Have you even invested time in getting to know the substructures of a city? Within Calgary, there are innumerable subcultures, but there is also an overarching series of symbols that govern how (and where) the subcultures collide – signage, streetlights, traffic signals, road paint, park pathways, sidewalks, bike lanes, etc. Our city is full of signs and signifiers, helping us navigate the spaces shared between us (regardless of language barriers). Some of these are textual, most are intuitive, but the literal signs mostly originate from the Calgary Sign Shop.
We visited the Calgary Sign Shop on a research trip to help stimulate ideas for our Delta Garden public artwork. Our hope was to find off-cuts and byproducts, spare bits and pieces from the process of building city signage that might be usable to create a new piece.
For anyone with the remotest interest in printmaking or graphic imagery, this is a magical place, full of refractive sticker papers and weather-proof inks. The ability of signs to live outdoors and maintain their legibility is essential. As artists working on a “permanent” artwork outside, this is a shared consideration.
We were impressed with how much the Sign Shop (like other City subcontractors) recycle their excess materials: clean aluminum is re-used or recycled, signs that come down damaged are put in a scrap bin and recycled too, and efforts are made to cut the maximum number of letter out of each sheet of (expensive!) prismatic sticker paper. Efficiency is paramount, especially in their busy season. The Calgary Sign Shop doesn’t just print the tens of thousands of street-signs you see around Calgary – they cut and apply all the decals for police and emergency vehicles, Parks trucks, City cars, and so on. In the summer, they are very busy indeed.
They even have a shed, entirely built out of old street signs to hold more street-signs that are still useful, but currently decommissioned. We heard a myth of a small town in Saskatchewan that couldn’t afford street signs of their own, and so they bought used signs from the Calgary Sign Shop and just re-named all their streets.
Perhaps the most interesting material from the Sign Shop is the refractive material used to reflect headlights at night (and subsequently make road signs visible to drivers after dark). Prismatic is a 3M product (probably our favourite company for experimental R&D). The material itself is interesting because its surface is designed to reflect light without blinding drivers, and subsequently the prismatic coating on the material has a rainbow reflective quality.
As part of our process, the Calgary Sign Shop gifted us a few week’s worth of prismatic off-cuts to experiment with. We put up the sheets in our then-studio (at The Bakery, a now-defunct studio collective) and stood back with a flashlight…
More about our material experiments upcoming!