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New York sign art that’s so bad it’s good gets proper Twitter tribute

“I love seeing stuff that’s hand drawn, so that you can see the human hand inside of it”

A hand-painted sign on the Bowery.
Scott Teplin

What makes the art on a deli awning, the door of a locksmith’s van, or a neighborhood billboard good-bad? For artist Scott Teplin, who chronicles examples of the form on @goodbaddrawings, there are a few criteria.

Generally, it should be hand-drawn, like Atlantic Avenue’s iconic Sherita. It shouldn’t have been run through a computer to clean it up. And something about it, according to Teplin, should suggest that it wasn’t created by a professional, but was instead put together by the shop owner or the cashier’s nephew or someone or other who hasn’t had artistic training. As Teplin puts it, “Sometimes people just want a friggin’ sign, so they just figure out how to do it.”

Beyond that, good-bad drawings have “a real earnestness” to them. “I love seeing someone’s hand,” Teplin says. “It gives it a warmth.”

Teplin’s Twitter account, which he started in July 2016, features New York-area signs almost exclusively. “I don’t leave New York often,” he says. “I like to see new parts of the city that I’ve never seen before, and this gives me a great excuse to walk around in sort of underdeveloped areas. That’s where you see these signs… because they can’t afford to get a new one made.”

But inevitably, hand-drawn signage is making way for computer-generated images and text. “It’s very sad,” Teplin says. “One of the reasons I’m doing this is because they’re disappearing. I love seeing stuff that’s obviously hand-done, so that you can see the human hand inside of it. There’s so little of it in the world today—it’s all cold and crappy and done on a computer.”

Teplin’s quest to document this aesthetic has led him all over the five boroughs. In Chinatown, for instance, he found “a ton of drawings on the wall” at New Kam Hing, a cafe known for its sponge cake that he describes as “a daycare center for seniors where they’re welcome to hang out and drink tea and sit at tables.”

Other examples can be found everywhere from the sides of trucks to the stands at Coney Island (although Teplin says many of the drawings there are “too self-aware: They know what they’re doing, and they do it on purpose”). There are exceptions to the hand-drawn rule, of course: One of Teplin’s favorites shows a computer-drawn man dumping “a bunch of stuff” onto a clipart image of a truck.

“It’s so weird and bizarre that it becomes great again,” he says. “An artist couldn’t come up with something this weird.”

The good-bad aesthetic has influenced Teplin’s work. “I use line and I draw,” he says, “and I just love seeing these drawings. I draw really cleanly and sort of precisely, and people frequently think that my drawings are prints and it drives me crazy.” It’s also become a family affair: “My kids are totally on the lookout for me whenever we go places,” he says. “They’re starting to understand what I love about them.”

Inspired by the enamel signs he notices in New York, Teplin designed his own iteration for an imaginary Austrian company that makes the tires that are affixed to the front of New York Harbor’s tugboats.

“I made an enamel sign and I called it TÜGGE,” he says. “I was pretending, ‘Oh, this would be an ad for this company.’ I love pink stuff, so I made it a pink tire.”