Afterthoughts: The Little Details

These days, handmade signage is the exception rather than the rule.

I’ve got a new favorite parking garage, and it’s got nothing to do with how wide the spaces are. I recently ventured into Waikiki and parked in the Waikiki Shopping Plaza’s structure. It was my first time there—I don’t park in that neighborhood very often—and I was immediately struck by the bold, colorful hand-painted signage throughout the garage.  “Slow, keep right, 5 mph, tight turn.” The lettering was rounded and friendly, each word a little gem of typography.

Maybe this kind of thing was commonplace 40 or 50 years ago, but, in our modern age of computer-straight lines and 90-degree angles, the Waikiki Shopping Plaza’s signage is a knockout. I spent extra time exploring and shooting the garage’s treasures, and a couple of days later, I called up the management office of the Plaza to find out who had painted all those letters. They didn’t know.

Not wanting to give up quite yet, I called up Terry Rotz, president of Honolulu Sign Co. Rotz knows signs—his company has been open since 1939 and used to do all kinds of hand-painted work, ranging from the advertisements that appeared on Harry Weinberg’s Honolulu Rapid Transit Co. buses to the film sets of shows that included the original Hawaii Five-0 and Jake and the Fat Man.

“It’s a business that died 15 years ago,” says Rotz. “We used to employ three full-time painters. Today, it’s all done with computers.”

Rotz didn’t know who had lettered the Plaza garage, but he was excited to hear that there was still hand-painted work out in the wild. Until he saw my pictures, at least. Apparently the quirky, off-center details that made me love the Plaza’s signage were imperfections that wouldn’t have been tolerated by professionals back in the heyday of the industry. Who knew that visible brushstrokes were a no-no?

It looks like hand-painted lettering has landed in the same shrinking boat as film photography. Camera makers strove for decades to fix light leaks, grain and color shifts, only to arrive at a point where film buffs can’t get enough of these “problems.”

Well, my hat is off to the as-yet unknown painter. If you’ve got any affection for typography and hand-painted art, check out the Plaza garage next time you’re in the area. And if you happen to know who’s responsible—I’d love to hear about it!