Brushing Up on the Art of Sign Painting with Iain Hursey

The Indiana artist is in demand with clients ranging from tattoo shops to movie studios

For much of his career, Iain Hursey owned a screen printing shop. But when a fire destroyed his business, the artist reassessed his future and decided to pursue his passion for sign painting.

Today, Hursey runs a bustling studio in Chesterton, Indiana. "I do a lot of work for tattoo shops, barbershops, different bands, record labels, record stores," he says, noting that his clients "really want more of a traditional style. They want it to look the way that it would've looked back in the '60s before vinyl [signage] took over."

The artist also accepts commissions from advertising agencies, brands and sports teams. Recent projects include work for the Lionsgate movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (starring Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal), and a launch event for new Miami Heat jerseys.

A Hursey-branded paint kit for Detroit’s Alpha6, a company that makes tools and paint for artists, was released last month.

While very few sign painters are well known, Hursey has a massive fan base, cultivated through social media—at last count, his @hurferhandpainted Instagram account was up to more than 600,000 followers, and he has nearly 300,000 on TikTok.

Hursey put his paintbrush down for a few minutes to discuss his work:

MUSE: It is mesmerizing watching the videos you make of yourself hand lettering signs. It must have taken years of practice to master this art form.

Iain Hursey: It's definitely years of practice, and I also work on average 100-120 hours a week. I never have a brush down for long. I'm constantly doing it over and over and over. So, it helps keep that flow I have.

@hurferhandpainted Bold will hold hand painted wood sign. Available in my shop. #signpainter #handlettering #tattooshop #wallart ♬ Down To You - High Vis
As much as I like to watch you work, I have to admit that these videos also stress me out. I know if I was doing this, I would worry about one wrong move with the brush messing up a piece.

Stresses me out, too! I do it constantly, but I still mess up. Well, I don't really mess up. I know what I'm doing, but I still always worry that I'm going to mess up.

How do you describe your style of sign painting?

It's inspired by what I've always been into—traditional tattoos, '80s/'90s skateboarding, old punk/hardcore records. I've merged everything I've been into throughout my life. I never really thought that I had a style until people started saying that I did.

I love your panthers.

That's probably the one that I get asked to do the most. The first video that took off and got a lot of views was actually [of me painting] a panther. That's what got the ball rolling.

When did you start posting social videos of yourself painting, and how has that helped your career?

During Covid. When everyone first shut down, I kept working. I was working like crazy. I worked by myself in a little studio. I kept cranking out stuff and posting videos, and it just got bigger and bigger.

The first art convention I went to after Covid died down—I used to have to explain to everyone who I was at [these events]. All of a sudden, I walked into this big convention, and everyone there knew who I was already. It was a little shocking. I guess it really showed me what social media will do for you.

What kind of paint do you use, and what surfaces do you typically paint on?

I use all enamel paint—a brand called Alpha6. It's high-gloss enamel. And I paint on wood and glass pretty much exclusively.

Are most of your clients small businesses?

I would say that's the vast majority. Every once in a while, we'll have something large come through. A lot of times it ends up being an ad agency, where they have designed something, and they want me to paint it. Other times, they want the video [of me painting] more than the actual painting. So, they let me do my own thing. They really want me to put the video together, and they use that as a promotion piece.

Do you like working for bigger clients and brands?

I do for sure, time permitting. At this point, I feel like [I will take on a big client] if it fits my style. Some things just wouldn't make sense for me, but if it fits in with my style, and I have time, I'd definitely be interested.

There was a great documentary released in 2013 called Sign Painters that was all about artists keeping the tradition of sign painting alive in America. In the age of digital creation and the increasing use of AI, do you find that people still have an appreciation for handmade art—sign painting in particular?

For sure. It seems like there's more and more people picking it up all the time, and that's cool. I think most people probably pick it up as a side thing, but there's more and more people doing this as their job now. So, I don't think it's dying off.

It's definitely niche and not for everyone. I mean, you can go order something online and have something printed out and have it in a couple days for pretty cheap, but if you want something fully handmade and custom made, it's a quality difference. And there will always be a market for people that want quality.

@hurferhandpainted Higgs style Homer in stonecutter robes. This will be available in my booth at @VillainArts tattoo convention in Philly Jan. 26-28th #signpainting #painting #oddlysatisfying #thesimpsons ♬ Made of Stone (Remastered) - The Stone Roses

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