Letters for Hire
While some taxi decals were set humbly with sans-serif stickers, others quietly boasted an old aesthetic of hand-painted lettering-most obvious and ubiquitous in the redundant label Aircon often set in script.
It’s not like I never looked at taxis before, but then I started really looking at taxis.
I saw that while some taxi decals were set humbly with sans-serif stickers, others quietly boasted an old aesthetic of hand-painted lettering-most obvious and ubiquitous in the redundant label Aircon often set in script.
Who paints these letters? It couldn’t have been the drivers—or could it? Did they paint them at the company garage, or were there shops that one went to to have one’s taxi lettered? I didn’t know. I asked several drivers of cabs that I rode in and the prevailing answer was “East Avenue,” the street where the Land Transportation Office (LTO) is located and around which, dozens of taximeter shops are located.
These shops do a lot more than provide taxis with their commercial meters. They’re more like pimp-my-ride shops for cabs. You take in a plain white car and, if the shop is capable, come out with a fully-labelled taxi detailed and designed to your liking.
Within these taximeter shops are artists assigned to do the lettering. Outside these shops and around the area though, are also letterers who “fly solo.” One such solo-flyer was a relatively tall and dark-skinned painter nicknamed “Shaq.” It was raining when I found him. That being so, I had the chance to ask him a few questions under some shade nearby before the rain stopped and he got back to work on the current job parked in front of him.
“If you know how to paint letters, you can paint them on taxis, trucks, buses, anything.”
- Quick-dry Enamel which, according to Shaq, will work well on most any surface other than wood but is especially good for a glossy finish on top of the white paint of taxicabs.
- Paint brush;
- Guide-making string—or pitik—stained with purple chalk and kept in an old film canister;
How long does it take to finish a cab?
30 mins to 1 hour and a half.
How long has he been doing it?
Since 1995, 16 years. He’s self-taught and while mostly taxis, he paints signs and jeepneys as well.
“Kung marunong ka mag lettering, kahit sa taxi, sa trak, o sa bus, pwede ka.” translated: “If you know how to paint letters, you can paint them on taxis, trucks, buses, anything.”
I asked Shaq for a demonstration. While at first hesitant, he eventually agreed but he needed a surface to paint on! Graciously, an observing neighbor offered his white wall as a canvas.
First, he took his purple chalk-stained string and set up the baseline and cap-height lines, commenting that that’s as far as he went in terms of guides.
After making the guide, he began to paint. He started with a humble stroke, building on that and the following strokes, correcting curves and thickening key parts in each letter.
He used his other hand as support and kept his hand moving as he painted, keeping the flow natural.
I was surprised to find out that strokes weren’t always drawn in the direction they appeared to be but instead in a way that was more convenient for the painter’s hand. The flexing was also deliberate and constructed—-which means to say the letters were drawn and not written. What seemed to be natural finesse was carefully built up to look that way.
A look at the type and design
In the end, Shaq gave us a condensed upright and disconnected script. It had swashes but nothing too fancy. While consistent visual density seemed wanting (compare the counters of the C and O to the inner spaces between AIR), the letters were obviously drawn with a hand steady and decisive from experience.
A lot of hand-painted taxis have sharp-tipped and single-stroke forms that result from finishing a stroke with a brush and a slight flick. Otherwise, they have rounder rounded serif and sans-serif forms that come from a more controlled ending with the same tool.
Cleaner, more formal sans-serif types come with the aid of masking tape or by being very careful with a brush.
When it comes to taxi logos, they can vary as much as the names that they convey. Aside from the classic AIRCON word mark on the doors, what sets taxi typography from other hand-painted type around is the stricter guidelines from the LTO that painters have to follow. Words must stay within a specific cap-height and certain information must be displayed.
This might be seen as a creative set-back, but it’s nice to know that, like Shaq’s condensed aircon lettering, even within small, restricting spaces and guidelines, swashes of simple artistry can find their way in.