A sign of the times

If you’ve been out and about in Tunbridge Wells lately, you’ll probably have noticed the growing trend for beautiful hand-painted signs adorning some of the town’s most popular shops, restaurants and cafés. The talented artist responsible for them is illustrator Steve Tabb, who tells Ben Cornwell why he is determined to revive this age-old art…


Signs are something many of us see every day. Whether it’s a vinyl wrap over a hoarding, a digital illuminated style or 3D resin offering, they are everywhere we look.

But if you care to look just a little more closely you will also see that the art of traditional signwriting – which was eclipsed as signage became more sophisticated over the years – is currently making a comeback here in Tunbridge Wells. That’s thanks to the poise and pen of local illustrator Steve Tabbs who has created stunning hand-painted signs for the likes of Kumquat on The Pantiles, Haven, St Kilda’s and Cantuccio on Camden Road and Dylan Miles vintage car showroom on London Road.

And despite the detailed process involved for creating each individual sign – not to mention the huge amount of patience, perseverance, and precision required from conception to completion – Steve says that there is still a huge demand for this artform.

“In the signwriters’ community, we all say how we are being called upon more and more now for creating traditional hand-painted styles. There are so many more people now joining signwriting courses wanting to learn the trade,” he reveals.

“I feel business owners are now more in favour of having a traditional hand-painted sign to showcase what they do as it makes them look so much more unique and confident on the high street.”

Many locals will have seen Steve working across Tunbridge Wells on various different projects over the past couple of years. In addition to the aforementioned ones, he has also painted signs for the newly opened Leaf & Bean café on St John’s Road and created the striking logo for Tunbridge Wells Together BID’s new offices on the High Street.

But Steve’s work isn’t just limited to the Tunbridge Wells area as he’s also been commissioned across Kent, Sussex, Essex, and London.


Brushing up on the industry

Steve, who lives on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells in Five Oak Green, first started out as a graphic designer in London, after leaving college in 1988.

“Unlike many graphic design firms today, all the design work I initially completed was in pen and ink as computer systems hadn’t really taken off at that stage,” he says.

But it was the inevitable technological transition over to computers that saw Steve decide to leave the industry as a result.

“Around that time my best friend was going to work for six months in Corfu and he asked if I wanted to go with him. I decided to resign from my first job in order to go travelling. After about three or four months working in bars and clubs in Corfu, my boss at the time, Spiros said to me: ‘Steve you’re an artist, paint me a sign for my bar!’ I thought ‘OK, sounds like fun’, so I bought some paints and designed a new sign for his bar.

“I absolutely loved it because it brought back the artistic and creative side of me that I missed – and I was getting paid for it!”

Subsequently, Steve was approached by various other local business owners in Corfu who asked him to paint signs for them. And from there his career as signwriter started to take off.

After his time spent in Corfu, Steve then spent the next four years travelling to Australia, New Zealand and California, picking up cash-in-hand signwriting jobs, before eventually returning back to the UK in 1997 and setting up a signwriting business here.

After almost thirty years in the industry, the thing that Steve says he still enjoys the most about his job is getting a brief from a client and being told ‘I’ll leave it to you.’

This, Steve says, helps to bring out his creative passion as he can design and paint the sign in the way he wants it to look whilst also having the added challenge of capturing the essence of the company.

“My passion is trying to keep an age-old skill alive – which it deserves to be – and I feel is how it should be kept. There are so many high streets nowadays that all look so generic and plastic. So many shops have lost that individual identity,” he says.

“I think that’s one of the main reasons I especially enjoy working in and around Tunbridge Wells. It’s such a beautiful town with stunning shopfronts and it’s full of amazing independent shops. I feel it is the perfect area for me to keep the high street shops where I can, looking how they should be.”

Steve has personal ambitions to one day do signwriting on a big film set as he admits it would be ‘pretty amazing’ to see his work appear in the background of a famous Hollywood movie. Until then Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding areas will have to suffice as his location – but we feel that won’t be for long…


Follow Steve Tabb on Instagram @tabbsigns

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