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The handle of Truth

December 26, 2015


Paying the dues by being different – dare to care

Banksy sharp ending it

Nick Garrett of NGS

My studios fill up with students who have a pretty uniform desire in the room: to get work as a signpainter. Quite often they will mention how they have studied and done a few courses with other writers. Mostly they won’t.


As they leave the studio I have to ask them to twitter the course in order to gain valuable associative exposure. It’s a body language thing!!

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Most will never admit to doing the course via social networking and on website About Us pages because it draws attention away from them.

Some students do make a point such as Tobias Newbigin and it bodes well as it shows the client audience a sense of community and pedigree which generates the whole gamut of positive knock on effect.

Others, like my charge Jack Hollands, the very talented Brushettes, or even Hannah Matthews, or Wes Wills will never mention publically the fact that they trained with NGS. The reason for this is a competitor based notion of how to run and protect business. It reflects the distrust of many great and small businesses, creative or otherwise, in their attempt to grow. It is a bad decision for the industry, client and players. But it is completely understandable because our pasts pave the way to our futures… but is it creating a rocky road ahead? Or just plain stony misguided?

The modern herd


Understanding how you garner your best for your nugget of a start-up business is something I talk about in the Signsmiths course, as it sets out the stall of who and what you are and stand for.

My own stall and mission says be individual, honest and be open and the client is usually wrong!! (save for Tom Pepper of course!). This is to many conventional in the box businesses, a completely ass about face business mission which causes a lot of people to simply walk toward in curiosity and oft times awe and an equal measure to walk away, or even plain diss.

I have to say I don’t fear fear-based competition and react predictably with a jettison mode, as they do simply because I made a conscious decision as a child to trust in trust, be creative and forgive. I do fear for the industry, due to those new to the industry, who act out of strategic business school based fear and seek to self promote to the detriment of saving this industry.

The 80s brought signwriting to it’s knees at the hands of those who knew no better with scant training and a vinyls cutter.  Today this industry is still fragile and if it doesn’t hold together with a real sense of faith and good faith, it will be cut down by those who should and do know better. It’s own.

Over the past 3-5 years the highly veiled competitive and strategic approach to this industry from young players has come from a new set of principles born of their creative origins and scars. Believe me we have even more in common… or do we?

30 years ago and further, signwriters were ordinary blokes with an artistic gift, out of building school, seldom or never in art school. That was it usually… lettering classes, on the practice… up the ladder. I broke the mould in 81 as I came from art school, having been paid a grant to attend art school and not indebted, and a fine art background. By 83 as a recession hit (recessions are permanent for many regions and here to stay every 5 years in London), a lot of graphics students crossed over temporarily.  I stayed.

I managed to get a great tutor signwriter to take me on in Andy Whitmore. There was no internet and we went out scavenging for work until we got some great brewery connects.

Big jump to today, post 2008 a lot of young talented, dandy, fighter, tattooed, graffiti, super oss, ninja herd creatives have faced the prospect of leaving Uni never being in the mainstream industry they trained in (reality check and slap in the face). Not only that but the lack of supervisions and catastrophic decline in degree curriculum studio practice, nay quality, has forced these students to become hyper savvy and duck and weave well beyond the normal call of duty that we experienced. To survive the snipers and diss at Corporate Tech-self-ed over indebted Uni student education system today, it takes the new breed. I applaud that from the highest ladder! But your greatest strengths in one contexts might be your undoing in this one.

Which brings us up to date with what I have seen as a change in the new breed of sign painters today. Summarising their common position on leaving Uni:

  1. High Debt
  2. Talented: Fought for grade
  3. High distrust level
  4. Controlled empathy
  5. From cradle to ninja survival instincts
  6. Information extraction
  7. Share distrust
  8. Tutor or Grey aversion
  9. Tactically minded
  10. Other: Kill opposition


This combination above drives the artist toward those who share their story… and a tactical distrust of those that appear to fall into the Greyman or Other category.

It is understandable then that all the distrust strategies and red lights flash up when a student takes the risk and attends another training workshop course scenario such as NGS Signsmiths and indeed work experience and paid training.

What they don’t connect is mistaken identity and how we are, unlike in the Uni context on the same side. The mistake happens because of some fairly similar characteristics between the contexts yet night day differences in drivers and aspirations.

  • It’s total crap in Uni because of the system that owns yr ass, defensive politics and Jealousy.
  • It’s crap up a ladder because of the weather, subscribing to defensive politics and jealousy that will own your ass.


My love


Above: while not advocating a shift toward Christianity I do think self reflection and change is a good place to be.. always.


Cutting clear of Uni energy – You and the brush +some

When I left uni at 21 I was given a part – time teaching position in the college This was the entry level thing done for those the Academics took a shine to. They loved me and I thought they sucked. I did 2 months and walked … fuck that starch and shit was my Hipster attitude..

A signwriter was born.

In the Uni context the tutors have an ever declining position as their paymasters demand they jump higher through ever decreasing radiused hoops.  It is a nightmare knowing 40,000 other academics are at yr ass constantly and doing your brains in with discommunication, miscommunication and worse of all… Aca communication.

Couple that with 300 students pretending they love you, some actually do, yet all wanting you job.

That is why they are the way they are and as a student you begin very early to realise there is something wrong with the knowledge holders ethics and morals. He or she screws you and mind games you across as much paperwork as possible.

When I commenced PhD studies in University of Western Australia (Art and Reconciliation), I was amazed at how the supervisors had me off on field studies in order to back up their own work.

Well that’s how it works in Uni and it has nothing to do with life on earth or up the ladder.


Yet this experience of being driven barefoot up ravines, is ingrained in flocks of young grads and it’s toxic effect acts as a barrier and protective cynicism necessary to survive Uni, but damaging to your own professional development and the industry of signpainting as a whole. One strike and you’re out (call in an airstrike) is what causes conflict.

Did you realise you have been using the Bush and Blair philosophy to build a future on!?

You have to have the courage to recognise the velvety rut of so-called professional survivalism, ditch it as I did and as the other great blokes have done. It’s not about survival: it is about thriving.

Self Employed or Self Emplode?

Today this born again industry is shafted. Here’s why there are fatal flaws that will undermine hugely the capacity to succeed on micro and macro level.


  1. The notion of Newbie

There is nothing worse than falling into the trap of considering yourself as a product and labels make products… that don’t fit the rapidly changing landscape of 21st century signpainting. It is changing beyond it’s past limitations as it is now uniquely connected to new industries and tech. By past I mean last week.

The inherent experiences from early careers carried into a fairly matured traditional signwriting industry will likely cause fractures across what could be a more closely formed creative union. The recent establishment of organisations such as Letterheads and Better Letters are based on different energies.  The former on the ideal of sharing from true signpainting accords and the latter borne out of the opportunity of forming a collective borne of recent new industry business development.

  1. Bitchin’ n Blamin’

Don’t bitch. As Mike Meyer said to me ‘’We all have our issues..’’ and more than ever this group of people who share more in common than ever than not, need to acts as individuals with good principles. That means when the going is good share the beers but when it;s bad, like an apprentice cracks 2k work of storefront glass on ya, you have to deal with it and forgive the shit that happens… and that which can fly too. The key to the success of any team is it’s ability to dig deep and go the extra miles… which is: forgive.  Most teams have wide dynamics and difference and like the marriage it is the honeymoon ends, the marriage begins… but then something extraordinary happens… the second honeymoon begins.

Pick up the phone and talk to each other. Simple as that – don’t Blame either.

  1. The second Honeymoon

Truly rewarding is the phase that happens after some miles and battles have been won and a few lost. Unity and the ability to share the accounts in order to gain more awareness and avoidance: experience.

The sign start-ups need this depth of experience to gain ballast, density and gravity in the work.

You only become a great sign artist once you’ve understood that letters need love.  Love is only successful if there is joy, trust and forgiveness.  We get the joy from the brush but the rest and full picture we only get from each other through the passage of time.

Langhirano Italian Gourmet Vacation Tours

  1. This is surprisingly Different

If you want your business to really shine make it rise above the standards set by the norm of the day go across the horizon and do it differently.  Mindfully do it differently.

Growing is loving… digging the earth, waiting for rain.

By sensing something really big yet unknown is coming, you summon the good stuff from the heart of your heart.  Not the notion of ‘My Heart’ (that little pink thing… No! Something really heartcore).  The capacity to love forever.

When you see or hear your/a child’s first heartbeat you are filled with a sense of something enormous… boundless.  As a parent it is the triggering capacity and newborn desire to love someone for the rest of your days. It wasn’t there 5 minutes earlier… and then… as the baby beats… it is all consuming.

That is the power needed to be brought to your practice.

Being in business is all about balancing risk. You might as well take the risk at being genuine, making the right stand and tapping out bad sheep tagging practices. It’s about being strong at the core like a solid Trajan not a whisper calligraphic fucker perfect on paper but not on the brick wall: Different yet unifying.

Ha!… gotcha… expect the unexpected.

  1. Too Deep!!?

Nothing is too deep only too shallow.


  6. Underpricing yourselves. 

Never underprice.


   7. Somethings last forever 


These are a few keypoints that take on the past defence mechanisms and allow you to see another way of developing this industry.


Taking care of each other is taking care of business

By understanding the industry you are creating and joining you have a chance of transcending challenges. Understanding comes from lowering your guard because unlike the battles of the past this is a shared cause.  The biggest challenge should be the weather and the client… not those of who you share so much in common.

Getting back to the original point of sharing information about each other.  Most of the new artists walk out of my studio and feel no need to make mention of the training they had with myself and others simply because they are afraid a future client will see this and swing a focus on say my work – it is generally out of the fear of losing work.

That is not the case in reality. My prices will usually be similar but a good client will come to a new writer because they have heard the voice of their work. A good client is loyal, instinctive and responsible.

When you start out more than ever you need good clients.


They will certainly check you out… see you have studied with myself or Wayne Osborne or Mike Meyer and go to in order to ingest your roots and pedigree… why? Because you have enabled that extra layer of understanding and they are curious about you.

It deepens your client connection: that feeds through into happy letters and greater success. And guess what, it makes me feel proud to be a part of your story: appreciated. That is the real payoff for the genuine teacher… a little ego boost and smile that gets my day started.

That is in my book the real sharing of the gifts.


Do what we Love. Love is what we do… even when it’s tough.

Have a great year on the brush: the handle of truth.



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