Artist Spotlight: I Saw The Sign

I started painting signs when I was a kid.

My older sister and I were raised by our mom, and the three of us used to spend summers traveling to music festivals and street fairs up and down the East Coast. While my mom was busy organizing these events, my sister and I were left to run amuck like dirty rascals. One year she helped us scrap together a little food truck to keep us busy. As with any business, we needed a sign. So I found a scrap sheet of plywood behind a dumpster, a few cans of house paint someone had lying around, and a guy who was trusting enough to let a thirteen-year-old girl use his jigsaw. I went to town carving out a bootleg version of the old theater marquees I’d always been fascinated by as a kid, even going so far as to paint fake little bulb lights inside each of the letters.

Looking back, it really wasn’t bad for a first attempt. In fact, it was good enough to get me work painting signs for other vendors, and by the time I was seventeen, I was being hired to paint signs for the festivals themselves.

As a kid, I didn’t really think that much of sign painting. It was just a skill I had scrapped together out of necessity, and upon graduating from high school, I set out to find my real career. But after a few years of traveling and trying on different hats, I eventually came to realize that I had found my calling years ago.

At that time, I had never met a sign painter before. My skills had been learned in a bubble, and if I was going to pursue this as a profession, I wanted to do it right. No more dumpster plywood and crusty old house paint. So at twenty-one, I started taking sign painting seriously, and I managed to find an old sign painter who was willing to teach me the traditional techniques of the craft.

This was no easy feat, I might add. Sign painting used to be the standard. You wanted a sign, you hired a person to paint your design or logo. But just as so many crafts have suffered from the onslaught of technologies capable of producing a faster and cheaper substitute, sign painting was all but wiped off the map during the 1980s. So finding a guy who was still working in the field was kind of a miracle.

Once I’d learned the basics from my mentor, I made the move to Nashville. I spent a couple of years painting during the day and waitressing at night, working up a name for myself and honing my skills.

And then one day I got a call from Teresa, owner of Mas Tacos. She wanted a sign painted on the ground outside her shop that would help direct people in line. Meeting Teresa was a big turning point for me. I had spent so much time practicing sign painting—and I was getting pretty good—but I was absolute crap at navigating the business side of things. She was instrumental in showing me the ropes. She taught me the importance of valuing myself and my work, as well as the importance of sticking to my word and running a tight ship. That “Stand Here” sign will forever be one of my favorites.

After Mas Tacos I started getting more work than I could handle, and eventually I quit waitressing to start sign painting full time. That first year and a half of running a business was absolutely insane. Looking back on that time now makes my head spin.

But then I met Stinky, my little sign-painting angel. Stinky helped me turn a ragtag basement operation into a fully functioning sign-painting company with a resume that boasts the largest existing sign in Nashville.

I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to be able to do what I do. I was twenty-four when I started I Saw The Sign, with no college degree and zero business experience. I run my business alongside a twenty-three-year-old badass babe who dropped out of art school to take a risk on a company that was being run out of my living room at the time. We work in a completely male-dominated industry, one that most people don’t even know exists anymore.

For instance, when I tell people I’m a sign painter, more often than not people have no idea what I’m talking about. It takes people a minute to re-conceive of the notion that people still make things with their hands. When I talk more about what I do, I watch this nostalgic smile creep over people’s faces, and more often than not they lean in excitedly wanting to hear more, as if craving a familiar story from a long time ago.

We are not the fastest or the cheapest option. What we do takes time and requires that people value quality above convenience.

And yet, we have more work than we know what to do with. Honestly, that gives me hope.

 

—Meghan Wood, I Saw The Sign founder

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