Interview: Signwriter and Pinstriper Von Leadfoot
This week we spoke to Von Leadfoot, and he imparts wisdom such as; ‘I think part of what we do as sign painters and designers is reference the past. “Those who don’t know history, are doomed to think they’re original”. In saying that I have loads of old reference books, everything from layout, design, type books etc. I breeze through those books a lot to pull out old reference and then put my own two cents into the design when and where I can. The old designs were amazing, the people that were doing them were the masters of their time, and because everything now has become such a stripped back version of what used to be seen en mass by the general public, the old designs can be recycled and reworked to give a new fresh feel on an old piece of work. It’s nice to get the old styles back out in the world as well. Keeps the city scape visually appealing.’
1. Could you tell me a little about yourself; where are you from, where did you grow up, what was your childhood like, etc.?
I grew up in Los Angeles, just north of Hollywood. My childhood was quite active. I grew up riding dirt bikes and racing cars from an early age. My early career was as a metal fabricator/welder so my knowledge is based purely on a mechanical background which I credit my old man and granddad for.
The steps you take with sign painting and particularly glass gilding satisfy that need for mechanical and functional.
2. How did you come to be a sign painter and pinstriper?
I was working as a car builder back when the recession hit the states, around 2008/2009. I always wanted to pinstripe hot rods as it was the only thing I couldn’t do in the industry I worked in. After getting laid off due to the recession, my dream came true. Without a job I had all the time in the world to try to teach myself how to pinstripe. No money, but plenty of time… I tried my hand at lettering and sign painting at the same time as I picked up a pinstriping brush and thought “how hard could it be? I write letters and words every day, should be easy enough to paint em.” Nope, wasn’t the case. Unless you were into typography and such in school, most people don’t know the correct and incorrect ways to form letters. I built cars in school, not beautiful letters. So after trying (for a few days) and failing to paint letters, I hung up my lettering quill with a mind to try my hand at it again later after I had a few years of pinstriping under my belt. Fast forward those few years later and here we stand – to the point that I barely even get to pinstripe like I used to, and my business is nearly all gilding and sign painting, not so much pinstriping these days.
Once I got into painting signs for a living it opened up an entire new world to me that I never knew existed. Gilding, typography, design, graining, marbling, ghost signs, faux ghost signs, and so on. I ended up being sucked into a whole new world that I could explore freely, and that became more and more interesting as I went along. Needless to say, I got hooked.
3. Why do you think traditional signwriting is making a comeback, and why now?
People will and always have had a great gratitude and appreciation for hand crafted things, and in an era where more and more things are digital and automated and less personable, people are yearning for that human hand and design freedom to come back and give them something that is unique and hand crafted. The majority of people appreciate the time that it takes to complete the job, knowing that there’s usually a direct correlation between time and quality. Digital has never screamed out quality, and it doesn’t have that personable feeling. Perhaps that’s a reason for the recent shift in the last few years. As for the come back at this specific time? I’m not 100% sure, but I would assume that because we’re the first group of people, the first generation, that is lashing out against the digital age, maybe? We’ve never had so much to fight against and a lot of us are thoroughly intrigued with the days of old that we grew up not knowing. We’re curious and want to know what we missed. Me personally I’ve just always loved old shit and bygone eras, and now is when I happen to be working, which is also when sign painting has become a trend.
4. How do you keep your ideas fresh and interesting?
Good question. I think part of what we do as sign painters and designers is reference the past. “Those who don’t know history, are doomed to think they’re original”. In saying that I have loads of old reference books, everything from layout, design, type books etc. I breeze through those books a lot to pull out old reference and then put my own two cents into the design when and where I can. The old designs were amazing, the people that were doing them were the masters of their time, and because everything now has become such a stripped back version of what used to be seen en mass by the general public, the old designs can be recycled and reworked to give a new fresh feel on an old piece of work. It’s nice to get the old styles back out in the world as well. Keeps the city scape visually appealing.
5. What project are you working on now?
Right now I’m designing a tattoo shop. They’ve been around for 10 years and they’re going though the whole shop and doing a re-fab for their anniversary – I am really looking forward to this job. They’re a good group of talented artists and they’ve got some quality ideas to add to the creative process in terms of designs etc. Plus it’ll be loaded with gold and shell inlay work, which is always a favourite of mine.
6. Which artists influence your work currently, and has that changed from who/what influenced you at the beginning?
The peers in my trade influence me quite a bit. There’s such a vast amount of varied skill and talent within the community that I don’t have to look too far afield to find what I need to be influenced. In the beginning I just scoured the internet, but now I stay off it.
7. Do you use the computer for any part of the process?
I do use the computer for parts of what I do, in this day and age it’s unavoidable. A sign painter is a commercial artist, and commercially speaking, that need to get things done in the most timely of manners is key. That old saying “time is money” holds true in this industry. Computers help speed things up and make the process, in some stages, go quicker and easier. Another thing to take into consideration is that we don’t always get to do our own designs. Sign painters have big clients sometimes, large companies and chains, and working with businesses at that level is 99% digital. So using a computer to send and receive a clients branding to make a pattern from makes sense, as that has to be adhered to within a very strict realm and so this kind of work sees the use of computers solely. Everything else I do by hand when the time is available.
8. What is your favourite brush and why?
It’s hard to say. I love all my brushes and they all perform differently, hence why we’ve all got so damn many. I love my Scharff flats for big single stoke letters and filling on smooth surfaces, my Handover 2112’s are great all rounders for everything from casuals to roman lettering, my Kafka liners for scripts casuals and outlining, my Handover 2107’s for brick or masonry work, my angled Purdys for big letters on brick and other rough surfaces. The list goes on and on. They’ve all got a purpose, which is why I’ve got three cases of brushes haha!
9. What are your two favourite colours at the moment?
One Shot Dark Blue and Craftmaster Pale Royal Green
10. Do you collect anything?
Outside of brushes?! I’ve got a stash of really old sign painting books and some of those go back to the 1890’s; I also hoard old signs and anything else with hand painted or gilded letters.
11. What is your favourite project to date?
Any project where I or my friends can bring each other in on. It’s always a load more fun to be up a scaffold with your friends cracking dad jokes, nerding out on lettering and materials, than to be on your own. We tend to fuck around a lot when there’s a group of us, if the job is lax enough.
12. What would be your dream project?
My dream project would be doing MASSIVE walls, like what Colossal Media are doing in NY and Sky High back home in LA. I’m itching to blast out huge walls, 5-10 stories up for a week at a time. In nice weather of course, but I wouldn’t complain either way… I’m working toward getting more projects like this, but it remains a battle and a goal for now.
13. What does being a signwriter mean to you?
I’ve never really thought of what being a sign painter means to me…
I think it was more so something I chased because I was tired of having a boss and knew I had a tiny skill, that if I focused in on, I could hone and add to and potentially make money at, or at least be able to pay rent!
The more I’ve gotten into sign painting though, the more I now feel like I’m carrying on a respected tradition, that of which I have nothing but the utmost respect for now. 99% of people walking down the street will never pay attention to what you’re doing, especially in the hustle and bustle of London. Not that that is important, but every so often you get one person that stops and takes note and thanks you personally for adding to the beauty of a street or a shop. It’s almost like being a caretaker of history and tradition just by painting or gilding the name of a business. Sign painting has grown to mean the world to me, both in lively hood and appreciation of letters, colours, layout, design, execution, and the unsung skill of all my fellow sign painters. It’s the last true commercial art, and it’s a banger!
14. Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to try their hand at signwriting?
Be patient. Personally it’s taken me the better part of 3-4 years to get where I am now as a gilder/sign painter, and that’s coming into the game with three previous years of paint knowledge and brush control from a pinstriping background.
Read old books and find the references around you. Signs and lettering make up our daily lives, especially in the city. Keep your mind and eye open to what’s out there, good and bad, and learn from it. Everything else is practice!
15. You’ve been buying brushes from Handover for a long time, what kept you coming back?
A friendly helpful and knowledgeable staff, no BS. Without kissing ass…you guys are only up the road and have everything I need haha!
On 10th April 2016 13 artists took on the walls of Tower Hamlets in East London in the name of endangered species, Von Leadfoot was one of them. ‘According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) there are currently 23,250 species listed as threatened. This means: critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. Adding extinct and extinct in the wild species the figure is 24,153. It’s widely predicted that as many as two-thirds of all species could be near extinction by the end of this century. But, some are now rising in population due to increasing concern about the extinction crisis. Co-ordinated conservation efforts include the protection of natural habitats and prevention of destructive practices such as illegal hunting.’