The tradition of hand-made signs has mostly been lost, as gentrification and mass-produced chain stores phase it away with cookie cutter signage. One small company team – but growing fast – in Miami aims to change all that for the right customer. Cinthia and Ben Levy have been running their shop Chalk & Brush since 2013 when Cin was hired to make a small chalkboard sign for a bagel store.
Cinthia had been working on a fashion career when she took a turn into sign making.
“That first little sign took me like 2 weeks,” she says laughing in their Little River studio. “I winged it and had to experiment a lot with letters and design. They posted it on Instagram and I was soon asked to do a logo on wall. From there it kept growing from just word of mouth and social media.”
“I had been working as an ER nurse when I went to see my friend Atomiko working on a mural at an office – the artist known for painting the smiling oranges all over the place,” says Ben “and Cinthia was there. He introduced us and right away I said to myself ‘I’m going to marry that girl’ and a few years later I did. We hit it off and she told me she had been having trouble collecting payment for a job she had just done. I got the money for her and took over the business end after that, a great move as it frees her up to do more creative work. We kept growing to the point of needing a bigger studio and hiring more people, that’s when I finally left my day job and committed to doing this full time.”
“There’s a real art to hand lettering signs that people don’t realize,” Cin says. “You need special brushes and training on how to twist and maneuver the brush to make a single stroke. It can take years to learn it.”
Around the immaculate white walled studio, they show off the jobs in process – a hanging sign for a coffee company, a large framed and painted menu chalkboard for a Mexican restaurant they built by hand. Vintage nautical ship rope awaits being attached to a sign.
“It’s become a lot more construction too as we make the signs by hand in a lot of jobs as well as painting directly on their walls,” Ben explains. “We’re learning how to apply gold leaf and other specialty techniques.”
A job typically starts by consulting with the clients and determining if they even have a logo or need total branding. From there they choose designs and colors and sizes and placement. The design can be done on a computer program or by hand then printed on paper. The paper is tacked to the wall and a spur like instrument gets run all around the design to poke holes. Then they rub chalk over the hole punched paper, so the chalk goes through and onto the wall. It’s a similar process that clothing pattern makers use. Other processes include mixed media where images they have created get printed out, cut out, and applied to the walls with further hand painting on top of and around it.
Their biggest project yet was to paint the entire outside of a building in Wynwood for a pop-up store a few years ago.
Big name clients have come calling to have a more artistic vibe at their chain stores like Starbucks.
“We have a deal with them for the south east region which is great as they are changing up the stores every few years,” Ben says. “One of the stores we designed was named one of the top 13 in the world.”
Other big name clients include Jack Daniels, Wendy’s, Lululemon, and the Make A Wish Foundation where they hand paint prosthetics and murals for schools, as well as the new Time Out Market chain created by Time Out Magazine which opened a big food hall in South Beach. A Chalk & Brush big mural is also located in the elevator lobby of CityPlace in West Palm Beach.
“It’s been an amazing ride so far in just 6 years,” Ben says. “We are all self-taught here, so continue to travel to other states, research vintage billboards and sign techniques. A company’s main ad is their sign, so it really does say a lot if it’s hand crafted with care and quality. It’s how you present yourself. In a bigger picture it’s helping neighborhoods reclaim a community feel. No one in South Florida is doing this to the degree that we are, and it’s really who we are as opposed to just what we do.”
Chalk & Brush Brings Artistry to the Craft