Sign Language

Sign Language

Kenji Nakayama

Kenji Nakayama sits in front of a wall he painted as part of a mural project sponsored by Converse. Photo: Cary Wolinsky

Motorcycles, murals, antique saws, signs for homeless people: Kenji Nakayama has painted them all. Trained in traditional sign painting, Nakayama is known for his artistry – the energy and charisma in his brushstrokes, the shapes of his letters and words, and the colors and shadows he employs.

His work has infinitely more feeling and personality than the inexpensive, now-ubiquitous die-cut vinyl lettering that began replacing hand-painted signs in the 1980s. “Sign painting has a uniqueness – it’s warm,” Nakayama says.

That pursuit of one-of-a-kind work, the kind that “only human hands can do,” brought Nakayama from his native Hokkaido, Japan, to Boston 10 years ago. In Japan, he worked as a mechanical engineer and had a steady office job, but he craved creative freedom. He loved motorcycle culture and American muscle cars, and the elaborate custom paint jobs they often sported; his years as an engineer had given him a deep appreciation of craftsmanship, even on an industrial scale.

He left behind everything he knew and enrolled at Boston’s Butera School of Art, where his affection for custom painting translated into a professional interest in sign painting, which appears to be undergoing a resurgence. People are beginning to see it as more than a trade, Nakayama says – as a craft, an art.

And as it makes its way into galleries and museums, “there’s more chance for everyone to notice sign painting,” he adds. Last year, Nakayama began working full time as a sign painter for Best Dressed Signs, leaving his previous job as a shoe designer at Converse.

One of Nakayama’s side projects, Signs for the Homeless, began a few years after he graduated from Butera. A homeless woman who often sat near the sign shop where Nakayama worked asked him if he would make a professional-looking sign for her – she sold drawings and watercolors, and was hoping to drum up more business. He didn’t wind up making one for her, but the request “stuck in my head,” he says. He wondered: If homeless people carried more colorful, visually interesting signs, would more people stop to talk to them?

A few years later, in 2010, Nakayama asked Chris, a homeless man he’d seen many times, if he could make a sign for him. “Honestly, I think he had no idea what I was talking about,” Nakayama says. “He said, ‘All right, I have a sign, but if you want to make me a new sign, I’ll take it.’ Then he actually liked it; he was pretty happy with it.”

Since then, Nakayama and his project partner, community advocate Christopher Hope, have done about a dozen sign exchanges. (They buy the original cardboard-and-permanent-marker signs for $10; Nakayama keeps all of the originals in his studio.) When Nakayama makes the new sign, he preserves each person’s original message – “Be Blessed” and “Seeking Human Kindness” are examples – and tries to express the sign carrier’s personality in the style of the sign. Hope interviews each person, giving them a chance to tell their story, which, along with before-and-after shots of the signs, is shared on the project’s website.

The polished signs may not boost panhandling power – that’s one of the first questions people ask Nakayama about the project – but, he points out, he and Hope are more focused on humanizing each of the homeless people they work with, and encouraging the rest of us to think about the deeper social roots of homelessness and poverty.

“It’s not just about helping this one person; it’s more about trying to open people’s eyes and minds,” he says. “We try to make sure we’re in a neutral position – it’s totally up to the people to think about what they read, and what they do afterward.”

Along the way, Nakayama has learned a few things about designing for the homeless. “They get very excited when they see the new sign,” he says, “but they’re also very honest.”  When he finished one of his first signs and gave it to its new owner, she immediately pointed out that, while nice, it was too big for her to carry around all day. (It featured a particularly long message.) Another, painted on thin wood, was too heavy.

He now uses cardboard for every sign, with a thick waterproof seal (a highly desired feature, he says). The signs don’t generally last long, Nakayama says – they are usually stolen, lost, or damaged within a few weeks – but, he asserts, the sign itself is actually not very important. “The hand-painted sign is just a way to start the conversation with homeless people,” he says. “I’m an artist, so this is how I can connect to them.”

Josh Luke, his colleague at Best Dressed Signs, marvels at Nakayama’s work ethic and visionary energy; after painting commercial signs all day, he goes home and works on his own art.

A recent personal project involves painting antique saws and other time-weathered tools. “The saw has a working-class tone,” Nakayama says, “so my concept was that I wanted to put blue-collar expressions on them, like construction workers’ slang.” The saws serve as a timely comment on the nature of work: Nakayama is  handcrafting messages related to manual labor using a technique that has been largely replaced by machines. At the same time, they are surprising – the ornamental lettering and designs lovingly painted on such an unexpected canvas, bearing edgy expressions such as “Suck it up,” “Rat race,” and “Shit show,” rendered in bright, cheerful colors.

“He has a very creative eye,” says Luke. “He pushes the boundary of typical sign art – he puts a twist on it, layering the lettering or making it more about the line of the stroke, with the lettering itself as a design object.”

Nakayama’s enormous reserves of creativity show no signs of running out. Recently, the artist has begun using truck-lettering brushes to explore the brushstroke and its relationship to calligraphy.

“He’s made a lot of sacrifices to pursue what he thinks is worthwhile in life,” Luke says. “It’s exciting to see where he’s going to go from here.”

Danielle Maestretti is a frequent contributor to American Craft.