Miniviews: The Travelling Sign Painters

By: The Enemy Staff

The Travelling Sign Painters are an artistic duo that traverse Winnipeg's city centre by bike, pulling behind them a smorgasbord of prints, designs, and other artistic goodies, while racking up commissions for their coveted hand-painted signs. They started in June of 2015, and despite thoughts that a Winnipeg winter would be slow business for the two 20-something eccentrics, it seems like now the Travelling Sign Painters are busier than ever. So, The Enemy travelled down to their Exchange District lair to have a conversation about the idiosyncrasies of hand-painting signs and artistic inspiration, which ended up devolving to talk about pizza and underwear, as our interviews are wont to do.

The Miniviews are supposed to be a smaller glance into the lives of Winnipeg artists, but the way the conversations go they tend to extend much longer than anticipated. This piece is edited for length (if you can believe it).

The Enemy: What do you do, and why do you do it?

Bridget: We're basically designers who can also take the design we do for you and paint it traditionally. So, kind of like an analog graphic designer. And we do it because it's a fascinating artwork, it's one that's dying out, and...

Joe: We love lettering.

Bridget: Yeah, we love lettering; it's a science and an art.

Joe: We just love analog stuff. Sign painting ties in very well with lettering, and working with your hands.

What is lettering?

Joe: Lettering is...

Bridget: Like typography.

Joe: Yeah, but you're making it, you're painting it with brush. You're using your hands, or calligraphy.

What was the original idea behind the Travelling Sign Painters?

Bridget: The original idea was that we had this cart behind a bike, and we'd stop at street festivals and people could commission us to do quick things. But as we worked on it we realized that it was really hard to do, like, somebody's name while they watched. It would be cool but it takes a while to like...

It's painstaking work.

Bridget: Exactly. What it ended up being was a really good excuse to sell other pieces of design that we've done. Like [Joe] has one-off pieces of art, I have prints that I do...not sign-painted but still an analog style of design where no computers were used. So that also worked as—

Joe: Good marketing.

Bridget: Good marketing. People would see us, and most would go "what the heck is the Travelling Signpainters?" and we'd get to explain [it] to them. Then all of a sudden people would say "I need something for my business and I want it to stick out more than just your average design”.

Joe: They wanted something custom. Something handcrafted, and personable.

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Bridget: You can go up to the signs, and as you're walking by, you see the information, that's all well and good, but there's something different about it. And you look closer, and you see that there's brushstrokes here. Yeah, it adds a little bit of flavour to whatever business would hire us. It looks good for them. They hired a local artist, that's cool.

"It's a trade. It looks like art, and it is art...
but it's more of a trade than anything."

Who was your most interesting commission? Is there anyone that sticks out?

Bridget: There have been a few; everyone’s been so different…

Joe: I just wanna say, everyone’s been super supportive. And everyone’s been super nice. And everyone who’s come up to us and requests our services understands what we’re making for them. So we try to do the best we can for those clients. What do you mean by interesting? Like characters?

What stuck in your head the most? Like, “Paint me a sign that says dick” or something.

Bridget: My friend wants me to paint her a sign that says “Hunkatorium” but I haven’t started that one because I haven’t had time to do it yet. I’m looking forward to that one. I wanna do gold leafing and she’s like, “just make it big and crazy!” I’m going to have to somehow have to make it to Vancouver, so that will be interesting.

How do you guys gauge the prices of your art? Do you take into account time, medium, size?

B: It’s a bit complicated. I would say that it starts with the size, the time we think we’re going to spend on it, and also the complexity of the thing we’re doing. And that’s the tricky thing with design, it’s one of the few businesses where people come up to you and they basically ask for free work and then judge you off that free work, and then decide if they’re going to hire you for the rest of the work. You know, you wouldn’t get that at a law office.

J: It’s basically based on time. We charge $XX/hr, plus material costs.

It’s interesting for other artists to know. I feel like it is more of a challenging thing because you never get into art for the money.

B: No, you can’t. It can’t be your expectation, for sure.

J: But our business is different. Our business is art but it’s a thing that works at the same time.

B: It’s a trade. It looks like art, and it is art, and you can’t do it unless you’re kind of creative. But it’s more of a trade than anything. So trying to convince people that it is a trade—you know, I’m not exactly a plumber, but, you need something from me, I can do it for you, nobody else can.

J: Now it’s kind of like an art form with lettering, and learning how to use a brush. Back then it was a trade, it was in the same realm as being a mechanic.

B: Yeah, back when there was no other way of getting your information up on the side of a building.

J: Think of the big burly construction workers [using] a brush.

B: You always imagine some dude with a cigarette hanging on the side of his mouth.

J: That’s what our mentor was!

B: That’s literally the guy who taught us!

J: Chain smoking, chain drinking…

B: He comes up to you and is like, “yeah ‘kay we’re gonna do A’s” and in just like 3 seconds he had this beautiful font A and then he’d kind of wander off somewhere—don’t tell him we said this!

J: But it was real though. It was like, smoke a cigarette, take a shot of whiskey: “Alright this is how you do a letter A. You draw this line, and you gotta draw this line, you gotta make sure these lines are the exact same thing, it might flare out at the end but that’s normal when you do it with a brush…and then you sand here, sand here, and you’re gonna have this little bar and you make sure those are filled in. Now do a bunch of A’s...”

 B: One sign painter was teaching us and his hands were shaking. But as soon as his brush touched the surface, he could just like do this. It was amazing. You look at who he was and how he moved, but as soon as he got to that muscle memory, it was effortless. And then he’d take another swig…you look at that and it’s like, that’s a tradesmen, you know? You pay for that.

J: Oh, what I heard was that every sign painter was a raging alcoholic.

B: Probably from dealing with customers. I get it, we get it.

Sign painting is really meticulous work. How does that nature of the work affect your daily life?

J: We’ve learned a lot from day one. A ridiculous amount.  

B: Yeah. It’s like how people say everyone needs one crappy retail job in their life ‘cuz you learn so much from it, from being meticulous you learn not to waste your time. You learn to organize. Personally I’ve become way more organized. When you show up at a building and you’ve got 45 minutes to paint the hours on the side of their building, you can’t show up with your stuff in a mess. That’s how it’s affected me more, but it probably depends on who you were before. You were definitely more organized than me before [to Joe].

J: Yeah, I take care of a lot of the back-end paper copying type of stuff, and make sure the work gets split up. It’s been a lot of learning how to—

B: How to deal with someone like me [laughs].

J: No, no! Shut up [laughs].

J: Learning how to deal with clients. Every client is different, every client is a learning experience.

B: If you sound confident, people think you are. So a lot of what I’ve learned is how to pretend to be confident.. “Oh yeah I can do that!” then I come home and I’m like “Ugh..”  You fake confidence for long enough then all of the sudden, I can do that!

"What I heard was that every sign painter
was a raging alcoholic."

Favourite colour combo?

B: Personally, I always like that robin’s egg green—like my bike! Yeah there’s my bike. I lucked into that bike. That’s a good bike. It sounds like a bag of gears when I’m driving down the Winnipeg roads. But yeah, as a designer it’s kind of hard to pick a favourite colour combination because it depends on what you need to design. If you’ve got some bargain basement company you’re probably going to look for yellows and blacks, and if you’ve got a nice holistic natural company that’s based on locally driven ingredients you’re looking for greens and browns with a bison in the background or something. We seem to use a lot of ivory, I have gallons of ivory paint, and gallons of white paint, and we probably should be buying more gallons of black paint.

J: We don’t usually use a lot of black paint.

B: Well that’s because black is usually just used for the letters. There’s something to be said about a good simple colour palette and then making your stuff clear.

J: I love pastels.

B: Yeah, they’re huge now. They’re nice; they’re easy to look at.

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Favourite pizza combo?

Both: OH SHIIIT!

B: Could be anything. I had a pizza from Gondola’s when I worked in East Kildonan, and it was like—usually I hate all of these things on a pizza, but it had ham, pineapple, and this teriyaki sauce and you ate it and it was just like eating candy. 21st Century makes a really good pepperoni, green pepper, and mushroom pizza; it’s just the best pizza.

J: Just put a pepperoni and cheese pizza in front of me.

If you were in a pizza-eating contest, how many slices of pizza could you eat?

B: I could eat like three, but then I would come back five minutes later and be like ‘I need more pizza now.’

J: I could comfortably say like six slices before my condition…. [something about dying??]

B: How much money is in this? That will decide how much pizza I eat.

J: ‘Cuz literally you can fold the shit right? Fuck it, I could probably eat like ten.

B: Before you even realize you were eating ten.

J: Because you fold it! If you fold it sideways and then you fold it again, and then you fold it again, and then you bite that, chew, chew, chew, swallow.

B: Condensed pizza. There’s a science behind it.

J: I was a fucked up kid in elementary.

B: You could probably eat a whole pizza if you stack them on top of each other. I believe it’s called a cowzone.

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Which artists do you feel best uses words in their work?

B: I don’t know, you [to Joe].

J:  Aww. Probably like…Stephen Powers. Yeah he’s good with words. I look up to him.

B: I follow a lot of people on Instagram, I don’t know their real names. I don’t even know what part of the world they’re from, but I’m like “yeah that’s cool”.

J: Fuck…I dunno…fuck man. There’s too many people to name.

Last question: What does your soul look like?

B: Do I have one? [laughs]. I might’ve sold it for the ability to draw. I dunno.

J: I feel like my soul would look like a bed.

B: Or like a slice of pizza that was actually a bed?

J: There ya go.

B: I think mine would look like one of those lazy donkeys that nobody could, like… “C’mon, carry my thing!” And the donkey would just [say]“…nah”. Or like, an angry camel.

Oh yeah, we forgot one question. Bonus question: for 2016, what kind of underwear do you guys wanna be?

J: I’d be boxers, just let it all hang. You’re free to go wherever you want, but still restricted in your boundaries.

B: A comfortable level [laughs] of freedom.

B: My experiences with underwear are like…terrible. This is what happens when you let your mom buy your underwear. Every time I get a new pair of underwear it’s always just like a 20-pack for Christmas.

J: [laughs] You know they’re recording this right?

B: Yeah I know. “Tell us about the way you buy underwear!” I wait until there’s so many holes…

J: “I make sure to cut one in the bottom, so I don’t have to take ‘em off.”

Gross!

J: “You can quote that!”

B: 90% cotton, 10% spandex.

Find the Travelling Sign Painters on Instagram and Facebook, or in the cobblestone streets of the Exchange when it's warm out.