Bryan Collins photographs the imagination, honesty, and practical genius of amateur sign makers in NYC. He publishes his favorite images in The Journal of Urban Typography. Collins is a self-taught graphic designer and life coach who has been shooting letter forms around town since 2001. And with over three terabytes of photos logged, he’s become an accidental archivist of New York’s ever changing sign culture. We got together to talk type.
What would you say is the common thread that draws you to all these different signs?
Sometimes I don’t know what it is that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s just the brightness of it, or a weird letter form. Is it hand-painted? Is it vinyl? Is it on a van? Is it the overall arrangement, or some mix of typefaces? There are so many different angles and components.
One of the things about the Journal that I find really inspiring is that underneath it all, there is generally a utilitarian intent. People just need to get a message out as quick as possible in such a hectic environment. How do you create a voice in this sea of information?
If someone asked you where to find good type in New York City, where would you tell them to look?
Different neighborhoods have different styles. I ride my bike throughout the neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and there are so many strange pockets. Just go down any little side street where there’s a bodega, and there’s bound to be amazing type. And in Manhattan you see the delivery trucks. The whole city is game.
I’m also fascinated with areas that become slowly gentrified, and you start to see a mash-up between old sign-painted stuff that’s getting covered-up, and people just adding things on top of it.
What do you think is the difference between the kind of person who gets inspired by a hot dog sign, and the person who just passes it by every day?
I think it’s about curiosity, and having a deeper awareness of your environment. I also think that you notice more if you have an artistic output that’s part of your life. That’s why so many musicians move up here and have their New York album. I have friends who are musicians who can hear a subway car go by, and pull a rhythm out of that. Inspiration is everywhere if you are curious.
Any all-time personal favorite finds?
I live in Bed Stuy. I was taking a walk up Bedford, and there was this dollar store that had the absolute sickest sign. It baffled me, because there was an element that looked like graffiti, but it also looked like an old painted sign because the craftsmanship was absolutely insane. This kid who’s like 16 years old comes out. He’s like, ‘Yo, you like that? I did that.’ I’m like, ‘Dude you’re sick!’ And he goes, ‘Yeah man, I got the soul of an old man. I’m like an old grandpa in the back doing signs.’ And then he just smiled and walked off. It was so cool.