheads? And can you tell us a little about what participants can expect from the upcoming event in Taupo?
I was invited to my first Letterheads by Mike Meyer. It was in his hometown of Mazeppa Minnesota, with outside temperatures of -16! After that I was hooked (to the 'vibe' rather than the cold) and have attended events including Tokyo, Cincinnati, Amsterdam and Porto, as well as hosting one in London last year.
Letterheads 'meets' are run on a not-for-profit basis and so offer excellent value if you get involved, ask questions and soak it all up.
People often describe feeling intimidated by the skill of those in attendance, but it's important to remember that the purpose of these events is to pass on skills to newcomers in a friendly and supportive environment. This happens through a mixture of formal demonstrations, and informal 'panel jamming' which is basically just an opportunity to paint, watch others painting, and hang out while painting.
I recommend getting along to one and, as many are doing now, using them as an opportunity to travel the world and form a wide network of likeminded folks from far and wide. As you say, there's one coming up in Taupo, and then next year in India, followed by Helsinki and Mazeppa Minnesota in 2021, and plans for Buenos Aires in 2022...