PAINTING IN
BIG ORIGINALS

Words Nathan Zack
Video Garrett Frisbey
Photography Nathan Zack

ONCE YOU START TO PAY MORE ATTENTION to the hand painted signs around NYC, you’ll realize that the city is full of them. Neighborhood delis, auto body shops, barber shops, bike shops, you name it–these small businesses would not be the same without the colorful letters that adorn their walls and windows and trucks. Hand painted lettering is easily overlooked by the average passerby, and yet there are few more genuine, more iconic visual expressions of the character of a city. It’s a part-commercial, part-folk art tradition that’s been around for decades. HAND SIGNS is a studio based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that’s squarely in line with that tradition.

Founded by NY-native Jon Bocksel, Hand Signs has built its reputation on the storefronts, transoms, murals, and food trucks they have painted, as well as custom installations for museums. If you’ve ever walked by the Russ and Daughters Cafe in the LES, or Mekelburg’s in Domino Park, for instance, you’ll have seen their stellar work. We had the opportunity to document Jon and his assistant Andy working on a new butcher shop in Prospect Heights, both wearing the premium natural indigo rope-dyed version of the Blue In Green Original Jean: the BiG-802N Original Semi Tight Straight. The 802N is the second iteration of the popular BiG-802 we released in 2018, featuring the same sheepskin patch created by NYC graffiti legend TRAP IF.





WHETHER YOU’RE PAINTING A 60-FOOT MURAL or a 60cm canvas in your garage studio, there are few more natural choices than denim. Painting in denim looks good and it makes sense for a physically demanding art. Given the high degree of precision required by hand lettering on storefronts, by nature Jon and Andy are not prone to splattering–so very little paint is ever misapplied or spilled onto their jeans. That being said, the 802N’s low tension, unsanforized 15oz Kuroki Denim made in Japan proved to be just the right choice for the hours of crouching, stretching and ladder-climbing that painting outdoors entails. At 15oz, the 802N has a resilient sturdiness to it–these are made to be put to the test. We’re confident that all creatives at work in Blue In Green denim can expect our jeans to hold up for years to come, while fading beautifully in the process. 

In fact, insofar as one of the hallmarks of premium Japanese selvedge is its ability to age with the wearer, while sign painters’ work is distinguished by its ability to age well–aesthetically and physically–there is an undoubtable analogue between Japanese denim and hand painted signs. To the untrained eye, from afar both may not garner much attention; yet, upon closer inspection, the quality of the craftsmanship speaks for itself. There’s no substitute for the feel of a slubby, low-tension, unsanforized selvedge and the patina that it will acquire over time, just as no digitally printed sign can approximate the texture and the beautiful, detailed lines that set hand painted signs apart. And just as there’s a magic to super well worn, beat-up denim, anyone who lives in NYC knows that the oldest signs in the city, the signs that have overcome years exposed the elements, are truly timeless. 





Where are you from?

Born Queens NY, grew up in NJ and have been living in Brooklyn the last 19 years.


How long have you been painting?

I became interested in painting when I was 14 and never really stopped. Signs and brush lettering came later, maybe about 15 years ago, with a very slow start. Mostly something I just did for enjoyment at first here and there. Still enjoy pushing a brush, and still find it challenging!

What makes a “good” sign?

Contrast through line, color and form.


Is painting signs in NYC different than in other cities?

I can only speak for NY, but I imagine it's the same here as it is anywhere around the world. It's part folk art tradition, and part commercial task. You have to listen to the client and understand how your skills may help improve the experience for the passerby and the clients image as a whole.







What's on the horizon for Hand Signs in 2021? 

Being such an unprecedented time it's hard to gauge, but I do see it being very busy come summer- say we all can go out again in a somewhat normal capacity. This year I was able to practice and challenge myself a bit more through painting quick and affordable signs for the general public. I plan to do another “sale” of this sort, but we are still working out those details. Stay tuned ;)

Describe your personal style.

Utilitarian with added flavor. I like to make signs that don't look out of place- but are still memorable, it's a fine line.



Favorite meal you had recently?

I think one of the last great meals I had was in Central America right before lockdown in March. Fresh tuna ceviche on top of a fried "string" style potato. Kind of like ceviche on top of french fries but a little different.... little did we know it would be the last time we had to limit our eating out.









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Blue In Green is an independent denim and lifestyle boutique based in SoHo, NYC. As one of the first retailers in North America to import Japanese made selvedge denim, since its founding in 2006 Blue In Green has become NYC’s preeminent denim store and continues to be the exclusive purveyor of many international brands.

LIFE IN DENIM

This year we’re introducing LIFE IN DENIM: a series about everyday life in denim and our neighbors in NYC. Whether you’re at work in the studio, fixing up an old car in the shop, writing, cooking, cycling, climbing, or recording an album, take a photo and tag us with #lifeindenim on Instagram.