Exploring Brixton’s hand-painted signs

US-born, Brixton-based, sign-painter Bella Pace writes in praise of Brixton’s appreciation of the hand-painted sign and explores some historic and more recent varieties (photo gallery below).

Sierra Leone Groceries
Sierra Leone Groceries

Look at a really good hand-painted sign. The enamel paint will be glossy, making each letter pop out from the matte background. Tricks will have been employed to make it look right; curved letters like ‘O’s and ‘S’s will sit slightly higher and lower than the other letters. The lines that form each character are just the shape that the brush makes; it is pure and natural. If you’re in Brixton, it was probably painted by a guy called Pierre and, given the chance, will be around for a really long time.

Brixton and its markets have a large proportion of hand-painted signs. Most of them, but not all, are the work of Pierre, Brixton’s resident long-serving sign painter and handyman. If you require his services, just ask around because he’s there. Some of the signs he’s painted, like the one he did for Bookmongers on Coldharbour Lane, have been part of the scenery for 20 years or more. Unlike cut-out vinyl signs, which last for 3-5 years, hand-painted ones can potentially last a lifetime. For proof see the huge ‘BOVRIL’ by Windrush Square.

Just as Brixton Village did in recent years, sign-painting is experiencing a revival. There is a film coming out about the thriving trade in the USA (see the trailer here). The craft is alive in this country too; increasingly, younger sign-painters, such as myself, are deciding to learn it. This resurgence is not born of nostalgia, but is fulfilling a genuine need.

A lot of our surroundings nowadays are designed to be very slick. This slickness can become wearing. Its consistency is also pretty dated, like 1960’s high-modernism. It leaves a gap for places like Brixton Market that can attempt to fulfil our desire for something more artisanal and hand-made. For this reason it is important for Brixton to maintain its atmosphere of humanity and community, for which people will strive as they have dwindled from the mainstream. One of the things that could help this along would be the preservation of the market tradition of hand-painted signs.

Don’t ask Pierre about the romance of sign-painting, he’ll tell you “it’s just a job”. However, he will also paint you a sign that will communicate every aspect of your business on it’s front, that will not need to worry about the uneven surface its painted on and will last as long as you want it to.