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Craftsmanship: signwriting.

Colm O’Connor is a sign writer by trade

Painting company signs and advertising has a long tradition in Ireland. The sign writer Colm O'Connor lives the old trade – and does not want to be an artist.

Picturesque: handwritten signs in Dublin.

He is one of the last of his kind: painter, illustrator and communicator of essential information. Colm O’Connor is a registered sign writer. His works are hand-painted texts outside the entrances of businesses, pubs, on display windows, park benches or entire house facades. The sign writer trade has a rich tradition in Ireland. Yet some may see this profession as outdated in the digital age. And Colm himself does not need to think hard to come up with the uncomfortable sides of his job: “The weather.” Ninety percent of the work takes place outside. “You have to be able to handle the cold.”

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Signwriting in Ireland.

The 45-year-old spends up to ten hours a day on his ladder. Without a break. “Eventually you find your own rhythm and then you never interrupt it”, says the Dubliner. Unless he is forced to. “Hey, spelling mistake”, call out two young men as they walk past with serious expressions. O’Connor climbs down from his ladder and takes two steps back. Everything is spelt correctly. He hears distant chuckling. “That’s Ireland! That always happens. The Irish love to play jokes on each other”, says Colm O’Connor and shrugs his shoulders. Back on the ladder he completes the name of the bar, Snug, with a few long strokes. Just like Snug, the oldest bar in the popular Temple Bar quarter, around 25% of all businesses in Dublin still have a hand-painted sign over their entrance.

A sign writer's materials

  • Paint
  • Gold leaf – for embellishment
  • Vinyl – for windows and vehicle lettering
  • Neon elements for illuminated advertising
  • Wood and steel
  • Acryl and Foamex

First a tradesman, then an signwriter artist.

When asked whether he sees himself as more of a craftsmen or an artist, he answers immediately: “I am a tradesman first. We have to work quickly and cleanly, above all”, says Colm O’Connor. “The art takes second place.” The classic trade of a sign writer includes working with paint and a brush and applying gold leaf. Naturally, the development of new materials and techniques has changed this traditional trade. The profession has diverse different requirements today: “We work with digitally manufactured vinyl prints, neon signs, wood, stainless steel and laminates.” The profession is very challenging and demands a lot from those who practice it. “But for me there is no beating the satisfaction of completing a job.”

Sign writing has a long tradition in Dublin.

Sign writing remains a tradition in the Irish capital even today. Every fourth business has a hand-painted sign.

Colm O’Connor illustrated Cumiskey’s lettering 25 years ago.

Hand-painted last long. Colm O'Connor renovated Cumiskey's lettering 25 years ago and it still looks fantastic.

Sign writing is especially important for businesses because it communicates quality.

Sign writing as a statement of quality. Here: Gilded letters and a gilded tower. Business plate with brass lettering.

Colm O’Connor renovating a sign.

For Colm O'Connor speed and clean results are more important than art.

A modern sign writer works with paint, vinyl, stainless steel and wood.

Paint, vinyl, stainless steel, wood… A modern sign writer has to be able to work with a diverse range of materials. Here wooden letters.

The gold leaf lettering has been sealed with varnish.

Manual expertise on glass. Gold leaf lettering with black edging. The letters are sealed with varnish to protect them.

Colm O’Connor is a sign writer and paints pubs, display windows and house facades.

Many pubs bear Colm O'Connor's writing. Among them the Snug, Temple Bar's oldest pub.

Photos: Colm O’Connor

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