Hand-Painted Type

Hanif Kureshi

It’s been a treat to see Hanif Kureshi‘s completely awesome HandPaintedType project getting a lot of attention and praise during the last month or so. I met Hanif back in March, at Typography Day in Ahmedabad, and immediately took a shine to the painted lettering he put on display, and it’s no suprise that I was all for the idea of documenting and supporting the efforts of those artists. Hanif showed this short film he made as an introduction to the situation that inspired this project:

Handpainted Type is a project that is dedicated to preserving the typographic practice of street painters around India. These painters, with the advent of local DTP (Desktop Publishers) shops, are rapidly going out of business with many businesses and shops switching to the quicker, cheaper but uglier vinyls. Many painters have given up their practice altogether.

The project involves documenting the typefaces of road side painters across India, digitizing it and archiving it for future generations.

I had a lot of discussions about the sign painters with a lot of designers while I was in India. It’s a difficult bind for the artisans whose livelihood is giving way to the production of cheap digital signage. They can’t match digital sign shops in terms of price or speed, but the work they do is both more charming and more likely to last for a long time. Of course, style and longevity are probably low priorities for customers who are also trying to eke out a living in a difficult economy.

I think the key to survival for the sign-painters may lie in the hand of designers and other tastemakers who not only appreciate the work, but are also more likely to have the market savvy to shift the perception of the lettering trade from being “just” a trade to acknowledging the artistry. A similar thing has been going on in the West with the explosion of interest in crafts and the handmade object, and I think it could certainly happen in India, where everyone seems so quick to see the vibrancy of the handmade letter in comparison to the glut of poor typography. The fonts will improve, though, and what then of the lettering artists (and the art of lettering itself) if they can’t find a place for themselves elsewhere in the culture?