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Signs of the Times

Sarah Vogelsong

His work is all about grabbing attention: getting people to stop, stare, and detour off their original path. But Ross Trimmer himself seems happy to slip under the radar. With his beard, paint-stained clothing, and sleeve tattoo, he might be confused for one of the hundreds of VCU art students who roam the city. He maintains no storefront. He barely even advertises.

But then again, who needs advertising when the whole city is your canvas and a dozen or more businesses will pay you to display your work in the most prominent places possible—over the door, splayed across the front window, even splashed across the length and breadth of the entire facade?

Trimmer, 32, is a sign painter, one of a handful of such craftsmen left in the United States today. Once numbering in the thousands, these artisans used their brushes to shape the aesthetic of entire neighborhoods, branding them—in the days before “branding” was an element thought essential to a business’ success—with their personal arsenal of typefaces, color schemes, and distinctive approach to line and shape. Richmond is still littered with remnants of these forgotten painters, whose work has since faded to vague washes of color and half-distinct letters on old brick walls. 

Like so many other skilled trades, sign painting was a victim of technological advances. When vinyl and computer-driven machines began to offer a cheaper, faster way to create signs, the traditional trade began to die out, until even the national Sign and Pictorial Painters Union was forced to dissolve. Signs—which have always reflected the spirit of the great American entrepreneurial drive—began to homogenize.

Still, though, a few of the old painters were unwilling to let the trade be consigned to the dust heap of history. These craftsmen, along with a growing group of the younger generation, are bringing sign painting into the new century.

Trimmer is one of the young guard, and like many, his path to sign painting was indirect. After attending VCU for painting and printmaking, earning money on the side by apprenticing at a tattoo shop and working nights at Target, he headed north to D.C. to work as a graphic designer. But Richmond’s low cost of living eventually drew him back, and he returned south to freelance as a designer and tattooist.

“Most of my life has revolved around letters in one way or another,” he says.

It was at Salvation Tattoo, a custom tattoo parlor wedged into a bright green storefront near VCU’s Monroe Park campus,that his life turned toward signs. Working as a tattooist to make ends meet for his growing family, which now included a wife and an infant son, Trimmer’s interest was piqued by a side job he took on at the studio painting the watercolor flats that displayed available ink designs to customers. He soon grew bored with the task, but the fascination with signs remained.

“It was a jump from one thing I don’t know how to do to another I don’t know how to do,” he remembers. “When I started, I figured it out on my own.”

In the gap left by the shuttering of the trade schools, that do-it-yourself approach has become a hallmark of today’s aspiring sign painters, although some still rely on apprenticeships to gain the necessary how-to. But there were no active tradesmen doing traditional sign painting in Richmond in 2011, and the freelance Trimmer was used to striking out on his own.

Serendipitously, his design and printmaking background had left him equipped with a toolbox of skills well suited to sign painting. The rest was research—delving into construction manuals and show card designs from the 1930s and ’40s, working through instructional DVDs, and studying dozens of old signs to see how they were put together, how the paint was layered, how the letters were composed. 

 “I’m not trying to reinvent sign painting. I’m trying to do traditional sign painting,” he says. “I would love everybody to stop using sign shops completely. [A hand-painted sign] is more fun to look at. I think people notice it a lot more.”

 Trimmer’s techniques may be traditional, but the businesses they advertise are often anything but. His first sign was created for the Tech Exchange, located next door to Salvation Tattoo. 

 “I did a few for practice on sheet metal,” says Trimmer. “That was a scary one. I made it twice. I had to figure out how to lay something out from small to large. I painted half of it on the coffee table in the living room while the baby was asleep.”

 The Tech Exchange sign—actually three parts made up of a central rectangle flanked by two smaller squares—still hangs at 817 W. Cary Street today, announcing the business’ name and wares in eye-catching red, black, and white. 

 It was the jumping-off point for a steady stream of commissions for Trimmer, who quickly set up his own company, Sure Hand Signs. The unique mix of tradition and modernity that Trimmer’s work offers now appears in signs for Y&H Mercantile on Robinson Street, Portrait House in Carytown, 212 Tattoo and the Coalition Theater on West Broad Street, and the Blue Sky Fund in North Church Hill, among others. 

The Y&H signs, which include a large flat in shades of ochre, light yellow, teal, and burgundy, as well as an old-fashioned, hand-shaped hanging placard that demands customers “Shop Fine Clothes” while helpfully pointing to the front entrance, are among Trimmer’s favorite projects to date. 

“Start to finish, [the owners] had loose ideas,” he says. That suits him just fine: “I like to throw a spin on other people’s design. It’s a lot more fun to paint when I’m not using computer files.”

The work of creating a Sure Hand sign unfolds at Trimmer’s studio in an old art deco warehouse on Mayo Island, near the southern terminus of Mayo Bridge. The view from the edge of the warehouse site shows at a glance the collision of old and new that so often seems to characterize Richmond—and seems particularly to fit the sensibility of twenty-first-century sign painting. Rising above the river, skyscrapers capped with sleek but dull super-modern signs announce the presence of Omni, Wells Fargo, SunTrust, Bank of America, and BB&T, while far below, at the level where I-95 bisects the city, the hand-painted sign for La Diff serves as a reminder of the staying power of the old ways in Richmond. 

Trimmer likes to be on Mayo Island by eight each morning and works there until the middle of the day before driving around to businesses to meet with owners.

“I pretty much work for myself,” he says. “I enjoy sitting in my studio all day listening to music.” 

The projects vary in the time they take. Y&H’s signs took about two days to execute; a pair of menu boards for Café Ole each took about six hours—not to mention the long six- to eight-hour drying time of sign painters’ enamel. And while the large signs with a company’s name may attract the most attention, Trimmer often creates far more for a business: open signs, closed signs, shop hours signs, or sandwich boards announcing specials, to name just a few.

As with any small entrepreneur, the uneven flow of business can be a challenge.

“I never know if there’s going to be a month where there’s no jobs,” says Trimmer. When there are jobs, sometimes the schedule forces him into overdrive. “A lot of people wait until the last minute to put signs on their businesses. They’ll spend three months on the interior and then three days before opening, they’ll call me.”

Nevertheless, he remains dedicated to his craft, with plenty of ideas on the back burner. His ideal project ropes in another old concept that’s been staging a comeback: “I’d like to paint a whole food truck.”

And while sign painting may still be on the margins today, the trade seems to have survived its worst period and is here to stay—and maybe even grow once again, in a new century with a changing set of values and a different approach to business.

“People are kind of hungry for the handmade thing,” says Trimmer. “Everybody wants to know how to make things again because they’ve forgotten how to make anything.”

Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor in Richmond. You can check out her other work at sarahvogelsong.com.