Decades ago, DC was full of hand-painted signs pointing customers toward various retail establishments. They were eye-catching and distinctive, but they were also expensive, required regular repainting, and took a great amount of skill and time to produce. Eventually, the colorful come-ons were mostly replaced by more modern signage.
But lately, these retro visuals have been making a comeback. Maybe you’ve noticed the hand-painted sign above Chevy Chase DC’s Happy Go Bikes, or the one gracing the new outpost of Solid State Books on 14th Street. Solid State co-owner Scott Abel says the effort and expense were worth it. In May, he hired printmaker Alessandra Echeverri to decorate the outside of their new location, hoping to tap into the “allure of something a bit more analog,” he says.
There are no modern shortcuts: The signs are painstakingly created with brushes and paint, and they can take hours or days to complete. The craftsmanship is part of the appeal—for both the shops and the artists. Michael Theodoran, who owns the local business Caswell Sign & Design Co., ditched a career in graphic design and went to LA to study sign painting. “I was hungry for a role where I could use my hands to produce something tangible,” he says. “Signs are a part of the visual landscape of the communities we live in.” Now he’s set up shop in Mount Pleasant, and his work can be seen at the nearby restaurant La Tejana, the Georgetown clothing shop Buck Mason, and Happy Go Bikes.
Another local artist, Patrick Owens, has done work for DC restaurants such as Bartaco and All-Purpose. Why put in all that effort for something that will inevitably fade? “The quality and handcrafted feel that comes with hand-painted signs,” he says, “can’t be replaced.”
This article appears in the July 2023 issue of Washingtonian.