ART: Sign-writer Tristan Kerr keeps old brushstrokes alive

Sign-writer Tristan Kerr applies his art to a model's neck. Pic by James Hartley
Sign-writer Tristan Kerr applies his art to a model’s neck. Pic by James Hartley

SIGN-WRITING was a lost art, but it’s been resurrected in all its retro-coloured glory by a brush-wielding duo that are making their mark. 

When we asked Adelaide sign-writer and designer Tristan Kerr to be part of our SAWeekend magazine fashion shoot he was apprehensive. Having worked on design campaigns for major Paris fashion houses including Hermès, the 29-year-old is no stranger to the world of art-meets-fashion – but this was different: we wanted him to apply his freehand sign-painting skills to a model’s decolletage.

“It was the first time I’d ever painted on somebody’s skin,” he says over a post-photoshoot tipple at a CBD watering hole.

“Straight away I was focused on trying to use the brush on such an uneven surface. There were lumps, bumps, skin and hair and I had to use body paint… I didn’t want to risk using anything unsafe on her skin.”

The human canvas was alien to the painter who is more accustomed to applying delicate gold leaf and paint on glass, found materials and some of the coolest bricks and mortar in town. Industrial Revolution, Magazine Gallery, Tooth and Nail Gallery, Twenty Fifty Two Corner Store, and Kutchi Deli Parwana on Ebenezer Place all bear the distinctive Tristan Kerr mark.

Recently, Kerr worked on Currie St hotel The New Ed Castle with unofficial mentor Marc Sullivan.

The pair spent days with arms resting against mahl sticks (to keep hands steady) as they meticulously applied paint to surfaces prepared with chalk lines.

“They changed partners and wanted more of an age-old touch… nothing too cosmetic – we roughened it up a bit,” Kerr smiles.

Traditional sign-writers – sign-painters as Kerr calls them – are a rare breed. And there’s none rarer than 45-year-old father-of-two Sullivan.

During the 1950s his dad, Ron Sullivan, painted branding for Coca-Cola and in the 1970s opened Scorpion Signs on Wingfield’s Grand Junction Rd.

“Wingfield was full of industrial companies, so Dad used to paint a lot of trucks: scrolls, pinstriping, that sort of thing.”

Back then, sign-writing was freehand or nothing. It took a steady hand, a keen eye and lots of patience. Good sign-painters were in demand 40 years ago, and Sullivan took on his father’s profession, eventually setting up his current business Challenge Signs.

“There used to be a trade school for it; you’d do a four-year trade and learn the basic background on colours, paint formulation, layouts – and lettering… that was number one.”

Then came the digital age.

“Traditional sign-writers were all that was around until the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Sullivan says. “Then computer vinyl came in and killed them off.”

The now ubiquitous digital decals and vinyl are efficient and cost effective.

“Vinyl took over because if someone asks for a sign today they can have it tomorrow, whereas sign-writing takes three or four times longer. If it’s small and intricate it can take seven or eight times longer.”

Livelihoods began to slip through once paint-splattered fingers.

“I do vinyl now, too,” admits Sullivan. But hand painted signage is making a quiet and welcome return.

Eight years ago, University of South Australia graphic design graduate Kerr was doing work experience at a screen-printing studio in Fribourg, Switzerland.

“Switzerland has a lot of history with typography,” Kerr says. “My boss was into sign-painting and he showed me his work and taught me a few things about it and really inspired me.” That inspiration grew the more Kerr explored Europe.

“I wanted to continue speaking French, so France seemed like the logical place to go,” he says. “My boss had a lot of connections in Paris through the art world, so from that I approached studios and agencies about getting my foot in the door with an internship. That turned into work after a few months.”

Kerr earned a crust as a graphic designer for a niche Parisian design studio that dealt with big-name fashion houses such as Hermès, Dior and Lacoste.

After a hard day’s work designing silk scarfs, textiles and packaging he’d return home to hone his sign-painting skills.

For the past four years, Kerr has split his time between our City of Churches and the City of Love, gathering air miles and endless inspiration from the crumbling gold-leaf exteriors of Parisian patisseries, old European-style tango bars and restaurants in Buenos Aires to the streets of India.

“There’s some crazy stuff happening there – India was definitely a real eye-opener,” he says. “Their use of colours and their type is very foreign to me. I guess they’re still living in a third-world age where they can’t afford to use expensive printers.”

Tristan Kerr's work on the side of Lady Burra brewery, Topham Mall, Adelaide. Photo by Katie Spain
Tristan Kerr’s work on the side of Lady Burra brewery, Topham Mall, Adelaide. Photo by Katie Spain

Kerr met Sullivan three years ago during a stint back in South Australia. A friend saw Sullivan painting Nano Café in Adelaide’s East End and encouraged the fledgling signpainter to get in touch.

“Until then I didn’t really know anyone who was doing the same thing,” Kerr says.

Sullivan was bemused but impressed by the inquisitive young artist.

“He had a hunger for it… he asked a lot of questions and has come a long way.”

Soon after, Kerr was commissioned to paint a mural by Josh Fanning, owner of former Magazine Gallery, just off Hindley St.

“Marc came down and showed me some tips and tricks on using a chalk line, how to handle the brush and what paints to use,” says Kerr. Since then, they’ve worked toward keeping tradition alive. “It’s nice to be respected and that someone wants to learn, because we all thought we were becoming dinosaurs,” says Sullivan. “It’s nice that people still appreciate the ancient art of sign-writing.”

Appreciate it they do. When he’s not perched in front of his easel at Tooth and Nail studios in city laneway Coromandel Place, Kerr can be found working on projects for some of the hippest haunts in town.

He and Sullivan painted more than 100 signs for Adelaide Festival 2014’s late-night club Lola’s Pergola and Kerr recently painted signs used for Penfolds’ 2014 global branding.

The work, based on three of the winemaker’s original 1950s’ advertising slogans, appears on the marketing material for its recently launched Bin series wines.

“That was a totally different kettle of fish,” Kerr admits. “Ten notches above the businesses I’ve been dealing with. I’d been working on a local scale, then suddenly at a global scale. It was a huge shift for me.”

It’s all music to Sullivan’s ears.

“I wasn’t angry when the vinyl came in… that’s the way of the world,” he says. “A lot of jobs are outsourced through machines, that’s the way it is. It’s just lucky that Kerr is interested in this and is pushing it to the right sort of people.”

Demand comes from cool cats with unique one-off businesses, a respect for trades of yore and a holistic approach to thinking, producing and living.

“They get it because they relate to that with their own sense of lifestyle,” Kerr says. “I think there’s still a need for computer signage and vinyl, but I feel like it’s been detrimental to our streets. A lot of the cities around the world are full of visual pollution: glossy, clean, generic clutter.”

Sullivan sees Kerr’s work as an effective antidote to this generic clutter.

“Tristan has his own style and you can pick it,” he says. “Each sign-writer knows another sign-writer’s work by the lettering. It’s more personal and individualised.”

For now, they’re happy to channel individuality and ride the wave of popularity that comes with it.

“People want someone who is passionate about using their hands and putting thought into producing something,” Kerr says.

“I wouldn’t say sign-painting has come full circle, but there are some people out there who are sick of living in this digitalised world where everything is generic.”

As seen in SAWeekend Magazine, March 2015

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