Hannah Sunny Whaler
At only 24, soon-to-be London-based signwriter Hannah Sunny Whaler is an ultra-friendly, positive force in the signwriting community and one of the few female signwriters in the South. She sat down with The Poach to reflect on how studying illustration morphed into drawing letterforms, how she's built her way up from doing pub chalkboards in a sleepy seaside town to cementing a strong client-base in Bristol, and why she'll be taking some of the city's spirit with her when she gets to the big smoke.
How did this all come about? Tell us the path to where you are now.
I studied illustration, I've always drawn. It's always been my thing since day one and I've always known it's what I wanted to do, so instead of doing A'levels I went straight to art college when I was 16. From that two years, it meant I could just go straight on to University to do an art degree rather than have to do a foundation year or anything like that. So I suppose I left school when I was 16 and went straight into doing art all day every day. I had a lot of friends who went to uni and found it quite hard to adjust to that sudden routine of full-time creativity but it was very natural for me.
So when did illustration become drawing letters?
It's a funny one because I look back at my old sketchbooks and I can see I'm a bit of a writer as well as a drawer. I have to write notes and I always have to write things down to re-iterate things in my head. A lot of my early sketchbooks have got little notes and annotations or words in there somewhere. Then I started getting interested in lettering as something I could bring into my art as a finished piece rather than it being a brain-to-page thing. A lot of illustrative briefs have to be considerate of text if it's poster work or book jackets and things like that. They always said at university, if you can combine your imagery and lettering as a joint thing then you're nailing two birds with one stone, rather than a graphic designer coming in and having to work out text around an illustration. I remember them telling me that and thinking 'I like that' and I've always been interested in packaging and poster work and those things where letters and images come together.
But it was more in my third year of university where I got that chance to marry the two, I discovered sign-writing through a project where I had to come up with a book jacket based on a book called 'The Caravan'. They were like 'just come up with something'. So I looked into Gypsy caravans and handpainted type and details and just doing that little bit of research planted a seed in my head of 'this is something to keep looking into'. I started looking at the circus in one project I did and obviously all that kind of type and the posters... from then on it was like 'how can I work signwriting into everything'. Uni were great, they allowed me it and that was when I started meeting other people interested in signwriting too.
Where did you study?
Falmouth, down by the sea. It is a beautiful place to study, it's very interesting. It gave me a very different perspective. I really wanted to go to London but didn't get into any of the London uni's, so I settled for Falmouth. For me, quite a lot of it was about the place and thinking 'I'll be living here for three years'. I went to Falmouth open day and was like 'this is literally a sleepy seaside town', I just could not see myself living there. But you dig that little bit deeper and there was an amazing, very very tight creative scene down there. Quite similar to Bristol really. It was lovely; it's a special place to study I think.
I was wondering how I could fit in with [Illustration agencies] and how could I impress them the most. But then I realised I'd actually be better off going it alone and being really honest about what I do and the things I know I'm best at.
So you're from Malvern originally, was that the allure of the big city in the end?
Yeah, I needed a bit of a buzz, I always knew I wanted to spend a bit of time in London. My parents spent a lot of time in London when they were younger and I just felt really excited thinking I could just go and do something completely new. Falmouth to me felt the same kind of energy level as Malvern and where I'd been to college but now I look back, it was the right thing to do. I think I would have gotten a bit lost in London. I feel like it [Malvern and Falmouth] sort of nurtured me up to this point, I just met some amazing people there, lots of people on the same wavelength.
It takes a certain someone to want to spend three years living in a tiny seaside town in Cornwall. I think it just builds you into a different type of creative person than someone that's maybe been in London. We just used to work together all the time. You kind of realise you have strength in numbers when you're somewhere that small, you're just always looking to collaborate with people and people are really interested in what everyone else is doing. I think if you study somewhere like London, it's just so much competition, it's like this sort of fighting game. In Falmouth you look at the people around you and how they can help you out and work with each other, that's definitely the attitude that it had when I was there anyway.
So how did the lettering you were doing in your third year of uni progress into being something you could do for a living?
It was getting towards the end of the third year and I was getting little sign-writing jobs. One of my friends worked in a lovely pub and they got me in to do all of their chalkboards. So I did all the exterior of that pub. It was in the winter and getting dark by, like, 5 o'clock in this permanent Cornish drizzle and I remember being there shivering. I think he paid me a bit of money but he just gave me a pint and a big meal at the end of it or something, just doing it free-trades and stuff. And all it takes is that one job - that's the thing with signwriting, you do one job and the next thing you know you get a call from someone else and before you know it you've got some more little bits and bobs.
Our tutors were trying to get us to look at illustration agencies and these big companies that you could approach with your portfolio and sort of sell yourself to, to then work within and be in these very junior roles for a long time. I was wondering how I could fit in with them and how could I impress them the most. But then I realised I'd actually be better off going it alone and being really honest about what I do and the things I know I'm best at. And signwriting is a trade, it doesn't work the same way as illustration, you can travel with it... it just made loads more sense to me to graduate and go into something like that. There are so many different avenues that can come off it, I can still do a bit of illustration, I could do prints and sell them at markets, I could do little panels and big site jobs. Lots and lots of little things that all tie in and make a strong visual identity for me.
I just think to have a bit of confidence in your ability and in what you do and just not questioning is such a key thing for creative people. People see your confidence and feel reassured by it and feel inspired by it and want you to then do work for them. And I think I just hit it at a good time, it was all starting to kick off.
So how did you get to Bristol?
I was going a bit stir crazy by the third year because I'd already been feeling a little itchy before I got there. So it had to be either London or Bristol, somewhere with stuff going on. Bristol appealed because it was in between Falmouth and my hometown so geographically you're quite nicely connected and you can get to London in no time. I kind of saw it as a stepping stone, the idea of going straight to London.. you can just get washed over, y'know? You first get there, you get a job in a bar, you stay at that job for like seven years or whatever and try and make money on the side. It's just a lot more hardcore and I feel like Bristol maybe has more of that similar mindset to Falmouth. There are a lot more little independent business here and people are kind of interested in other small business people and want to help bring them up. I thought this was more of a sensible place to start out.
How did you build up a client-base once you got here then?
I had a mate who was studying here at University and I would come and stay here on weekends on the sofa. I'd made these flyers, printed them all off at home and was giving them out to businesses. I'd just walk around... I went to the Arnolfini and got one of those big maps they've got. I asked them where I should go, said I want to move here, where are good studios, places, people to see, institutions here that will help me out? They were brilliant, this bloke just circled everywhere I should go on the map, and I was like 'great, done! Day planned!' Then literally just went out to all these places in person - because that's another thing, people just ignore emails, go in person - any place I saw that I thought 'this is a nice place, they could do with a good sign' I gave them a flyer.
I was doing that then coming back home to Malvern again in the week and working in this restaurant and I got a call off the Gallimaufry because I'd handed one in there. The manager there said we'd love you to do some listings boards for the music we do in the week. We agreed on a price, which now, thinking about it... with food and petrol I probably made about £30 or something.
I personally think people have gone back to [signwriting] now because we need something a bit human again. People just need that.
How did you integrate yourself into the signwriting community, did you approach people on email or just at meet-ups and things like that?
A lot of it is if people are interested in it and they see someone doing it - the great thing about signwriting is that you're normally just out on the street doing it in front of people. It's such a niche thing, if someone wants you to do it they'll just come up and get chatting and before you know it you've got all the little links [between people], so a lot of the connections come about just through that. A lot of it is social media stuff as well, massively!
I first found out about sign writing through the Sign Painters book and the film was made at the same time, that was when I was at Uni. It was the big moment of 'fuck, I can actually do this and there is a scene out there.’ That book celebrates the old guys and notifies people of the new generation, the people coming out of graphic design and illustration and fine art.
It's had a real resurgence in recent years. What do you attribute that to?
I think the resurgence is only noticeable because it had this big dip. Up until the dip, it wasn’t even considered something ‘popular’ it was just necessary - like needing a carpenter or electrician. The dip only happened in the 80's because all of a sudden digital technology was the don and if you could do something on a computer it meant you were a cut above the rest. It was quicker, it looks modern and smart... something signwritten just seemed old fashioned when you could get it done in modern vinyl. Tons of signwriters went into or had to go into vinyl lettering themselves, as their livelihoods just disappeared in front of their eyes, it was just a case of having to move with the times.
I personally think people have gone back to it now because we need something a bit human again. People just need that! I've got this theory that a handwritten sign - because it's done by another human being, speaks to people. Whereas a digital sign is so blank. You can walk past it and not read it but a hand-painted sign... you just can't help but look at it because there's something so genuine about it. It does take a little longer and it sometimes works out a little more expensive but I think once business owners have had that experience of working with a signwriter they feel it's so much more personal and you can’t put a price on the value of it.
The moment when a sign goes up is the moment when it all comes to life, it becomes a thing. I think that is a very exciting thing for people, and you just get that little bit of extra service, that personal touch. It just reconnects you a bit more to each other on so many levels, we live in a very numb society in a lot of ways. I think that resurgence comes from businesses realising the positive impact it has on how people perceive their business.
How important is social media for your self-promotion and does it help you get jobs?
It does get me work, I do have people message me off of it. It's a wonderful connection tool, socially with other sign painters it's amazing and you can meet people from all over the world doing it. And it's just so accessible and so quick, and as far as clients are concerned it helps spread the word for them and they promote me a bit back. I just find it really hard to have the time for it and there's a bit of me that doesn't like getting in too deep with it. Today I was trying to put up a picture of what I've been working on this week and my Instagram crashed on me, like, five times. I was getting a bit stressed and I looked at my clock and I'd spent about three-quarters of an hour trying to upload some pictures. So I actually just wasted a lot of time when I could have been doing other stuff.
People put a lot of pressure on themselves as well and get very into it, seeing what people are putting up all the time... it is a filtered system and some people need to put up a picture every other day and then you're like 'fuck, they've got so many jobs'. I know people who are like 'oh my god they're getting so much work at the moment, I've gotta step up my game'. Some people can see it as a bit of a reflection of what they're not doing. I think you have to take it with a pinch of salt but it's a very useful tool and I wouldn't be where I am without it. It accelerates that whole process of meeting people and getting work out there and getting the ball rolling.
Does living in Bristol affect your work in any way?
I can't really think of ways it's affected it from a visual perspective, but it's definitely affected the way I approach my business and the way I treat other creatives and clients. It's an attitude I want to continue to have because since day one here I've only ever had complete open arm welcomes and a supportive feeling from everyone. Everyone's interested in what you're doing and everyone is so open and friendly and wants to ask and find out more. When I go to London I'm going to take that Bristolian spirit with me. It's definitely something I notice when I go other places, that spirit is so specific to Bristol.
What's the reason you're moving to London?
I've just been craving a bit of a change personally, it's that classic three-year benchmark. I'm feeling ready for the change, I need the challenge again. I need that stimulation again and that feeling of when I first hit Bristol and I knew no one and had to really graft and work hard. I want that feeling again. It's gonna be a chance to kick up the dust and throw the business in some new directions that I've been wanting to go in for ages but not been able to.
That's why I do signwriting because I want to work with tiny businesses and help bring them up. I want to paint for all the little bakery's and hardware shops on my street and bring something to my neighbourhood.
So what's been a real air punch moment for you where you've felt like you've really done something great and pushed yourself to a different level?
Probably when I first started doing site jobs, about 6 months after moving to Bristol. One real air punch moment was when I did a pub at the top of Gloucester Road called The Wellington and it was when I very first started doing sign writing jobs through interior design companies and doing them during refurbishments of pubs and bars and restaurants. It was one of my first jobs where I had to work up scaffolding on the building, I'd never tackled a job like that in my life. I had to paint the name directly onto the front of the building, onto bricks. If you fuck up on bricks there's no going back, there's no painting the background colour over the top or if you spell it wrong or whatever. If you go wrong you have to chip the brick off or sand it back.
I was working up four flights of scaffolding amongst all these builders and electricians. At that point, I didn't even own a tall ladder. It was a lot of stuff to get done over a certain amount of time, so I had to manage all my time. I'd pretty much had a breakdown the week before about all the logistics involved and how disorganised I felt about it and how inexperienced and underprepared... I was just shitting myself.
Has there been a moment where you've felt like you were losing your way and things haven't been going in the direction you wanted to?
There was a point when I was doing loads of chalkboard work, which was a really good 'in' to sign painting, it's very quick and very regular work.. bars and pubs always need chalkboards doing and it's very easy to get your name around very quickly doing it. But for me, the joy lies in painting. The process of painting, for me, is just beautiful and the materials you have to use... the whole process is so meditative and wonderful. But chalkboards are just a lot more 'bam, bam, bam' and you're using chalk pens. So just the material itself isn't as fun.
I got to the point where I was getting so much chalkboard work that it was just filling my time, as soon as you've done one pub another pub rings you up. It totally swamped me and I was having to turn down signwriting jobs because I didn't have the time to do them. So there was a point where I just had to say I no longer do chalkboards. That was a big moment, people were saying 'you're mental, that's regular work' and I was thinking 'yeah but I'm just gonna keep drifting off in this direction...' so that was a point where I had to be strict. I do often have to have check in's with myself and stop saying yes to everything and tell myself I can say no to stuff.
So is that the biggest creative risk you've taken so far?
Maybe moving to London might be. That's probably it so far. Choosing to leave behind all my clients here. I do feel like it's the right decision in the long-run but it's quite scary to think about bookings after this month and keeping the workflow going. I've got a handful of clients in London who I've let know I'm coming. I've got one brilliant big client who are based within London and I know that they'll keep me busy, but it's not the kind of work I want to fill my schedule with all the time. I want to keep working for small businesses. That's why I do signwriting because I want to work with tiny businesses and help bring them up. I want to paint for all the little bakery's and hardware shops on my street and bring something to my neighbourhood and all the other smaller neighbourhoods.
Have you ever felt conscious of being a girl in the industry? Or has it never factored for you?
It's definitely something I'm very interested in and passionate about within the industry because it used to be something that females just didn't do. I personally have never felt, within the signwriting world, that I've been considered any less because I'm a girl. Maybe a little bit at times people sort of undermine you a bit, but I think that comes with my age as well because I'm younger.
On site some of the men would be like 'she's clever isn't she', they're being complimentary about the work but it's a bit like it's a surprise that I turn up on site and do something well - but it's my job. But really I've only ever felt warmth and encouragement. It's more just a slight pat on the head feeling every now and then. At the Letterhead meets, in Oslo this year, I realised I was simultaneously the youngest and also one of about six or seven girls at the whole event of about 40 or 50 people. But I hadn't even really thought about it.
What I feel really passionate about is that females can be into it now and that they're working in a really incredible way within sign writing too, and we are using it as a real voice for ourselves. Signwriting's a great communication tool for women in craft, and we as females can talk about other gender-based subjects using signwriting, it's a really great megaphone.
Is there a typical day in this job?
Not really, no! Sometimes I'll be in here [in the studio] for a week doing design work and painting from here doing little things, but generally, if I'm booked in at one location it won't be for longer than five days. At the moment I'm on a massive job that's like two weeks solid in one place. That's one thing I love about the job, I'm never sat at a desk for too long. I'm all around Bristol or all around the country, visiting these little towns I've never been to before and get put up in hotels and stuff to work on these refurb jobs out n the middle of nowhere. And I love it, meeting and working for all these different kinds of businesses and people. The variation is what keeps me going.
When do you feel most creatively satisfied?
I actually feel exceptionally satisfied and creative when I'm in London - maybe not so much creatively satisfied, it's the opposite, I feel built up with creativity, it literally fills me up. I'm sat on the bus and having to just write stuff down, I'm just so stimulated creatively when I'm there. I dunno what it is, something about the energy level there just speaks on the same wavelength as what I'm on.
I feel very creatively satisfied whilst I'm mid-paint, with a brush in my hand, nailing that line or that curve. Walking away from a job when you've got a happy client and a banging sign and it's all done on time. Money means nothing to me at the point when I'm creatively satisfied like that. I can walk away from a job and be driving home so at peace. That's the feeling of being creatively satisfied. I feel free of it all and really content and happy.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Get in touch with other signwriters as much as you can, go and visit them, go to Letterheads events and get into the scene, don't be scared of making yourself known a bit no matter how early on you are with it. Just get in touch with people and they will welcome you with open arms. Especially with a lot of the old guys, because it nearly died and now it's back because people went open armed with it.
There's also so many workshops, exhibitions... loads going on and it doesn't take long to start joining up the dots. If you regularly go to those things and meet those people over and over again you pick up skills directly from people, they'll share the skills and the knowledge. And then just keep practising. Practice practice practice! Take on jobs that scare the shit out of you, because otherwise you'll never get anywhere. If you get asked to do a job and you think you can do it, ask advice from people and just go for it. Be confident within yourself.
One of the things which have definitely taken me far within my early days when my skill level wasn't great - if you can be a really professional, honest, hardworking client for them they'll always call you back. Just being a trustworthy tradesperson gets you so far. If you really give a shit about them and their business and doing the job well, that takes you really really far.
So if we were at your funeral and you're looking down on us as a ghost. what would you like to overhear someone say about you?
That I was really passionate about it and maybe that I opened peoples eyes to how creativity can be a really important part of communicating with each other as human beings. That's what I want to achieve with signwriting, it's more than just money in my pocket, it's about reconnecting people and using what skills you have to benefit other people. I think that's what creativity should be about. In the end, you're not designing that beautiful chair because you want to sit on a beautiful chair, you're designing it for other people to sit on. It's about communication and about sharing. It can sometimes be perceived as quite a self-centred world because you're doing something that you love for a living, but actually, anything is only ever made for sharing as well as for self-expression.
I think there's a bit of a morbid idea as well that when I die - falling off a ladder or consuming too much white spirit - that my hand is anonymously all over the place. My name is never signed on anything but I'm there somehow, saying hello from the corner. That's a nice thought about signwriting, you're there, but you're not at the same time, and it's never signed with your name. It's only ever signed with your style.
Check out Hannah's work on Instagram here
Check out the Sign Painters film here