A funny thing happened soon after Tod Johnson hired a sign painter to restore a vintage Coca-Cola mural on the side of his laundromat in a fading part of town in Monroe, Wash.
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 Coca-Cola.”
“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.
Tapping Into Happy Memories
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.
At Coca-Cola, painted wall signs were one of the earliest forms of advertising, dating back to the 1890s, according to Phillip Mooney, director of Coca-Cola archives for 35 years. Owners of properties around the country often rented wall space to advertisers like Coca-Cola. In 1910 approximately 25 percent of the company’s entire advertising budget was devoted to wall signs.
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.
Revitalizing Main Street Across the Country
“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 Coca-Cola provided to its sign painters and bottling companies. The elflike Sprite Boy with the bottle-cap hat was a popular design, as was the slick, mustachioed “Clark Gable” figure. One sign uncovered last year during a restaurant renovation in Suffolk, Va., revealed a late-nineteenth-century design showing the classic capital “C” with “5 cents at all soda fountains” scrawled below it in bold white letters.
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 Coca-Cola murals in Bristol, Pa., and McDonough, Ga.
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 Coca-Cola.
"The sign painters would get a color chart printout from The Coca-Cola Company. It was on a big piece of paper, and you could see the artwork really well. Then you would mix the paint and put it on the paper to match the color as close as possible. It was before the advent of vinyl in the 1980s, so all the signs were hand-painted with special colors — the bright Mello Yello, the dark Coca-Cola red,” Lake recalls.
His father called him “the fill-in man.”
Restoration is a painstaking process.
Restoration is a painstaking process.
“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 Coca-Cola signs. That is more [ghost signs] per capita than just about anywhere else in the country,” says Dionne, 26, an artistic director of a local theater.
With the necessary city approvals and funding from Coca-Cola Bottling Consolidated Co., the trio enlisted Andy Thompson, 71, a veteran sign painter, to repaint two fading Coca-Cola signs dating back at least 60 years on the wall of a theater and restaurant near Main Street.
Thompson, who began his career as a sign painter for Coca-Cola in Charlotte in 1958, employed an old-school method of chalking and stenciling, and referred to a company advertising book titled Designs for Painted Walls and Buildings to get the lettering just right, from the curve of the initial "C” to the apostrophe in “It’s the Real Thing.”
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 Coca-Cola design for a drugstore in Muskogee, Okla.
“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.”
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