Soon after ‘launching’ Better Letters with the 2014 screenings of Sign Painters in London, I was on a plane to Mike Meyer’s place in Minnesota (-16 degrees on arrival) to attend my first ever Letterheads ‘meet’, Mazeppa Mardi Gras. It was a life-changing trip, and one that taught me so much about the Letterheads movement, and the craft it represents. It’s therefore an honour to be co-hosting one in my hometown of London this month, and to see the excitement building ahead of the event.

‘Sign Painting Mecca’ – one of many murals and other pieces created at past Letterheads in Mike Meyer’s home town of Mazeppa, Minnesota

In its most fundamental form, a Letterheads meet is simply a gathering of sign and lettering folk to share skills, knowledge and time with each other. They are organised by volunteers, and run on a not-for-profit basis. This has remained unchanged since seven apprentices got together in Denver Colorado in 1975 to try figuring out some of the techniques and processes that they weren’t learning on the job.

The seven original Letterheads, Denver 1985. From left: Bob Mitchell, Mark Oatis, John Frazier, Mike Rielley, Noel Weber, Earl Vehill, Rick Flores. (The women are currently unidentified.)

In the 43 years since the Letterheads started, countless meets have taken place across the world, from small informal ‘paint jams’ to larger-scale international events. (See previous posts on Rochester 2014; Cincinnati 2015; Amsterdam 2016; Carter’s Steam Fair 2016. Sadly I missed out on Oslo 2017.)

It is remarkable that they have enjoyed such longevity, without the need for any formal organisation to oversee matters but, in the words of founding letterhead Mark Oatis, “As long as things remain somewhat spontaneous, dependent on individual effort and participation, things will remain fun.” And who can say no to fun?

The identity artwork for Letterheads 2018: London Calling was created by Ged Palmer of London’s Luminor Sign Company

In this spirit, Letterheads 2018: London Calling will bring 200 attendees from 30 countries and five continents together for four days, for what has been described as a ‘Sign Painting Olympiad‘. There is a busy programme of talks, demonstrations, workshops and panel jamming, in addition to the dedicated ‘zones’ where specialist techniques such as calligraphy, gilding and pinstriping will be showcased.

However, in addition to the meet, we decided that the event should also serve as an opportunity for the public to be engaged and enthused by the craft through a series of free open activities.

One of a series of showcards to publicise the public aspects of the meet, created by Paul Myerscough of Bespoke Signs

At the heart of the event will be The Grand Exhibition of the Pre-Vinylite Society: An 18th Century Revival. This exhibition is the culmination of years of research by curator Meredith Kasabian from Best Dressed Signs and the Pre-Vinylite Society. Her investigations into the 1762 Grand Exhibition of the Society of Sign Painters led to the idea of using the catalogue from that show as the catalyst for an exhibition of contemporary sign and lettering work.

An international cast of artists has been brought together to create the works in this exhibition, and Meredith will be giving curator’s talks at 1pm each day, Thursday to Saturday 16-18 August, for those that want to learn more.

Josh Luke (Best Dressed Signs): ‘Shave for a Penny. Let Blood for Nothing’. One of the pieces to be exhibited in the Grand Exhibition of the Pre-Vinylite Society: An 18th Century Revival.

On the same floor as the Grand Exhibition there will be a small screening room showing films about the craft and people working within it. Watching signwriting and lettering is mesmerising and so an hour or so of short films has been curated for those that want to indulge.

The main welcome area on the ground floor will see the reappearance of the Better Letters Glowing Alphabet Peep Show. This modern curiosity cabinet features a full alphabet of luminescent letters which can only be seen by getting close and peering through the peep holes.

Alongside this on each day Friday to Sunday 17-19 August, visitors will be able to try their hand at screen printing by pulling a souvenir print under guidance from M.A.R.S Print Studio.

There will also be a series of ad hoc signwriting demonstrations and, on Saturday 18 August, an opportunity to participate in the exciting typographic research from Type Tasting.

The Better Letters Glowing Alphabet Peep Show. Exterior lettering by David Kynaston, glowing letters inside by Mike Meyer Sign Painter and Utile Studio.

Finally, for those that want to learn more about the Letterheads there will be short guided tours of the meet taking place on the floors above the exhibition. These will allow visitors to experience something of the atmosphere of a meet, see the work that is being done, and to meet those that have traveled from far and wide to take part.

David Kynaston (standing) and Mike Meyer (seated) in conversation with Morgane Come, and one other, at What the Dickens, the meet hosted by Mick Pollard in Rochester 2014.

If you’re left inspired by all that, then it doesn’t have to end when you leave the building, as the Bankside Ghostsigns Walk (free via the app) is situated nearby, as is the graffiti tunnel at Leake Street. Further afield, there is also plenty more sign and lettering inspiration across London in the form of tours, museums and galleries.

Letterheads 2018: London Calling is taking place at Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, Barge House Street, London SE1 9PH. It is free and open to the public 11am-6pm Thursday to Saturday 16-18 August, and 11am-4pm on Sunday 19 August. We look forward to welcoming you and, remember, IOAFS