Old-school sign painter Jeff Williams on why computer-generated stickers ain't got soul

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Jeff Williams
  • Rosario Zavala
  • Jeff Williams

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week's Chicagoan is Jeff Williams, traditional sign painter.

"Right as I got out of high school, I had a job working as an electrician, and I only did that for a few years before I realized, man, this kind of sucks, having a real job. Around 1981 there was an old sign shop in Waukegan that went out of business, and I bought this building and started hand-painting signs.

"Keep in mind there was no computers at that time, so everything that you saw on the landscape was hand-done by somebody. So when I started my business, I was absolutely swamped with work. Everybody needed their truck lettered. All the stores needed signs to be painted. You name it.

"When I first started, I worked with another guy, and we were out doing a job, and he fell a little better than 40 feet. We were out on the tollway, working on that Six Flags amusement park sign. We were climbing up the inside of the sign, and he broke four light bulbs falling down it. He suffered some pretty good head injuries. Now, with everything I do, if I can’t get it done on an eight-foot stepladder, I don’t do it.

"In the middle 80s is when there was this change with the sign industry. People were buying computers, and they knew how to press buttons, but they had no idea as far as layout, color combinations, et cetera. The people with the computers, they were beating each other up so that they could get the work.

"Something that used to cost a dollar, now somebody was coming in saying, 'I’ll do it for 75 cents,' and then the guy across the street says, 'Well, I’ll do it for 60 cents.' It was a race to the bottom. People just wanted the cheapest sign they could get. Still there’s things out there I see that are pretty pitiful looking: vinyl stuck on things crooked, wrong color combinations.

"I don’t think people even grasp that I don’t use a computer. Everything is all laid out by my hands and my soul. Back in the day, when I started doing this, you could look at lettering, and I could tell who painted it, because all of us had a different style. I could look at things and say, 'That was something that Bob Behounek did,' or Jerry Wagner, or Chuck Miller. And now what do you do? You go, 'Oh, somebody stuck that sticker on a truck crooked, and that’s Helvetica lettering.' There’s no soul to it. It’s all just digitized funk. Plain-Jane. Lick ’em and stick ’em.

"Probably six, seven years ago, this guy died right before Easter, so the family had to wait a week before they could actually have the service at the church. They came to my shop and says, 'We got a casket. Can you paint it for us?' This guy was into old [Chevrolet] Chevelles. 'Can you do a hand-painted Chevelle on the casket?' For four or five days, I had the casket in my shop. They still had the guy on ice or whatever. But sure as shit, I got a casket in my shop, and there I was painting it."

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