At 28, Sai Sokheang is one of Kratie province’s most sought-after signmakers. Using powdered paint and an upturned Angkor can as a palette, he used to hand-paint colourful signs for his clients — mostly beauty salons, barbers and moto mechanics.
Sokheang swapped paint for a printing machine, however, after his customers began asking for synthetic signs. But a new art project has allowed him to pick up the paintbrush once again.
In August, British photographer Sam Roberts commissioned Sokheang to paint the cover art for his new book, a tribute to Cambodia's sign-making culture.
Hand-painted Signs of Kratie, which will be published next month, showcases 170 individual signs in Kratie province and tells the stories of the artists who made them, as well as the history of the craft.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Cambodia’s towns and villages were awash with vivid, hand-painted signs — mostly for local businesses — but they were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during the crackdown on business and artists.
After the regime ended, there was a renewed demand for the signs, which range from pictures of glamorous women to flying pigs and dog-meat advertisements.
The profileration has stalled as Cambodia develops and businesses opt for synthetic materials.
“Initially, they were replaced by government and NGO signs, then business kicked off again. But what’s happening now is that painting is receding and printed formats are taking over,” Roberts says.
“As a foreigner, in some ways you move to another level of aesthetic. We like the hand-made, hand-crafted approach, whereas the local aesthetic is a little different.
“Cambodians love clean-cut photographic material, and sign-makers are having to change their skill set.”
It’s an economic trend that first caught Roberts' attention in his native Britain, where, until the 1980s, hand-painted signs were standard fare.
Before plastic sign-cutting machines arrived, shop owners splashed painted emblems and names across their storefronts — often directly on walls. Many of these faded original signs can still be seen.
Roberts set up a website, ghostsigns, which archived more than 700 of the adverts — for everything from barber shops to Nestlé products.
He moved to Cambodia two years ago with his wife to work on a VSO project in Kratie.
“Here, I was looking for paintings on walls and I couldn’t see anything, but then I noticed these signs and snapped about 200 of them," Roberts says.
He also bought several to keep, including a beauty salon sign for $50.
“I kept driving past the sign on my way to work and decided to buy it,” he says.
There will be an exhibition showcasing four of the signs, as well as the photography, in Phnom Penh in December.
Hand-painted Signs of Kratie will be avaliable to order from Amazon by November.
For further information, visit the website Hand-painted Signs of Kratie
To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at [email protected]