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Handpainted Signs Reflect Cambodian City’s Culture

Signs, depicted in book, reflective of town’s recovery from horrific Khmer Rouge



As we become more globally connected through online and social-media tools, an interesting, and presumably unintended, consequence has been heightened interest in handcrafted items. Likely, it reflects an innate need to connect with something crafted by talented artisans to counterbalance our growing occupation with cyberspace.

In December’s issue, ST’s handcrafted-sign gallery (see page 52) reflected that craftsmanship remains alive and well in the sign business.In other societies, signage serves a greater function than simply branding a place of business; it doubles as a sort of folk art that reflects regional culture and values. Briton Sam Roberts celebrates the signpainting legacy of a very small corner of the world with his recently released book, Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie. It depicts the renaissance of handcrafted signage in Kratie, a city in northeast Cambodia, after nearly a decade of repression.

During the 1970s, dictator Pol Pot and his army, the Khmer Rouge, attempted to destroy commerce and artistic expression as he strived to create an agrarian Communist society. Eliminating signpainters’ work was one of many symptoms of Pol Pot’s genocide – two million people perished during what he called Cambodia’s “purification”.

Roberts developed a childhood fascination with painted and “ghost” signs, and, while on a service mission in Cambodia, noted the handpainted signage that had reappeared as the Khmer Rouge’s deathgrip on the country eased. The book, which features 170 photos, spotlights the work of Sai Sokheang, whom Roberts touts as Kratie’s most prominent signmaker. However, like U.S. signpainters during the 1980s, he noted Sokheang and others feeling pinched as many customers now opt for digitally printed signage and graphics. For more information about the book, which is available in print and electronically, visit



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