Foundation student turns graphic talent into blackboard business
A passion for lettering, sparked while studying a foundation course at UCA, has led to a booming success for Michael Tilley.
29 Aug 2019
Michael, from Kingston, spent a year at UCA’s Epsom campus and is now better known as The Blackboard Artist, travelling the country designing stunning blackboards and other signage for restaurants, bars, coffee shops and lots of other independent businesses. Michael has worked with established companies such as Soho House, Virgin, Strada, Everyman Cinema, Big Easy, Simmons Bars and many more.
The business was born around two years after Michael completed his foundation course, when he was working on designing illustrations for t-shirts and supplementing his income with shifts in pubs.
And it was while working in the hospitality industry that he saw an opportunity.
“I just asked my bosses if I could do their blackboards as a bit of practice and they let me have a go. From there, I just sort of fell into it, and started to approach local businesses who I thought might want my services,” he said.
Today, Michael, 28, conducts around 80 per cent of his business in London but also travels far and wide, including one of his most recent jobs, a three-day interior signage project for a new student pub in Cheltenham.
“It’s taken me all sorts of places, around the country and abroad. I went to Portugal to do some workshops at a sign-writing conference called Letterheads and I was overwhelmed at the interest. Since April, I’ve been running workshops at Soho Works in Shoreditch, and they are really gaining in popularity.
“I think it’s been successful because people, at the moment, seem to really like the simpler things in life. There’s something human and crafted about blackboard signage, and it’s really striking a chord.”
Michael’s big break came when he was asked to complete a major project in Oxford, at the Soho Farmhouse. Soho House, in London, which is part of the same family of companies as the Farmhouse, is now his biggest client. He’s also done signage for high-profile individuals, where he had to do signage within an A-lister’s home — although he never got to meet his illustrious client.
“That was certainly my craziest job yet,” he said. “I’m not allowed to say who it was I worked for but I can tell you they were very high profile.”
Michael credits UCA for helping him discover his true passion and find lifelong friends.
“It wasn’t until I was at Epsom that I realised just how much I loved lettering. The teachers picked up on how much I was enjoying it and really helped me develop my skills, as well as train my eye for design. And even more, it was just great fun. I made friends who I still keep in touch with almost ten years on.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work and a lot of hours to get here, but it’s been very much worth it and my foundation course definitely helped get me on the right path.”
Michael is running regular workshops on becoming a better blackboard artist, and you can find out more about his work and his workshops by visiting www.theblackboardartist.com
You can also see his work in two books, The Art of Hand Lettering, and Calligraphy & Lettering: A Maker’s Guide.