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Ben Stephenson PMA 08

Ben PMA "Every sign painter has their own flavour"

Ben PMA is a traditional sign painter based in Sheffield. You've more than likely seen his work around the city, at independent outlets of all kinds including Gravel Pit, Mow's Coffee at Laundry and the Hallamshire Hotel.

Ben brings a modern and personal take to a very traditional craft, coming out with something unique in the process. We were lucky enough to catch up with him and we're chuffed to share some of his work in this month's art feature.

Hey Ben, and thanks for taking the time to chat with us. We've been following your work for some time and have seen it truly blossom of late. Can you tell us how you got into signwriting as an artform?

Hi guys! Thank you so much for the invite. I’ve been a massive fan of Now Then since the beginning. I used to decorate my houses with cut outs from all the featured artists in the old mags so it’s crazy nice to be here! :)

It’s a beautiful thing being able to do this job. Sign painting has this really deep and beautiful history and I’m proud to be ‘part of the gang’. I still can’t believe that this is my job.

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My creative journey probably starts in the early mid 00s. I really dug photoshop as a teenager, making posters for gigs, and I really got into graffiti back then too. I started designing pin badges and T-shirt prints in my 20s and then digital illustration.

Sign painting was something I fell into in around 2019. I got asked by the then-owner of Lucky Fox to draw some menus and then some large lettering along the top the walls in a pizza restaurant. More jobs like that came up and I really got into more traditional sign-painting. Big thanks to Rich Ledger of Terrace Goods & Cheap Dates. I don’t think I would be doing this work nowadays without all the trust he gave me during those initial projects.

In 2021 I was fortunate enough to get on a sign-painting course down south on an old steamfair. That was an amazing experience and one of the few times I’ve ever really had any guidance, helping me get the basics down so I could go learn the rest in the wild. Since then I’ve been specialising in traditional sign painting and, minus a couple of illustration and branding bits for friends, that’s all I want to do.

What is it about the typographic medium that appeals to you most?

What I like about lettering is to me it’s simple. Painting all these shapes are just a series of brushstrokes. Unlike say drawing a face, where there’s so much interpretation, so many options and variables. Painting letters to me is just a calm process of following the steps. This brushstroke going vertically down with a twist at the bottom to the left to keep the corner sharp. A nice curved C shape at the correct angle.

Once you know the brushstrokes it’s just following the process and I really like that. It’s simple. But I will say I’m always learning - 'forever apprentice.' Yesterday I painted a lovely ‘S’ in Egyptian font in four brushstrokes and it's one of the things I’m most proud of to date.

Ben Stephenson PMA 04

There's a pretty magic balance in your work between a recognisably 'classic' style and something that's uniquely you. How do you strike that balance and where do you draw your inspiration from?

Why, thank you. I think I know what you mean. I think that ‘uniquely me’ part is something I used to be uncomfortable about. A lot of it probably comes from working on all this on my own, for the most part.

I come from a background of graphic design, illustration and graffiti, so I’m not necessarily coming at these designs from the perspective of an old school, traditional writer. But maybe what I am seeing is going through a filter of learned traditional styles. My favourite stuff is always the really old and basic but super tight and clever coloured old signs.

Ben Stephenson PMA 14

Like I said, I used to be uncomfortable because this really is an ancient craft and old timers are really particular about how you do things. Maybe I was a bit more naive when I started and just did whatever looked cool and felt about right. More recently I’ve been trying to lean closer to the traditional hand-drawn, hand-painted ways of doing my job, but there’s always a piece of me in it. I love adding those little curves or playing with different shading and gradients that make it look a bit ‘cuter’ or cartoon-like.

Every sign painter has their own flavour. I know, almost know, straight away which sign painter has done what job locally. I love seeing things done by Third Eye Signs. His stuff is always so arty and really ‘painted’. Mia Warner here in Sheffield has this super traditional, super tight flawless style that I know instantly. The late and great Steve Millington painted all my favourite signs in Sheffield. Lord Bunn, local hero, has a great chunky, super stylish almost graffiti-like lettering style that has made me jealous since being a teenager.

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I know it's always hard to choose, but from your long list of sweet commission pieces was there one which you particularly enjoyed, and if so, why?

I’ve been so fortunate to travel about and do some really weird interesting jobs. My favourite job though has to be my local coffee spot, Mow’s. They basically gave me a colour palette and let me do what I wanted. I’m really into ‘casual script’. That’s the style I used on their signage and I think the creative freedom they gave me helped me hone my skills and I learned so much during that project, really finding my style. I’m still super proud whenever I walk past making sure there’s no scratches.

I did a really big job in London for Sipsmith Gin before Christmas. Working outdoors in December sucked and the weather was a nightmare. On top of that, I had three days to do a four-and-a-half-day job. I just had to knuckle down, stay cool, battle the problems (and I had a lot of them) as they came and I learned a lot about my anxieties as an artist in that job.

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Sometimes you just have to throw yourself at the thing as hard as you can and be the first guy on-site in the morning and be thrown out at the end by the last member of staff when they go home. I used to panic a lot on the job and after the Sipsmith job worked, despite rain, frost, winds and fatigue, I know I have grown as a worker for sure.

What's coming up for you next, as spring is finally starting to make itself known?

Spring has indeed sprung. I’m nearly ready to bust out my shorts!

I have some really exciting bits on at the moment. I’m currently doing a bunch of work at the amazing new Bakers Yard down in Kelham. Next up is a new full shop-front-revamp for the lovely folks at Vulgar, plus a big ol’ sign for the guys at Kelham Studios.

I have a bunch of exciting jobs booked in for the summer including some wedding bits, more cars and hopefully another trip down to London – and more that you’ll have to follow my Instagram to see ;)

Learn more

Get in touch with Ben if you're looking for a sign writer.

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