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'Give me a sign' | Meet the man behind every street sign in Knoxville

Keith Black makes an average of 8,000 street and traffic signs a year for Knoxville. So, next time a sign helps you find your way, make sure to thank him.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Stop signs, parking signs, street signs, exit signs. Love them or hate them, you've seen them all.

There are 30,000 traffic signs in the City of Knoxville, and they're all made by one person.

"What I do determines what you do," said Keith Black.

When you ask Keith to describe himself, really just one thing comes to mind.

"I'm a sign nerd," he said. "If you actually looked and started counting, you would see that there are signs everywhere."

A fitting title for the man responsible for every single street sign you see in the city. Keith is the architect behind them all, single-handedly making an average of 8,000 signs a year.

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"What I do is viewed every day by thousands of people," he said. "They don't have a clue who made it, but they're still looking at it, you know?"

Keith started as a sign installer and repairman 28 years ago, slowly learning the sign-making process along the way. When the former sign maker retired about 6 years ago, Keith was the natural replacement.

Advancing technology makes the process much faster than it used to be. When Keith makes or remakes a sign, he starts with the digital design that's sent to a large specialty printer.

"I do use a lot of green," Keith said, pointing to the ink cartridge holding the signature color of a street name sign.

The printed sign is then covered with an anti-graffiti laminate, which Keith said comes in handy in neighborhoods where signs are often spraypainted (looking at you, Fort Sanders). He said being able to clean off a sign instead of making a new one saves time and money.

"If the taxpayers were ever worried about how their money was spent, this is money well spent," he said.

The signs are then cut and attached to a metal sheet under a big pressure roller like a giant sticker. The edges are trimmed, and they're ready to be installed.

"I've done this like 5,000,782 times," said Keith.

And he's never bored.

"I enjoy it," he said. "I love, I love what I do."

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To some, Keith's job may seem mundane. But to Keith, a self-proclaimed introvert who loves the routine of the task, he knows his work stops traffic accidents and helps emergency workers.

"What if my grandmother's house is down the end of the road, and they couldn't read the sign, so they couldn't get to her and she died? Well, that's not right," he said.

Keith believes that the reliability of all city signs falls on him.

"When they're there and functioning, nobody thinks about it. If they're missing, or something happens, it's like, 'Oh, my God, why don't you have a sign here?' You know, they are very important," he said.

This is why Keith keeps working, so that no matter where you live in the city, you don't have to look too hard for a sign.

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