Keeping the art of traditional sign painting alive

Operating out of a signless sign shop on Fairfield Avenue in downtown Fort Wayne, Justin Lim pulls paint across a sign in one sweeping motion. Lim will ship out this sign, as he does with many of his orders that come from customers across the country. 

Lim practices the old-school technique of traditional hand sign painting. Sign-paintings include storefronts, windows, doors, and even building-sized messages.

Justin Lim's workspace in downtown Fort Wayne.“It's very traditional because I'm a computerless sign shop,” explains Lim. “Everything is hand drawn, hand painted, and spaced out with rulers.”

He owns Old 5 and Dime Sign Co. and his work can also be seen across town at various businesses such as Tolon, Big Apple Pizza, Freedom Tattoo, Fancy & Staple, Hopscotch House, and Studio 13– just to name a few. Local companies appreciate his traditional and old-school approach.  

Portrait of Studio 13 owners Jake, left, and brother Jes Farris in front of a hand painted sign by Justin Lim at their Fort Wayne location on Coliseum Blvd.“Justin Lim is a modern-day renaissance man,” says Jake Farris, co-owner of Studio 13 Tattoo Shop. “In the time that I have known him, he has been everything from a tattoo apprentice in Southeast Asia, a barber school student, and a professional sign painter. When it was time to rebrand the front of our business, Justin was the easy choice.”

Each stroke of the brush is mesmerizing as Lim paints, with each drag of the paintbrush and each letter perfectly placed. It’s no wonder that Lim’s Instagram has racked up over 43,000 followers. Viewers can watch videos of Lim hand lettering in vibrant paint while creating his signs. 

Sign painter Justin Lim, owner of Old 5 and Dime Sign Co., works on a vintage trout taxidermy at his shop in downtown Fort Wayne.Sign painting, the creative manipulation of painting letters and symbols is a trade that takes years to master. The goal of a sign painter is to have a finished product that is decorative, yet informative. 

Sign painting was once considered a way to make a good living, with many cities and companies hosting large staffs of sign painters. The progression of technology, like the use of computers, printers, and digital signs, took over the trade and now accounts for the majority of signs seen today. But Lim, and many other sign painters across the country, have outlasted and persevered in this digital world, honoring the traditional craft and promoting originality in a world of mass production.  

Hand painted signs featuring Justin Lim’s business name, Old 5 and Dime Sign Co., at his shop in downtown Fort Wayne.The trade of sign painting has been around for a long time, serving a similar purpose as it does today. Hand-painted signs offered a way to distinguish pubs and inns from ordinary dwellings, and to alert potential customers to what kind of goods were being sold at those establishments. In 1920 a sign painting book, “How to Paint Signs and Sho' Cards” by E.C. Matthews, was published. It was a guide covering window signs, alphabet examples, mixing paints, tricks of the trade & much more. 

Remnants of early sign paintings can be seen in Fort Wayne. Those remnants are referred to as ghost signs, which can give viewers a hint of the building’s history. Take for example the building Club Soda occupies, where a ghost sign for the Indiana Textile Co. is visible, or at 2725 Broadway, the former location of Trubble Brewing, where the name of one of the previous businesses– Otto Peters Drugstore, as well as a Coca-Cola advertisement, are both visible.

A ghost sign can be seen at 2725 Broadway, which used to house Trubble Brewing. The sign reads Otto Peters Drugstore and contains an advertisement for Coca Cola. Much like other skilled trades, sign painting is typically something taught through mentorship and apprenticeships as old-timers pass down their years of experience and knowledge to young hopefuls. That is exactly how Lim got his start.

Sixteen years ago, he walked into Gary Morgan’s shop, a sign painting shop located right behind Roller Dome North. Lim had hopes of getting his bicycle pinstriped, thin lines of paint to customize the appearance. 

As Lim entered the shop, he saw something that made a lasting impression on him and set him on the path to his eventual career. He saw Morgan pulling the brush for what felt like five feet. He was immediately hooked. Morgan offered to show him a few things if he was interested, and Lim showed up at 7 a.m. the next day ready to go. 

Justin Lim, Sign painter and owner of Old 5 and Dime Sign Co., works on a First Friday sign for a customer at his shop in downtown Fort Wayne.With a newfound excitement and interest Lim started to reach out to other sign painters. 

“I would call them like, ‘Hey, I'm the new guy in town and I'd love to come by and hang out,’ and sometimes they would go, ‘Yeah, come by,’” Lim recalls. “Eventually I got to know everybody, and it was just a pretty natural progression from there. I learned a little bit from everybody. Each guy has their own style and different specialties.” 

Over the years Lim had the opportunity to learn the techniques and skills from a variety of well-respected sign painters. 

Sign Painters’ 1 Shot paint cans in Justin Lim’s shop, Old 5 and Dime Sign Co.“I learned the most from Dave Doell,” he says. “He taught me all the fundamentals about sign painting and James Mitchell taught me everything I know about gold leaf work and so many fine detail tips and techniques. I started at Gary Morgan’s shop and kinda tipped my toes in the pool there. Jim Studinski owned Advanced Sign Co. back in the 70s and he’s the guy who taught all the guys I learned from. He was a true groundbreaking craftsman and master of this trade.”

Even though Lim was ready to go from day one, it took several years for him to start painting full-time. He ended up enrolling in barber school, as well as doing hobby paintings for friends. He also gained experience by helping the old-timers with window jobs.

Justin Lim, owner of Old 5 and Dime Sign Co., hand painted the free food pantry in front of Fancy & Staple on Broadway in Fort Wayne, IN.Then in 2011 things took a turn and Lim took on a painting job at a tattoo shop, a gig that would connect him to a whole community of tattoo artists and other tattoo shops. Videos of him painting were posted to Instagram, and suddenly he was connected to clients across the country. Orders started coming in fast, so Lim finished barber school, then dove into sign painting and never looked back. 

Lim has been a full-time sign painter since 2012, and he says his company has seen a progression through the years.

“When I first started my studio was in my house upstairs in the spare room across from my bedroom,” he says. “Now looking back I can't believe I was painting inside the house using oil-based paints.”

Then he moved and was able to use a woodworking shop built by a previous owner on the back of his property, customizing the interior to fulfill his sign-making needs. Lim used that space as his shop for over a decade, then when he sold that house, he lost his workspace. He moved his company into the shop on Fairfield, a space that he’s had for the last year and a half. Even though he has a physical studio, Lim’s unique profession allows him to travel creating hand-painted signs and windows across the country. 

Sign Painter Justin Lim dips his brush in paint.Recently, he hopped on a plane for a gig in Florida and he’s also packed up his camper van with his family for a combination of sightseeing and painting. However, the Snider graduate maintains his home base and studio in Fort Wayne. Even though the thought of hopping on a plane to Italy to do a paint job is appealing, Lim has set his sights on contributing more to the Fort Wayne community and keeping his work local because the response from his local clients has been overwhelmingly positive. 

“I have always been a fan of Justin Lim’s work,” says Taber Olinger, owner of Fancy & Staple and Hopscotch House on Broadway. “I love his style and am always blown away by his technique. Over the years, Fancy & Staple has had a couple of art shows featuring his work, and I’ve hired him out to all sorts of random jobs like painting my sidewalk sign and free food pantry. His lettering is so distinct and his retro characters he does, Pink Panther, for example, are right up my alley. People can never believe that he did it all by hand. It is a real honor to have his artwork permanently displayed at both of my shops.”

Justin Lim, owner of Old 5 and Dime Sign Co., hand painted the door at Hopscotch House on Broadway in Fort Wayne, IN.In the future, Lim says he hopes to paint more of Fort Wayne with his signs. Inspired by other cities and sign painters such as Gary Martin from Austin, TX he wants to contribute to brightening the visual landscape of his city.

And to young creatives, Lim offers some advice, “I would say surround yourself with other artists, I mean that's the best way to grow and learn different things. Plus, it's just inspiring to see other people's shops other people's studios, and other people's artwork. That kind of thing it just keeps you growing so you don't get stagnant, it humbles you to  see someone doing like amazing stuff.”

Sign painter Justin Lim, owner of Old 5 and Dime Sign Co., works on a vintage trout taxidermy at his shop in downtown Fort Wayne.Lim opens his studio during his First Friday events, where attendees can connect with him and other guest artists as well as see his studio. His goal for these events is to help build the community in Fort Wayne, so collaborations and connections can be made. He says he hopes to set the next First Friday event for later this spring, as well as one during the summer and fall. 

Lim also does a #FirstFridaySigns drop event on his Instagram, where viewers can pick up one of his special pieces. 

To follow along with Lim’s current projects and to see the traditional craft of sign painting check out @old5anddimesignco on Instagram. 
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