We meet with the man behind the city’s most striking signs to talk about craftsmanship, the evolution of sign painting and making his mark on the city
Seven9Signs may not be a name you’re all too familiar with, but their work on the other hand is something you probably walk past on a daily basis without knowing.
The businesses extensive portfolio is beginning to crop up more and more across the city; the Peaky Blinders mural in Jewellery Quarter, the signage and gilding in shops such as Provide and Tilt.
But who is responsible for these creations? The answer, a gentleman called Jim Kerr. We arrive at his studio, just a stone’s throw away from the Custard Factory, to get an insight into the world of Seven9Signs.
“I wasn’t expecting the business to go this way,” Jim tells us when we ask him about the attention that Seven9 is receiving, “this was just something I decided to do so that I didn’t have to go and get a proper job.
I love seeing hand painted stuff not only because I’m a sign painter, but because it means that someone cares.
“I was an exhibiting artist when my son came along. I found myself sitting in a studio painting pictures, telling myself that I needed to find something that would pay the bills, and this was just the logical step for me,” Jim tells us.
A passionate painter and graffiti artist from the age of 15, Jim’s career in the sign painting and gilding industry began with a fascination with letters that linked to his dyslexia. “I got into the sign painting aesthetic, brush scripts and casual lettering, it was things like that that really excited me. I found myself a sign painter and convinced him teach to me.”
Jim is just one of the few remaining sign painters in the city, there’s him “and a handful of 80-year-olds,” yet his work seems to be becoming increasingly popular not only in the city, but across the country with his signage and gilding appearing in both major airports and large chain restaurants.
His most recognisable however is with Elevate Property Group, the brains behind Concord House – the living space that houses the city’s most expensive penthouse – alongside its latest development Queensway House.
“I’ve been working with Elevate ever since they started Concord House,” Jim beams. “Before Concord they’d done a lot of developments but not to that level of luxury, so it was great to work with them on that.”
Jim’s work lies not only in the interior of both Concord and Queensway, but on the exterior too. He’s responsible for painting ‘Less is more, more is less’ on the side of Concord – which can be seen from Marco’s Steakhouse at The Cube in case you’re wondering – and he recently painted ‘A matter of opinion’ on Queensway House that can be clearly seen from Snow Hill.
Painting on such a large scale can’t be easy and must take serious time and skill. Jim’s top tips for becoming a successful sign painter and gilder are “You’ve just got to learn not to shake or spell anything wrong.” Which is easier said than done when he was painting on the back of Concord House.
Trends come and go and I don’t want hand painting to die out.
We ask Jim about the amount of skill that goes into sign painting – shaking and spelling aside. It’s no easy feet, especially when it comes to gilding windows in 23carat gold leaf. “Working with gold leaf is really hard and a lot of people think that they can do it,” Jim says.
“It’s two-millionths of an inch thick, so you can’t touch it with you fingers because it’s attracted to moisture, you have to use a gilders tip to pick the leaf up. It’s a really hard material to work with, and if you make a mistake it just disappears.”
The success of Seven9Signs is something that shouldn’t be ignored. The birth of vinyl machines wiped out a vast majority of the sign painting industry, yet there’s something about a hand-painted sign that’s far more personal than something that has simply been churned out by a machine, and Jim tells us that he thinks that a younger generation of painters may be evolving. “There’s been a really huge drop in sign painters but now more people my age and younger are getting into it,” he adds.
With Jim’s bold and brilliant work appearing more and more across the city, we ask him if he feels like he’s creating a new trend. “Trend is such a dangerous word when it’s your business. If it’s a project within a business then a trend is wicked, but trends come and go and I don’t want hand painting to die out.
“The world’s massively changed but I love seeing hand painted stuff not only because I’m a sign painter, but because it means that someone cares. There’s so much warmth to a hand painted sign.”