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 Yet some may see this profession as outdated in the digital age.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.”
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.
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.”