Painting Soul into the City
Sign painter Chad Lindsay dusts off an ever vibrant art
In winter and in fall, with eyes whipped into tears by spring winds or, later, shaded from the summer sun, I made the daily walk through my west Downtown neighborhood. Stout adobe houses in the foreground and tall office buildings abutting the horizon beyond, that daily walk informed my sense of home, and just as the houses and tiny yards made up the fabric of my place in the world, so did the the Country Club Market's wall of vividly painted sundries—advertising huevos, leche y pan. “It creates a much visually richer environment to live in, especially in an urban setting,” Chad “Danger” Lindsay said from across the table as we talked about Albuquerque's history as it reveals itself in the work of hand-painted signs—some new, some decades old. “That's something really remarkable about Albuquerque in particular, that those hand painted signs are still there. … It leaves the ghosts of the city around in an interesting way.”
Lindsay, a sign painter and illustrator, had his first entrée into the world of sign painting in the form of pinstriping. The son (and grandson) of a Boise auto mechanic, he was exposed to classic hot rod and biker culture from a young age and took up a brush at 15 and began pinstriping—that is, decorating motorcycles, trucks, hot rods and the like with sleek, custom designs. “Especially as a kid, being able to paint something by hand that other people wouldn't immediately recognize as having been done by hand was so fascinating … It was a really interesting challenge to me,” he detailed. Around the same time, he started working with ink and brushes to create drawings with aspirations of illustrating for Marvel one day. Since those teenage years, Lindsay has continued his patient practice of both mediums. “In my ink drawing, I try to achieve a level of finish and detail in the way that I do with sign painting. They are certainly not the same thing, but they definitely inform one another.”
Lindsay largely taught himself to paint signs. “I never sat down with anybody and asked them, 'How do you do this?' So, that meant that I was really bad at it for a really long time,” he explained. “It was all just guessing.” Turns out, there are very specific strokes and standardized processes to create different shapes and letter forms. Adding to the challenge is the fact that Lindsay is left-handed—and all those techniques are for right-handed painters. “I would have to learn it myself anyway,” he conceded. “I always forget most people are right-handed.” All of his sign-painting work—which you can see around town at spots like Corpus Arts, ACE Barbershop and all three of Master Cleaner's locations—was done right to left, in typical southpaw fashion. While today Lindsay strikes me as monkish in his slow, gracious conversation and measured focus, acquiring patience was another essential skill he has picked up over the years.
“It took me a while as a kid to develop the patience to not cut corners, to not take short cuts. Now, I really enjoy the laboriousness of it,” he explained of his work. “When you know how to do it right and choose to do it right, the final product is something that you can be a lot more proud of. It feels a lot richer.” By its very nature, sign painting holds the painter to account—because, as Lindsay put it, “In sign painting … if you do it right, no one will notice. But if you do it wrong, everyone will notice.” The average person is so inundated with advertisements, graphics and an array of fonts that even the most casual observer is incredibly visually literate. “If you [work] in some form of abstract painting—which is a field I deeply respect—it's hard to ask your buddy, 'Hey, how does this look?'” Lindsay posited. “Whereas someone who has no association with sign painting or painting or art in general … I can say, 'Does this look right?' and anyone can say, 'No, that doesn't look right.' … I really enjoy that the stuff that I do succeeds or fails based on the perspective of the layman, not on the perspective of the art world.” In fact, if he's doing it right, most people take it in in a glance and continue on. “You being good at it means that people won't give it much thought,” he continued. “I like removing some of the importance of the artist. Sign painting is a wonderful way to do that. … It's very anonymous.”
“It took me a while as a kid to develop the patience to not cut corners, to not take short cuts. Now, I really enjoy the laboriousness of it,” he explained of his work. “When you know how to do it right and choose to do it right, the final product is something that you can be a lot more proud of. It feels a lot richer.”
Eventually, a pretty tired question came up, that undoubtedly Lindsay had answered many times before, but I asked it anyway. Is this a dying art form? “These days [it's not as rare] as it was 5 or 10 years ago. In any medium-sized city, there are usually a couple people doing it … Maybe an art form in remission, but dying? I don't think so,” a beat passed before he added, “I don't think it ever died, I think people stopped paying attention to it.” With a growing current of enthusiasm for all things “handmade,” “handcrafted” and “homespun,” there has been a reciprocal interest in things like hand-painted signs. Whereas in the ‘80s and ‘90s, vinyl signage prevailed, “people got bored with it because it's so inorganic and cold,” and those sentiments made way for a resurgence in sign painting. However, for Lindsay, who’s been practicing this art since he was a teenager, it's not about trends or gaining notoriety. “If I go into a place of business and I notice they've got a hand-painted menu board or shop hours … I have this sense that my interaction in this business is a lot less soulless. I know that might be reading to much into it, but … I'm inclined to believe that these people might have more of an eye toward humanity,” he explained. Just as it adds visual richness to the city, sign painting animates the landscape with something a little more human. That depth is something we all benefit from.