top of page

Hand-painted Signs

The appeal of the handpainted sign is the lack of pretension. The artists are not trying to start a movement, push any boundaries, or make a philosophical statement. In fact, they likely don't consider themselves artists at all. They are folks with a need, and they meet that need in the easiest way possible. Some need to issue a warning, so they find a piece of cardboard and a marker. Others need to advertise their business, so they take out some of their children's paint. Others need to mark their home, or try to sell it, so they put out a sign of their own making. The intentions behind these objects are entirely unromantic, but the final products, if understood in a certain way, become feats of aesthetic accomplishment. 

There might be something about the Russian language that lends itself to charming signage. When any literate Russian speaker takes up a pen, they write the Cyrillic alphabet not in the blocky letters of the printing press but with highly-competent cursive. The script is taught from an early age and is universal; locals here express horror when I tell them about the handwriting habits of young Americans. But when Almatians want to express something to the public on a sign, they usually don't go with cursive, so associated with personal notes. They try to tackle the block letters of the advertising billboard, and the results look unsure and unpracticed. Writing with this bold lettering, they also tend to write in all-caps, which gives any sign a lot of personality: "YOU AREN'T ALLOWED TO PARK HERE!"

The parking sign, by the way, has to be the most reiterated written thing in all of Almaty. Sure, there is some variation in the wording: "DON'T BLOCK THE PASSAGE!"; "PARKING IS FORBIDDEN!"; "DON'T LEAVE YOUR CARS HERE!"; or the unusually polite, "WE REQUEST THAT YOU DON'T BLOCK THE GATE!" What's more interesting than the word use is the subtext. Every warning is evidence of some prior offense, some gate owner who got miffed. The signs come off as desperate and exasperated, and of course the caps-lock doesn't help. 

The next sign that's most consistently quirky is of a different genre altogether: the sign for the shoe repair shop. Ex-Soviets, after lifetimes in a shortage economy, are notoriously thrifty, and they try to get the most out of their footwear, one more night out of their broken heels. The guys who glue their shoes back together are apparently just as cheap. The boot and hammer has become a widespread symbol for these stores, and they are handpainted across town, and if even that's too much than you just need to paint two words, remont obuvi [ремонт обуви; "shoe repair"] outside your little workshop and you're done. It's probably not an industry with the highest profit margins, so one can hardly blame them for skimping on the logo. 

Other common handpainted signs are the home address, the "for sale", the scrap metal solicitation, and the neighborhood convenience store (though this is a dying breed). They all beg the same questions of unknown authorship. Who once wrote these words down? Would they admit to having any skill of their own? The handwritten sign, after all, is a testament to the unpraised competence of the everyman. The colors, the eye-catching compositions, they all suggest that your average insulted driveway owner is more aesthetically tuned than his neighbors might believe. Let's allow them their anonymity. It's better that way, knowing the world is full of expressive minds, content to make gestures without recognition.  

bottom of page