But just as Beukeboom had once stepped in to take up the mantle from Visser, a new generation of young craftspeople are endeavouring to continue one of the city’s most beloved traditions. Enter the Amsterdam Signpainters, a small collective of artists who met in 2014 at a workshop for sign-painters, calligraphers, pictorial artists and pinstripers who paint go-faster stripes on luxury cars. Having worked individually as desk-based graphic designers for high-level clients including Nike and the Van Gogh Museum, they saw an opportunity to provide a more personal form of handiwork for the new wave of cafés, restaurants and shops cutting a swathe across Amsterdam: namely, hand-painted signs. In 2016, they quit their day jobs and began offering artisanal services and workshops full-time. “After working mostly on computers since we graduated, this is a breath of fresh air – sometimes quite literally,” says sign-painter Jeroen Koning.
“There was a period of trial and error at first,” says his colleague Miranda Ensink, currently the group’s only female member, “but we’ve worked together to achieve really ambitious things in sign-painting, from smart letters in gold leaf to graffiti-style murals.”
The Signpainters range in age from 36 to 46 and look like any other band of MacBook-toting creatives around Amsterdam, except for their paint-daubed T-shirts and jeans. A typical job will see one of the Signpainters perched atop a stepladder for two days, during which they field questions from inquisitive passers-by. “I worked on a job recently where a grandfather kept bringing his granddaughter back to check up on my progress,” Ensink reports.
As well as good people skills, a steady hand is, of course, a prerequisite, and some sign-painters use selfie sticks adapted into hand rests. With Espinoza’s book as their guide, the Signpainters began experimenting with the Amsterdamse krulletter, and in 2016, they took on their biggest job yet: hand-painting the words “sinds 1996” (“since 1996”) in krulletters on 33 shop windows across the Netherlands for the 20th anniversary of the Amsterdam-born chain, Coffeecompany.
“I think those letters are a bit like the real Amsterdam people that you find drinking in the pubs of the Jordaan,” says sign-painter Jasper Andries. “They’re both traditional and flamboyant at the same time.”
Established chains aside, the Amsterdam Signpainters have also received commissions from startups hoping to evoke a sense of the city’s social and aesthetic heritage. The same year, for example, they painted the sign for Proeflokaal ’t Kelkje, a new liquor dispensary serving traditional bitters, various eaux de vie and local gin predecessor genever by a canal in Amsterdam’s gentrifying red light district.
“As so many aspects of life become mechanised, we’re seeing a huge return to craft and hand-lettering because it feels so human in its imperfection and the krulletter is our very own local expression of that”
Zayne Dagher, a creative director at Design Bridge, a brand consultancy with offices around the world, is another satisfied customer, having commissioned the Signpainters to paint krulletters on the glass walls of the agency’s meeting rooms in Amsterdam. “As so many aspects of life become mechanised, we’re seeing a huge return to craft and hand-lettering because it feels so human in its imperfection and the krulletter is our very own local expression of that,” says Dagher. What’s more, she notes, the photogenic krulletter is finding newfound popularity on social media. “The sky or the trees reflected in the windows of a café with that elegant writing – it’s Instagram gold.”
Sadly, Leo Beukeboom died last December. His obituary in Amsterdam’s Het Parool newspaper estimated that his work can still be seen on 150 windows around town, though Espinoza thinks the real number is closer to 60. Either way, what better way to pay tribute to the city’s most prolific man of letters than by raising a glass to him at an Amsterdam bruine kroeg – possibly one bearing the krulletter handiwork of Beukeboom’s young successors.
– PHOTOGRAPHY BY JORDI HUISMAN
Singapore Airlines flies to Amsterdam daily. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine