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Hand Painted Type

Detail of alphabet banner by painter Kafeel, Delhi.

It’s a generalisation, but I think that Indian street graphics are looked upon by designers (Indian and foreign alike) as kitschy curiosities we like to accumulate in image banks and ogle over when “street style” inspired projects turn up. Rarely have I seen anyone take the time or energy to investigate street signs and hand painted graphics until I came across the delightful new project called Hand Painted Type.

Not content to merely collect photos of the work of painters – pictures of the backs of trucks, autorickshaw mudflaps and toilet signage – Hanif Kureshi, a graphic designer and once aspiring street painter from New Delhi, decided to do something about the well acknowledged, but little credited art-form of hand painted typographic signs. Having worked with painters before he joined art school, he realised that they were losing their business to computers and DTP operators and pre-loaded font packs. More and more painters abandon their professions everyday since they feel like they can’t compete with faster, more consistent technology that produces a shop sign or a poster in a fraction of the time it would take them and so Kureshi felt the need to document their work and styles in whatever way he could.

The lower case Latin alphabet by painter Bindra from Kota, Rajasthan.


The Latin alphabet and keyboard characters by painter Umesh from Rajkot.


Detail of alphabet banner by painter Vasant of Ahmedabad. All images copyright Hand Painted Type, 2011

Kureshi’s project is simple and inspired; and it’s born out of a real need to preserve the knowledge that street painters possess. First, he requests painters to create a banner with Latin characters and digits. He then digitizes the lettering and creates a digital ‘font’ out of it. Each font is attributed to the painter that created it and preserved for posterity. In the process of creating a digital version, he breaks down the geometry and construction of every letter, studying the way it is given colour and dimension, determining how a font may be created with options for shadows, depth and ornamentation.

Letter 'A' constructed from painter Kafeel's lettering (below) Image copyright Hand Painted Type, 2011


Those of us who have admired the work of these painters will agree that theirs is an aesthetic that cannot be matched: a hand crafted, painstakingly constructed piece of typography is a joy to behold, and one that has become rarer and rarer to see on Indian roads. The timeless quality of their work has a universal appeal that goes well beyond mere nostalgia and needs to be recognised for the unique, individual proposition it presents. The question that then begs to be asked is if it’s fair to digitise their work and distribute it. Does this not violate the painters’ intellectual copyright? And isn’t it a strange kind of irony that the medium that is stealing their livelihood, will also be the one to keep their legacy alive?

It’s a question that I’ve debated for the last several days before writing this article, but I’ve come to the conclusion that while one cannot fight technology, one can at least preserve, document and learn from these painters’ knowledge. After all, some of the oldest fonts Caslon, Garamond and Bodoni were cut and created as metal types – a technology that is no longer used and a craft that has all but died out. Isn’t it important then, to remember more than we forget, even as we learn new ways of doing old things? Many designers look at Indian street graphics as a representative of the country’s pop culture and constantly refer back to them for inspiration. In undertaking in a project like Hand Painted Type, people like Kureshi are making sure we know where the origins of our inspiration lie, so that we grow and develop these styles into something new.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see the work generated by this project. How will these fonts be used? Will they spurn a revival in hand painted signs? Or will they be all that’s left of a dying artform? And what about documenting Indic scripts? Imagine a similar project for Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali and Urdu – what an amazing resource that could be!

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Hand Painted Type is a collaborative project and Hanif Kureshi is asking for contributions. If you’d like to know more about the project and get involved in the effort, visit the website here.

All images used in this post are copyright Hand Painted Type, 2011 and have been used with permission.

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3 Comments

  1. [...] Little Design Book Hand Painted Type | Many designers look at Indian street graphics as a representative of the country's pop culture and constantly refer back to them for inspiration. In undertaking in a project like Hand Painted Type, people like Kureshi are making sure we . [...]

  2. We had the honor of Hanif sharing his work and approach at Typography Day 2011 at NID in March 2011. for more details of his presentation and other presenters, do visit http://www.nid.edu/typography11

  3. Joel Mielke wrote:

    Thanks for the post, and thanks to Tarun (above) for the link. Beautifully inspired work!

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