Monday, 1:00pm
20 May 2019

Letters from Tokyo

Sam Roberts reports from Tokyo Letterheads, an international ‘meet’ for letterers and sign painters

Last month’s Tokyo Letterheads event ended with an auction. One of the items (won by London’s Ged Palmer) was a hanging paper sign, a collaboration between Dude Signs (Japan) and Kingson (Taiwan), that translates roughly as ‘Brush Mafia Invades Tokyo’, writes Sam Roberts.

The sign exemplifies the increasingly global nature of the resurgent Letterheads movement. (The auction raised more than ¥500,000 [approx. $5000] for a local Children’s Hospital.)

Although I am neither a signwriter nor a lettering artist, I have been lucky to attend eight major Letterheads ‘meets’ since my first in 2014 at Mike Meyer’s shop in Mazeppa, Minnesota. (This includes co-hosting one in London last year.) I have come to oxymoronically describe the Letterheads as an ‘anarchic organisation’, given the way things have been run since it was started in 1975 by seven sign painting apprentices in Denver, Colorado.

Meet host Peter Liedberg auctioning paper sign by Dude Signs (Japan) and Kingson (Taiwan) which translates as ‘Brush Mafia Invades Tokyo’. Top. Mike Meyer hosting the novice room.

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Pieces on display for the charity auction, featuring (L to R starting with edge of pink sign): Gustavo Ferrari (Ferrari Fileteados); Steve Blackwell; Ross Trimmer (Sure Hand Signs x2); Kristian Gundersen (Skiltmaler Gundersen); and James Cooper (Dapper Signs).

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Anyone can host a Letterheads event – which can range from a small evening gatherings to a much larger international meet – on the premise that it is not run for profit, and that the aim is to share knowledge, skills and experience in an informal environment. There is no central committee approving proposed events, and this results in an overwhelming culture of volunteerism, all directed towards the professional development of those within the trade – especially those who are new to it.

It is common at the end of a meet for someone to put their hand up to host the next one, which is exactly what Peter Liedberg (aka Letter Boy) did last year in London. A Swedish national, Peter has lived and worked in Tokyo for the last three and a half years and it was his vision to bring Letterheads to Asia for the first time.

Gilded panels drying. Lettering reads ‘Tokyo’ in Japanese.

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Learning the traditional art of Fileteado Porteño with Gustavo Ferrari. See ‘Fileteado Porteño’ on the Eye blog.

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The result of Peter’s efforts was four days of workshops, seminars, talks and freestyle painting for 150 visitors from around the world. This may well be the first time that six continents have been represented at a single meet, which have traditionally been the preserve of North America, Europe and Australasia. In addition to attendees from across East Asia, Stéphanie Lebon from Réunion Island brought Africa into the fold, in addition to Gustavo Ferrari from Argentina who has been representing South America at meets every year since Rochester 2014.

The content of the meet was substantial, and highlights included: daily gilding classes with Adrián Pérez (El Deletrista, Spain), Archie Proudfoot (UK) and James (Yames) Moffitt (US); a pinstriping demonstration and workshop with Jussi Alasalmi (Finland); an exposition of ‘Architects Casual’ from Gaston the Painter (Australia and Uruguay); and a seminar on the ‘Tricks of Shading Letters’ from Lee Littlewood (US). All of these were complimented by the regular ‘Panel Jam’ areas where anyone can pick up a brush and paint freestyle, and the large ‘Novice Room’ where Mike Meyer guided ‘newbies’ through some of the basics of sign painting.

Brushing off excess gold after gilding the lettering.

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In the short time that I have been involved with the Letterheads organisation it has evolved rapidly to become more than just a forum for knowledge exchange within sign painting and lettering. It is now a global exchange of cultures that goes beyond the craft that it represents. Enthusiasm grows with each event that comes along.

Charity auction in full swing.

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When the seven apprentices sat around discussing and figuring out old techniques in mid-1970s Colorado, they had no idea that things would evolve to become what they are today. A lasting tribute to the founders’ role in starting the movement now exists in the form of a ceremonial silk banner crafted by original Letterheads Mark Oatis and Rose Oatis. Revealed for the first time in London last year, the heirloom’s next stop on the road is Porto, 1-4 August 2019.

Paper signs by Unile Signs as gifts for event volunteers. Each gives their name (main lettering) and country (in red circle) transliterated into Japanese.

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Tokyo Letterheads ran from 11-14 April 2019 at the Ikejiri Institute of Design, Tokyo, Japan.

Sam Roberts, Better Letters founder and Ghost Signs hunter, London.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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