Jack Fralin sits atop scaffolding stacked with pint-sized paint cans, his back to downtown Hendersonville, N.C. His canvas is a 25-by-25-ft. brick wall on the south-facing side of a 1920 building, which shields him, mercifully, from the June sun.

“These signs put people at ease,” he says while applying finishing touches to a towering image of silhouetted woman drinking a glass bottle of Coca-Cola. “I think they take people back to a simpler, more innocent time.”

Fralin’s brush strokes – and those of a handful of fellow lettering artists – are breathing new life into faded Coca-Cola murals and the small Southern cities they call home. Charlotte, N.C.-based Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, the nation’s largest independent Coca-Cola bottler, hired the Roanoke, Va.-based Fralin to restore the Hendersonville “ghost sign” to its original 1930s glory. Over the last few years, Consolidated has worked with community officials to give more than two dozen murals across its 15-state territory a second – or, in some cases, third – life.

Coca-Cola Mural Ghost Sign

Jack Fralin, a lettering artist from Roanoke, Va., has been hand-painting signs since he was a teenager.

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'We Tapped Into a Movement'

It all started in 2011, when Concord, N.C. Mayor Scott Padgett approached Lauren Steele, Consolidated’s SVP of corporate affairs, at the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race. He asked for help restoring a recently uncovered Coca-Cola wall sign at the city’s main intersection as part of a broader revitalization effort. Steele agreed, and other towns quickly took notice. In the months that followed, Consolidated helped fund the restoration of vintage murals everywhere from Hinton, W.V., to Johnson City, Tenn. – most of which were identified by the bottler’s sales force.

“We tapped into a movement,” Steele said. “These old wall murals are an important part of our Coca-Cola history. But they’re also an important part of the history of these towns. They’re so much more than painted signs to people. They’re living testaments to the enduring bond between Coca-Cola and the American experience…. and we’re rekindling that emotional connection.”

Coca-Cola Mural Ghost Sign

Andy Thompson repaints a Coca-Cola mural in downtown Concord, N.C. Thompason has hand-painted and restored thousands of signs over the last 50-plus his years of working with Coca-Cola Consolidated. 

 

Patrick Schneider Photography

Mural restoration is a multi-step, multi-partner process that can take up to a year. “Someone will bring us a photo of an old sign,” Steele explains, “and then we try and find out who owns the building. Then we go through the city – and, in some cases, the local historic preservation society – to get a permit. Once all paperwork is in place, we find a painter and the real fun begins.”

Fralin has painted several signs for Consolidated, often recruiting friend and fellow veteran artist Bill Johnson to help with larger projects like the one in Hendersonville. Both men have been painting signs since they were teenagers.

Jack Fralin paints a Coca-Cola mural in downtown Hendersonville, N.C.

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'Not Billboards'

Despite earning a college degree in sculpture, Fralin considers hand-lettering his primary medium. “I painted signs all through college,” he said. “Slowly, I got better at it and even found a way to stick with hand-painting when computers took over a lot of the bread-and-butter jobs. It always came back to me… it feels like what I’m supposed to be doing.”

In Hendersonville, the restoration process started in 2013 when Mark Ray found a photo in the city’s historic collection of an old Coca-Cola mural on the wall of the building he owned at 620 N. Main Street. He successfully lobbied Consolidated to restore the mural.

Coca-Cola Mural Ghost Sign

An aerial view of the Coca-Cola mural restoration process in Hendersonville, N.C.

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“Once we once had the original photos, we were cooking with oil,” said Ray, a self-proclaimed history buff and owner of Dad’s Collectibles, which sells Coca-Cola memorabilia.

The retro storefront is now flanked by two freshly repainted Coca-Cola murals, one on each side of the building – and Ray couldn’t be happier. “I wish I could record some of the comments from people coming into store about what we’ve done,” he said. “These murals are like a breath of fresh air."

He added, "They’re not billboards... they’re historic.”

Hendersonville Ghost Sign

Jack Fralin (left) and Bill Thompson in front of one of two Coca-Cola murals they restored in downtown Hendersonville, N.C., in June 2015.

Jay Moye


Signs of the Times

Painted wall signs were one of the earliest forms of Coca-Cola advertising, dating back to the 1890s. In 1910, the company devoted 25 percent of its total marketing budget to wall signs. Coca-Cola leased wall space from property owners to extol the virtues of its flagship product through illustrations and slogans like “Delicious and Refreshing”, “The Pause That Refreshes” and “Work Refreshed” – which served as colorful welcome mats at busy crossroads and other high-traffic areas with a birds-eye view of downtown. Murals became embedded in the urban landscape, particularly in the South.

“Deloney Sledge, Coke’s former VP of advertising, had a theory that the original murals were modeled after the old circus ‘coming to town’ signs,” explains Ted Ryan, director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company. “The company commissioned these hand-painted signs because they caught your eye and reminded you that Coke was there for you.”

Coca-Cola Ghost Signs Murals Playbook

The Coca-Cola Company distributed playbooks to bottlers and sign painters in teh early-1900s. Painters including Jack Fralin and Andy Thompson continue to use the books a field guide to reference while restoring the iconic murals.

Patrick Schneider Photography

To ensure consistency and protect the integrity of its trademark, the company distributed how-to playbooks to local bottlers with detailed instructions to pass along to artists-for-hire. The manuals included style guidelines, approved scripts and paint colors, and other do’s and don’ts. Illustrators executed “pounce patterns” – or paper stencils – which clearly choreographed how to bring the renderings to life.

“The artists would put the large printouts up on a wall, and the tiny holes would spell out the logo or tagline,” Ryan said. “The pounce patterns came with packets of blue chalk to apply over the perforation, revealing an outline for the artist to paint over.”

Fralin uses original pounce patterns to help recreate the designs. In some cases, a weathered black-and-white photograph serves as his blueprint. “A lot of times I don’t have to make any decisions... I just follow the old rules,” he said.

Coca-Cola Mural Ghost Sign

Coca-Cola Consolidated hosts community celebrations, like this one in Knoxville, Tenn., to unveil restored murals.

Main Street U.S.A. Makes a Comeback

By the 1950s, boomtowns became virtual ghost towns as residents flocked to bigger cities and businesses fled downtowns for the suburbs. Billboards gradually replaced painted signs, which were costlier to produce, and the vintage ads almost completely disappeared by the ‘70s.

Main Street began to mount a comeback in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, however, thanks to a renewed interest in historic preservation. And for many towns, bringing back the beloved murals from yesteryear has been a logical – and cost-effective – way to recover a sense of nostalgia.

“It’s hot now,” Ryan said. “On my desk right now is a stack of notes from eight cities who want to restore Coke murals.”

Steele says Consolidated’s “ghost sign” project has played a small role in the resurgence of small-town America, which can be seen at the community celebrations unveiling the repainted murals.

“When we put on a fresh coat of paint and throw a party, we’re sprucing up the town,” he said. “Every time we host a dedication ceremony, folks of all ages tell us their Coke stories and we see teens open and enjoy their first glass bottle of Coca-Cola. So not only are we helping people remember their Coca-Cola memories… we’re creating new ones, too.”