A funny thing happened soon after Tod Johnson hired a sign painter to restore a vintage
Several businesses moved into previously empty surrounding buildings, including an antiques shop, a French-style bistro and a mercantile selling jewelry and crafts made by local artisans. Folks started pulling up in Model A Fords and 1950s Chevys and snapping photos next to the sign. A taco truck operating nearby added an outdoor covered dining area with an unfettered view of the mural, which shows a hand gripping a frosty bottle and urges passersby to “Drink
“It created an invitation to the people of Monroe to go back to the old part of town,” says Johnson, whose laundry serviced area logging camps at the turn of the twentieth century. The project was a major undertaking, requiring heavy research to find the exact original 1920s design, the creation of templates to get it to scale, then six days of intense stenciling and painting by Seattle artist and sign painter Sean Barton.
Now, Johnson said, "it's a gateway to the heritage of Main Street."
From small towns in Georgia and North Carolina to San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, business owners and civic leaders are tackling the restoration of wall murals with zeal, incorporating them into downtown revitalization projects and even creating historic sign districts in an effort to preserve the murals.
The signs were typically in high-traffic areas — at busy intersections or next to railroad tracks that carried passenger trains from point to point, Mooney explains.
“Every town had the signs. It was sort of a ‘Welcome to our town,’ if you will,” Mooney says.
The signs reflected a wide range of characters and mottos, and were often taken from standards manuals and “pounce patterns” books that
Artist Shannon Lake credits the uptick in wall mural restoration to a renewed interest in downtown historic districts. Since 1980, U.S. communities have invested $53 billion through public and private donations in Main Street revitalization programs and have restored more than 229,000 buildings, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“Every town has a downtown main street with some kind of center or square,” says Lake, who has restored
As more towns focus on spotlighting their downtown areas, he adds, “These old murals are often the first thing on everybody’s list as a way to bring back that sense of nostalgia.”
Lake began his career as a sign painter at the age of 7. His father, Richard Lake, owned a sign shop in Waycross, Ga., and specialized in hyperrealistic highway signs for
"The sign painters would get a color chart printout from The
His father called him “the fill-in man.”
“There were these crazy-looking lines [drawn] all over the ice cubes, and I was the one who painted them bright white. It looked funny up close, but my dad showed me how they looked from a distance, and it was like they were just jumping off the sign," he says. "They really popped.”
In Salisbury, N.C., three young men are using Facebook to document and promote the restoration of the town’s many fading murals, also known as ghost signs. Justin Dionne, Michael Alexander and Nassar Farid Mufdi launched the project last year as a way of giving back to their community.
“Salisbury has 26 or 27 ghost signs, and five or six of them alone are
With the necessary city approvals and funding from
Thompson, who began his career as a sign painter for
Even as lifestyles become increasing digital, there is a fascination with murals that will keep them alive, says Lance Hunter, associate professor of art at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla. In July, Hunter, a mural painter whose work has been featured in Texas Monthly, completed a large-scale wall sign with a vintage
“Wall murals can run the gamut on quality — some can chip easily or fade quickly,” he points out. “But the hands-on connection between the artist and people that put it together, and the process of doing something without depending on a computer or technological tool — that’s a rarity.”