Among artists, those who paint signs can be virtually invisible. Their work, appearing on buildings and in windows, can have a powerful impact on the way a city looks, but few people think about the work as art or the person who did it as they’re walking down the street.
The new documentary, “Sign Painters,” screening Thursday in Olympia and featuring Olympia sign painter Ira Coyne, aims to change that.
“Sign painters have influenced the way our country looks,” said Faythe Levine of Milwaukee, the film’s co-director. “Their influence is silent. You don’t ever attach a person to a hand-painted wall until you hear these stories and then you start to look at things differently.”
“A lot of people really don’t think about it,” Coyne said. “Every time I’m out on the street painting, people will come up to me and say, ‘Wow, I had no idea that was done by hand.’ ”
Coyne not only appears in the film but also was an inspiration for it. He also painted the cover of the accompanying book and was one of the painters who created the film’s opening credit sequence.
“My friendship with Ira over the past 15 years has been incredibly influential,” Levine said. “Whether or not this film would have happened without him is hard to say.”
When Levine finished her last movie and book project, “Handmade Nation,” Coyne reminded her about their mutual interest in hand-painted signs, sparked in Minneapolis, where the two met — and where Coyne remembers first noticing the power of signs.
A Seattle native, Coyne moved to Minneapolis in 1998 after dropping out of The Evergreen State College. He was struck by the man-made landscape, including the signs created by Phil Vandervaart.
“The scenery as far as architecture and signage and color and building materials was a lot different than on the West Coast because of how old everything was,” he said.
“Phil tends to paint the entire building a really bright color and then he’ll paint the sign directly on the building,” he said. “He likes to say that when he does that, the building is the sign. ... He would do entire neighborhoods like that.”
Minneapolis is also where Coyne began painting signs, starting with one he did for a friend’s business for $100.
Although he’d grown up with an interest in art, he said he didn’t really know how to paint signs when he started. That changed when he returned to Olympia and began to work with mentor Vince Ryland.
“That’s how I became a real sign painter was learning from Vince,” he said.
Coyne came to painting in an era when the craft was in decline due to innovations such as vinyl lettering and laser printers. As in so many other industries, technology took its toll.
Coyne said most people think of machine-made signs as the default. However, the craft is having something of a resurgence, especially in places such as Olympia where more people are coming to value handmade and local products.
“A thing people will say to me that I think is really funny is: ‘Wow, that looks like a decal,’ ” he said. “In the early ’80s, people would look at a decal and say, ‘Wow, that looks as good as a hand-painted sign.’
“Now there’s a whole generation that grew up without sign painting. They grew up with decals and stickers.”