Sam Pitino: Behind the brush once more

By signcraft

Posted on Sunday, February 26th, 2023

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Back in 1990, SignCraft interviewed a young up-and-coming sign painter who was living in North Florida. Sam Pitino was 22, full of enthusiasm for the trade, and had a natural eye for design. Today he is painting signs again—a few years older, full of enthusiasm for the trade and still using that natural eye for sign design.

Age: 55

Shop name: LetterLuxe Signs

Location: Medford, Massachusetts


Instagram: @letterluxe_signs

In between, Sam took a detour into the advertising world, starting out as a web designer and working his way up to executive creative director at a mid-sized ad agency.

“In 1993,” says Sam, “I was painting signs for Paula Salerno at Salerno Signs here in the Boston area. She was one of the last shops that was offering sign painting. I had a sense that everything was going digital so I started going to school for graphic design. I graduated in 1996 and went right into a job doing web design for an internet design agency. “

From there, he went to a small specialty graphic design firm doing logo design and a lot of institutional graphic design, mostly for print. The clients were mostly schools, colleges and museums. After a few years, he moved to an agency that did both print and interactive media. Before long, they were bought by a larger agency. There Sam learned to work with writers and art directors doing larger ad and brand campaigns.

“I bounced around to a couple of different companies,” he says, “before landing at one as design director. I worked my way up to executive creative director. We had about 50 people there and workload was insane. It was fun but very stressful. Eventually they were acquired by another company. I wasn’t really into the path they were taking, so I left a couple years later.”

Sam had started noticing the renewed interest in sign painting over the past ten years. While interviewing folks for art director positions, several mentioned that they did hand lettering and sign painting. He started wondering what was driving this interest in hand painted signs.

“When I bought this house,” he says, “I set up an easel in the garage and started doodling with some hand lettering. I was just messing around, doing paper signs and other stuff for kicks. It was great for the stress level of all the chaos at work. I enjoyed lettering again but I had no thought of going back to hand lettering for a living. I thought I might go back to it when I retired, but not before that.

“When I left my job, it was a little rough. I had just moved into a new home. The pandemic was in full swing and things were uncertain. I found myself looking for work but I didn’t want to go back to the corporate world.

“After a couple of weeks, I started following some sign painters on Instagram and seeing what they were doing. I had no idea how big the market was for quality hand painted signs. It was encouraging.”

A friend of Sam’s had a brother who owned Redemption Tattoo in Cambridge. Sam asked if he needed any signs painted and that led to him doing a full storefront design with plenty of gold leaf on the glass. That was over two years ago, and Sam has had a steady stream of customers—first tattoo shops, then barber shops.

“The tattoo and barber shops appreciate hand lettering,” he says. “Their image is very important to them. They all have different images and I try to help them get that message across in their designs. Sometimes I wonder being too involved with this niche, but I am starting to get calls from restaurants and architects, so that’s good.

“I’ve been surprised by how much appeal hand lettering has to young people. It resonates with them and I think that’s so interesting. They get it. I think it’s somehow in our DNA as people. We connect with thing that were made by hand.”

Sam says it has taken a little time to get back in the groove of hand lettering. It’s a skill that you don’t lose, but your proficiency declines when you aren’t lettering every day.

“I had been away from it for a long time but I’m getting back up to speed. I had forgotten, too, about the physical aspect of sign painting—you’re setting up equipment, moving materials around and up and down ladders. At 55 that’s a workout.

You can see more of Sam’s work here:

Profile: Sam Pitino – SignCraft, November/December 1990

Follow-up: Sam Pitino – SignCraft, March/April 1997

Vintage Sam – SignCraft November/December 2003

“Another thing about hand lettering is that you have to be careful not to give your time away. It’s easy to start adding things here or there that weren’t in your quote. You have to keep the business side in mind. You’re also selling more than just your time. You know how to create and design graphics by hand that really work.”

After years and years of being in front of the computer screen for days on end, Sam doesn’t enjoy returning to that. If someone asks him to design a logo, it’s got to be something he wants to do. He likes to do large parts of the design by hand then pull it in to Illustrator to finish it.

“I like working for mom-and-pop small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. I can do my best work for them. There aren’t a ton of these clients but there are enough. I don’t do work for corporate clients anymore. That work always seems to take turns to where you have little control over it. There are multiple people making decisions about the design and it can go badly.”

He’s not interested in growing a business and hiring staff. He gets help when he needs it but prefers working alone. He sells some hand lettered pieces online and is also considering doing a few hand lettering workshops because there are folks who are interested.

“For now, I’m just refining the machine. I want to get the best clients and get the best prices for projects that are really satisfying to me. Long term, I’d like to retire someplace warmer than New England and still keep doing hand lettered signs. For now, it’s just really good to be painting again.”