Hand painted signs are embedded in Australian culture. For decades they have been spotted in towns and cities around the nation, but could they be lost to time?
Bj Graham is a self taught signwriter by trade, and is part of a group known as the WallNuts who are renowned for painting historic advertisements around the small town of Portland, NSW.
According to Mr Graham, the art of signwriting is as old as time but is evolving beyond the days of old murals.
"The Signwriting industry is one of the oldest two professions in history. Signwriting and prostitution are the two oldest industries," Mr Graham said.
"But in more recent years Signwriting has taken a different direction because of the technology."
The art of traditional brush signs
Traditional brush signs have quite literally left their mark on Australia. The culture of nation in the early to mid- 20th century is able to be observed in many regional towns in the form of 'Ghost signs.'
'Ghost signs' refer to old painted advertisements on buildings that had faded into a distant past.
In 1996, Portland in New South Wales was abundant with ghost signs when newcomer and seasoned signwriter Ron Bidwell OAM saw potential to reinvigorate them as a tourism attraction.
"Ron realised that he could give the town a second life by coming and restoring or refurbishing the old signs," Mr Graham said.
Signs of yesteryear
After realising the depth of his vision, Mr Bidwell called upon the help of his fellow signwriters from 'The Letterheads' group.
The group held their first gathering in Portland in 2001, becoming known as 'The WallNuts.'
"During the process of the 2001 gathering, somebody come up and said, "You would have to be nuts to be hanging off a wall to just to do a sign" and the walnuts wording started," Mr Graham said.
"That was 2001 and we're still going to this date. We've been here in Portland doing it for 22 years."
'Until the last one standing'
Mr Bidwell passed away in 2018, but the WallNuts have continued his legacy through the annual 'WallNuts weekend' at the end of October and running a fortnightly store where people can commission signs and art.
"We're making sure his legacy lives on. Keep the craft alive is what it's all about, no matter how long it takes," Mr Graham said.
"One of his last lines was "til the last man standing".
"I'll carry that through to when I can't do it anymore."
Signwriting in the digital age
Like most other industries, Signwriting has adapted to using digital elements and machinery as part of the craft.
"We have digital CNC, which is the use of a machine to engrave and profile cut neon panels for illuminated panels, which means that you have to learn the skill of masking spray and spray painting," Mr Graham said.
"Involved in all that you would have a hot wire machine, which means you do a lot of polystyrene letter cut outs and painting."
Concerns for the future of the industry
According to Mr Graham, younger generations haven't shown a lot of interest in Signwriting due to the hands on nature of the industry.
"They're really having trouble getting around the fact that it can't be done on a computer," Mr Graham said.
"If we're talking about having to hand mark out something or make a pounce, or make the right selection of paint for the jobs that you're going to do, whether it be brick or perspex or, or board or composite panel, that's where their knowledge has gone."
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Mr Graham said he is concerned about the lack of interest due to the essentiality of the industry for humanity.
"Industry will not be able to survive without the sign industry, whether it be traditional brush, or in modern times digital, It will always need to be there," he said.
"You've only got to think of some of the simple things. If you didn't have signs, you wouldn't be able to catch a bus or train or taxi. If you didn't have signs, you wouldn't be pointed in the right direction for streets."
According to Mr Graham the industry has potential to revalue the signwriting due to interest in murals and silo art.
"This would be an area that a young person that was interested in becoming signwriter can start, because a lot of it means that it's all about brush technique and the right type of paint to use on the write site," he said.
"This would give them a break and an introduction to something that could be the future."
The haunting future without signwriting
Mr Graham said that if the younger generations do not show an interest in signwriting, works such as the signs in Portland will be destined to fade into ghost signs- Which would be a shame culturally and for Mr Bidwell's legacy.
"That's my now biggest concern. I've retired this year. And I believe that if it's possible, I might get to the age of 80 and still be able to do some forms of Signwriting to keep it alive," Mr Graham said.
"But the next 10 year cycle is where we want other people to step up and say they are interested."
"I'm dedicating what I've got left of my life to Biddy and his legacy."
Certificate three in Signs and Graphics is being offered through various institutions in Australia, including TAFE NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria University.