Once upon a time, there were mythical figures called Drunken Sign Painters. They carried their paints and brushes in shopping bags or bushel baskets, traveling from store to store, tavern to tavern. Their hands were shaky, but once they picked up a brush their hands weren’t shaky at all. They painted for spending cash, just enough for their next beer or next meal. Every small town and every neighborhood, the myth goes, had a Drunken Sign Painter, and everyone had their theories as to why these painters were drunken: the fumes got them so high they needed liquor to bring them down; they drank to get the taste of paint out of their mouths; they had planned to become fine artists, Great American Painters, but instead found themselves lettering grocery store windows–so they drank.
Contemporary sign painters do what they can to dispel the influence of the myth, which still hangs over the business like a dark cloud. “The Drunken Sign Painter they talk about. You ever hear that?” asks Mike Stevens, a longtime sign man. “He can’t hold his hand steady until he has a drink, but then he does a beautiful job. I’ve heard about that guy all my life. I’ve never seen him, never found him. Most sign painters don’t drink. You can’t do it and keep a steady job. Not guys that do it by hand.”
As long as businesses have opened and closed in Chicago, sign painters, drunken or not, have roamed the city with their buckets and brushes. These days, more often than not, they roam the city and its suburbs in trucks or vans, carting not only their buckets and brushes but huge steel frames, sheets of vinyl, wood-carving implements, and other gadgets that would have made the old guys snort. At the turn of the century, sign painters were meticulously dedicated craftsmen, unrecognized by the public at large, and almost always flat broke. Contemporary sign painters are still mostly meticulous and mostly unrecognized. But they would prefer not to be broke. Or drunken. Today’s sign painters are determined not to die like their predecessors.
The lives of the sign-painting legends have often followed a van Gogh-like arc: artistic genius, peer worship, financial failure, and sad demise. Consider the case of Frank Atkinson, who in the early 1900s was the chief artist and foreman of the W.D. McArthur sign company at 2627 S. Cottage Grove. When Atkinson was 16, his father sent him to Saint Louis to learn the trade of carriage painting. He came to Chicago in the late 1880s, more than a decade after the fire, and was here for the 1893 World’s Fair, when the city became an international capital of the sign trade. In the early 1900s Atkinson operated his own school and authored several books on the topic of sign painting, including one named, naturally enough, Atkinson Sign Painting. His books are still considered mandatory reading for anyone learning the profession. Atkinson was at the center of a thriving scene in which sign painters mixed with fine artists, lithographers, and engravers. Painters could study at Atkinson’s during the day and take life drawing classes at night from the painter J. Francis Smith, recently returned from the Julian School in Paris. Atkinson was at the top of a competitive world of skilled commercial artists, from tie-wearing, briefcase-carrying master gilders who worked for gold-on-glass specialists Rawson & Evans in the downtown business district and never painted on a side street, to crusty itinerants who didn’t mind painting smokestacks and dangling in a bosun’s chair 60 feet off the ground. Atkinson was a traditional sign man–he did bakeries, breweries, banks, department stores–and was widely considered the fastest, and the best, of an extremely talented lot. “This was the most attractive shop in Chicago,” Roscoe Creery, a sign painter who worked for Atkinson, wrote in grease pencil on the back of a photo of the W.D. McArthur company. “I saw them all. He could get the same results with either hand.”
Atkinson’s school burned down in the 1920s, and he took to wandering, from Indiana to Iowa and back to Chicago again. He died broke in 1955. At the time he was working for Perkins Sign Shop, a small though respected outfit in Jackson, Missisippi.
Mike Stevens grew up around North and Austin. Eighteen guys he hung with in his youth, he says, are now retired police officers. Many others are in jail or dead. Stevens got his start in the sign-painting business 35 years ago, stripping, pinstriping, and decorating cars on weekends. He now owns Stevens Sign Company in Bensenville. His shop, which takes up several thousand square feet in a small industrial park just south of O’Hare, is emblematic of what’s happened to the sign business.
When Stevens first got into sign painting, Chicago was run by a relatively small number of union shops, which often employed a dozen or more painters and dedicated themselves to quality signs, proper lettering, and, as always, satisfying the man with the money. They didn’t much encourage individual artistic style. Companies had their own tricks and techniques, which they guarded carefully. But once they were working for a company, painters were expected to more or less conform to the house rules. Those who were left out of the big shops, the myth goes, became Drunken Sign Painters. The names of the best and biggest shops are still revered by sign people: Beverly Signs, Triangle Signs in Chinatown, and Briggs Outdoor at 17th and Ashland. The largest of all was General Outdoor Advertising, a nationwide company headquartered on Harrison Street that employed between 30 and 50 painters. The company is now called Patrick Signs and is based in Texas.
By the mid 1970s, the business had pretty much bottomed out. Neon was king. Attendance in trade schools was way down. And many painters were, quite simply, bored with their work. A renaissance in American sign painting began in Denver in 1976, when a group of painters realized that the old-timers were dying and taking their techniques with them. They formed the Letterheads, a trade association dedicated to preserving old lettering tricks, promoting new ones, and sharing ideas. They rediscovered the classic designs in Atkinson’s books. They also rediscovered a book called Henderson’s Sign Painter, which had been put together in 1906 by the legendary John George Ohnimus, who had traveled the country in the late 1800s, creating ornate signs wherever he went. He eventually died broke and drunk in Denver. Letterheads started producing new takes on classic signs by Ohnimus and others, and Letterheads clubs began forming all over the country. Small, independent sign shops opened up in great numbers. Letterheads conventions now draw thousands of sign professionals annually. Twenty years after its founding, few have gone untouched by the group’s philosophy.
Most Letterheads follow a new Bible of the sign business, Mastering Layout, by a sign painter named Mike Stevens, who is in no way related to the Mike Stevens in Bensenville. This Mike Stevens died drunken, but not necessarily broke, a few years ago in Pennsylvania. Mastering Layout was published in 1985 and codified the industry’s turnaround. “What was once an ‘every man for himself’ cottage industry is now evolving into a national fraternity of progressive-thinking artists,” wrote sign painter Rick Straub in the book’s introduction. Without discounting the basic principles of lettering, Stevens claimed that the real keys to sign making these days are design and layout. “Signs either look right or they don’t,” he wrote, “just as a particular suit either looks right on you or it doesn’t. It’s all a matter of good and proper proportions….Layout is an art that has scientific roots. It can be analyzed and demonstrated to be of a superior or inferior quality. The science is knowing the parts and their function. The art is in the way they are assembled.”
In order to keep up with their science and their art, many sign painters subscribe to Signs of the Times magazine, which has been around since the turn of the century, and to a newer publication, SignCraft, which provides bimonthly hints and advice on such topics as boat lettering, choosing paints and typestyles, and tapping into emerging markets, like churches. “Church growth experts all agree that a visible, clean attractive sign is the first image made upon church visitors,” said a recent article. “It’s like the combat patch worn on the sleeve of soldiers.” A new publication called A Magazine About Letterheads is tracing the revival of the sign-painting arts and features designs by contemporary sign painters as well as tributes to the masters like Atkinson and Ohnimus. David Butler, who founded the magazine, is a sign painter in Indiana. “It’s important that sign painters see themselves as artists,” he says. “I know a lot of Letterheads who are super fine artists who found themselves in the sign trade because they had to make a living. It’s something they can do, they can make money at it, and it halfway satisfies the artist in them. It doesn’t totally satisfy them, but it’s something.”
Most sign painters are businesspeople now, and many could be more accurately described as sign makers. They’ve followed businesses out to the suburbs in droves and practice their craft in places like Westmont, Hickory Hills, and Elk Grove Village. Mike Stevens, the one in Bensenville, holds Chicago-area Letterheads meetings at his shop because it’s “centrally located.” The club meets three or four times a year. “Our Christmas parties are the best,” Stevens says. “Thirty guys showed up last year. Cost twelve bucks a person. It was a buffet and an open bar. And twenty pool tables. Great time.”
Stevens is a fully trained painter; he went through a union apprenticeship. But like anyone who wants to make a good living in the sign business these days, he has a number of other skills. He makes signs out of molded plastic, sandblasted wood, and sculpted polystyrene. More importantly, he uses computers, which in the last ten years have gradually taken over the business. With a layout program like CorelDraw, a plotter, and a sheet of vinyl, a sign maker can access thousands of typestyles and create intricately designed vinyl signs in a fraction of the time that it would have taken to letter by hand. “If you’d have told me 15 years ago that I’d be designing signs and lettering with a computer, I’d say you’re nuts,” Stevens says. “But we’ve just come so far.” Despite his relatively new dependence on computers, though, Mike Stevens is still a dedicated Letterhead. He’s come up with many sayings to prove his loyalty to the craft: “A business with no sign is a sign of no business” or “Good sign painters know all the strokes.” There’s an enormous sign in his shop, hand-painted, that depicts Mickey Mouse holding a paintbrush. “Remember,” it reads, “only you can prevent ugly signs.”
Chicago-area Letterheads got together in mid-August for their fourth annual “Stripe-Off,” in which members show off their latest techniques for pinstriping motorcycles, cars, and trucks. Several subsections of the Letterheads were also represented, like the Pinheads, who are pinstriping experts, and the Airheads, who are airbrush masters. While there was a lot of painting, mostly people stood around and talked about signs.
Stevens, for his part, stood around and mostly acted superior. This was possible, nearly everyone will agree, because he is superior, at least when it comes to signage. At one point, he watched a guy with a ducktail do a red Honda three-wheeler. The process took several hours, as the pinstriper took at least a half dozen cigarette breaks. Stevens sighed in a “kids today” kind of way. “I coulda done that in 20 minutes,” he said. “Still, no computer can do what he’s doing. They won’t make a computer that can paint a motorcycle.” He was standing with Greg Janowiak from Elk Grove Village, a sign man who once was a painter but now pretty much handles the business end of things, and Tom Mooney from Geneva, who never had much interest in painting to begin with and who has bought and sold numerous sign businesses at various times. They discussed what Stevens calls the Look. Only a true sign painter, Stevens explains, can produce the Look, which cannot be specifically defined, except to say that sign painters know it when they see it.
“You’d be surprised how many people call us for hand lettering,” Stevens says. “Hand painting. Perfect example: I had a woman, she had a ’67 Cougar. She had it all redone yellow and she wanted it striped. I said, ‘It’ll be $35 for two vinyl stripes.’ She said, ‘No, I want it painted.’ That’s $140. But she wanted the paint. Ark Disposal Company, we do two golf outings for him a year, and he wants all the signs hand painted. We put vinyl on his trucks, vinyl on his windows, but he wants his golf signs hand painted. With painted bears and everything. He wants that look.”
“Oh, yeah,” Janowiak says, “you can’t beat the Look.”
“Can’t beat the Look.” Stevens says. “Nothing ever changes that. The cue stick never made the player. I could give you the best computer in the world, but you’ll never be a sign painter like a sign painter is.”
“Never. When Ann, my daughter, told me she wanted to be a sign painter, I made her go to apprentice school for six years. Learn how to hand letter. It will make you a better sign person. Layout, design. You also learn where all the good bars are.”
“The old-timers where I used to work, when they had an apprentice, they’d take all the want ads out of the newspaper,” Janowiak says. “I used to watch ’em all day long, copying letters out of the want ads.”
“To learn the strokes,” explains Stevens.
“A lot of people don’t want the vinyl sticker,” Mooney says, “because it falls off. They don’t want that. They want it hand lettered.”
“A lot of times, if I want something to look right and stand up I’ll hand letter it, scan it into the computer, and cut it out,” says Stevens. “Ten minutes, you swear to God it’s hand drawn. That’s to get the Look. A looser look. Computer-drawn letters are all stiff. Everything’s mechanically spaced. An individual will be able to look at a sign and not know why they don’t like it. But they just don’t like it. Bad layout, bad color combination, whatever. They don’t know but they just don’t like it. I have found some good people that never learned to letter that are excellent on a computer. They do nice work. They just never took the time to do it by hand. But they have the ability to design. Yet a lot of those people send us work because there’s still a lot of people that want stuff hand lettered. It’s the Look.”
Stevens has a simple sign posted on the bathroom door. It has a very angry ape jumping up and down. Stevens made it on the morning of the Letterheads meeting. He drew by hand the letters that read “Keep Out.” Then he scanned them into the computer. It took him two seconds to draw them. He also drew the ape and scanned that in. A few quick layout manipulations, and the sign was done.
“It looks professional,” Stevens says, “but that’s because I’m a sign painter.”
Chicago’s sign-making community isn’t easy to classify. It’s thoroughly diffuse, split off in many different directions. At the top of the list are the few remaining companies and individuals who are expert in the tony art of gold-leaf trim and lettering. Right below them, though much less artful, are the billboard companies who get the big-ticket freeway and downtown jobs. Near the bottom are the painters who specialize in posters and paper signs. Others do show cards. There was a time when you could safely assume that almost all Chicago sign painters were white, male, and from the southwest or northwest side. That’s no longer true. Almost all suburban painters are white, male, and from the southwest or northwest side. The city, on the other hand, is an ethnic grab bag of painters. Many signs are now in Spanish, so many painters are therefore Mexican and Puerto Rican. A company called Apple Signs, run by a windsurfing, ballroom-dancing immigrant from Hong Kong named Chi-wan Lee, has blanketed most of Chinatown with its signs and has branched out to do the signs for Vietnamese businesses on Argyle Street. Since there’s now a demand for signs in Arabic, Farsi, Korean, and Urdu, there are now sign painters who specialize in Arabic, Farsi, Korean, or Urdu.
Each subset contains its living legends, some known personally to other sign professionals, others not. For instance, there’s the guy who paints the windows of all the car dealerships on North Western. Nobody thinks he’s any good–witness the Chicago Bull on the window of Scottie Pippen’s Dodge that looks more like a snorting dog than a bull–but everyone admires his speed. There’s Jamaican Joe, a smoking-fast paper-sign man from the Caribbean, and the infamous Banana Man, so named because every letter he paints closely resembles a banana.
Then there’s Billy Sweet. These days sign painters pride themselves on always being available and responsive to their customers; Sweet is often unavailable and unresponsive. Sign painters are detail-oriented; Sweet is not. Sign painters have telephones; Sweet does not. Those planning to start a business on the south or west side may not be aware that they require his services. In fact, they may not even be aware of Sweet at all. But he says he’s aware of them. “I just know. I know. I’ll find them. If a business open up, you need a sign, have to have a sign, man. That’s where I come in at. Whether you want printed letters or you want, you know, something artistic. I’m there. Don’t ask me how. I just know, man. I just know.”
If there’s a living representative of the mythical sign painter, it’s Sweet. But he’s not necessarily drunken and will not conform to any model. He’s 45. In the last 25 years, he’s painted countless beauty salons, storefront churches, food stores, restaurants, and currency exchanges. He’s painted their awnings, their front walls, their windows, and the sides of their buildings. And if the businesses shut down, he paints the ones that go up in their place. He’s painted as far south as Roseland and as far north as Old Town. “From the Loop to Oak Park, people know me all over,” he says. “This is my city. You supposed to venture out, you know? That’s the way it goes.” Sweet’s work dots the west side and dominates certain parts of the south side, like the area around East 47th Street and the stretch of State that runs from 51st to 63rd. He painted the sign for the downtown Soul by the Pound store, the two-block-long corrugated tin wall of the Star R & P junkyard on South State, and dozens of Harold’s Chicken Shacks throughout the city. Sweet says he created the now-famous Harold’s logo, which depicts a black man in a crown chasing after a chicken with a hatchet. His inspiration came quite easily.
“I just thought about a black man chasing a chicken,” he says. “Harold was the fried chicken king. Whackin’ at him with a hatchet. ‘Cause you have to cut their heads off. People try to copy it, but they can’t.”
Sweet says that wherever he goes, he’s recognized as an artist. “People have stopped me, especially when I have worked the north side, and wanted to buy my slacks. I have a pair of army fatigues, and this lady stopped me and offered $250 for my slacks. She said she’d buy me any pair of Levi’s I wanted so she could get ahold of those slacks. She said that she had a gallery and she was collectin’. She wanted to hang ’em in the gallery, but I wouldn’t sell ’em. She wanted ’em too bad, you know? Now I got ’em hangin’ on my wall. Every color in the world is in those pants. I had ’em about ten years. And I like them. Every color in the world is in them, I think that’s why she liked them. She said it was art. I never really took a look at it.”
Tracking Sweet down is a minor miracle, because Sweet is not an easy man to find. He says he owns a house around 55th and Morgan, but don’t expect him to be more specific. One place you might try to find him is at Tyson’s Tire Shop on the corner of 61st and State. Tyson’s Tire Shop is owned by Harvey Tyson, a high school friend of Sweet’s, and Tyson’s wife, Precious Eleby. It was previously located at 61st and Eberhart and then across the street from its current location. Tyson briefly opened another location at 51st and Wells, but Eleby says he was shorthanded and had to put his mother in charge. She couldn’t stop her workmen from fingering the till, and the store shut down. “There ain’t no sense in havin’ a store open and not makin’ no money, givin’ away products,” Eleby says. “So we just closed it up.”
The current incarnation of Tyson’s Tire Shop is the most elaborate yet. Tyson has purchased a three-story graystone with two storefronts. On the right is the tire shop, and on the left is a snack shop and video arcade where Tyson had intended to open a used furniture store. He says this may still happen after the top two floors are rehabbed and turned into apartments. The front of the building is covered with Sweet’s lettering, which does not particularly conform to any of the standard sign-painting strictures. It has a distinctive rightward slant with serrated edges. Sweet describes the style as “a one stroke. You know, it’s just a feel. I just call it a one stroke. Just go with it. Just go. Load it up and go. Just like a soldier. Lock and load. Boom.”
Sweet has painted a large tire on the wall facing the street. The tire has boxing gloves hanging from its center and is flanked by the words, in red-and-blue letters, “When it come to fixing flats…We knock them OUT!” Inside the shop it’s dusty and dim, with brick walls, rotting wood beams, hundreds of used tires, and a sludgy old bathtub. Sweet’s painted several other signs, including “Beware BAD dog” next to a cartoon of a rottweiler. Some lettering on the outside wall reads “TIRE SHOP OPEN 24,” and then in smaller letters, in a slanted box, “Hrs.”
Eleby, who often wears a blue sweatshirt that reads “Precious” over a large capital “P,” says that Tyson’s Tire Shop actually does not operate 24 hours: It opens at 7 AM and closes around 11 PM. But in the summer, she says, it can stay open until 4 AM. “You know, people ride all night in the summertime. They usually don’t come out till the sun go down ’cause it too hot! They come early in the summertime. A lot of people may get a slow leak at night and may not notice it until the morning time. You see, State Street is a big street. Everybody comes down State Street. People who lives all the way down in the hundreds comes down State Street. People live downtown comes down State Street. You know, that’s a busy street, so we get a lot of business.”
Sweet also prefers to come out in the summer, but last February Eleby and Tyson were hoping he’d show up sooner than that; he’d been promising to finish his job for several days. As of June, he still hadn’t finished the tire shop, though he’d fully painted the video arcade. One Monday in February, Tyson said that Sweet had stopped by late the night before. He’d promised to paint the next day, but didn’t show up. One morning in June, Tyson and Eleby said they hadn’t seen Sweet in months. Meanwhile, the folks at the Star R & P junkyard next door said he’d been by just a few minutes before. That same day, the owners of a used truck lot down the street said in between swigs of gin that Sweet would be back to paint in a couple of hours. A couple of hours later, some guys hanging on the street said that Sweet had just hopped on a bus to go finish a job. “He was heading north,” one guy said. “Maybe south. Maybe west side.”
Tyson and Eleby have learned they can’t predict Sweet’s movements. “Sweet, he like a ghost,” Eleby says. “Every time he come, he be gone just like that. If he take his paint with him, he gone. There’s no finding him. We’ve got to keep his paint, else we don’t know when we ever gonna see him. It’s hard to catch up with Sweet. Very hard. But you know, one thing about him, when we need something done he usually pop up. Like when we moved across the street, he popped up, because we needed somethin’ done. It’s like he knows. It’s like he smell it.”
On a curiously warm Friday afternoon in February, Sweet is at the corner of 78th and Ashland, working on a storefront that was once called Abe’s Food and Produce but is now 78th Ashland Food Market: Fish Meat and Produce. He has short dreadlocks; he’s wearing a leather jacket, baseball cap, and jeans splattered with red, yellow, and blue paint. He’s sketching bloodred letters onto a bright mustard-colored background. He steps off the ladder, walks about ten feet away, cocks his legs, bends his knees, tilts back, puts out a finger, and studies the sign.
The store’s owner, a goateed Palestinian in his early 30s named Eddie, paces around Sweet’s ladder and looks agitated.
“I want put up different colors too,” Eddie yells. “None of this yellow no more! What’s the matter? Put the black and the blue.”
“Hey, let me do my business, man!”
“Put the blue on, man!”
“Maybe a black shadow. Why don’t you get out of here? Maybe a black shadow.”
“Hey, you’ve got to get it finished!”
“He’s a nice guy,” Sweet says. “Give me a hard time.”
“His job, his job good,” Eddie admits. “But he doesn’t take care of it. He doesn’t take care of it.” He shouts up at Sweet. “You gonna stop?”
“I don’t know. I’m an artist.”
“I wanna do for you cards and all that shit. Business cards.”
“You know, I don’t need business cards. I can make my own!”
“You better,” Eddie says as he goes inside.
“That’s hypocrisy,” says Sweet. “If I wanted business cards I could make my own.”
He ponders the sign for a minute.
“You know what Eddie’s problem is?” he says. “His problem is that he’s young, rich, and arrogant. He don’t understand. An artist’s got to be true to what he do, man.”
Sweet paints the grocery store sign for a while and then, with a blue flourish, swirls the words “Jah ’96” in the corner and climbs down the ladder.
“Jah. That’s my son. I’m proud of him. It’s short for Jehovah. God. It’s a hell of a name to live up to. But I just like the name, Jah. You know, I used to hang out with the Rastas, and they used to say ‘Jah’ a lot. Jah. There’s somethin’ about it that stuck in my head. When my son was born I looked at him and said, ‘Jah.’ They said, ‘Whaddya gonna name him?’ Name him Jah. I like that. There’s something about it. He’s two years old. My first son. All girls, man. Twelve kids, eleven girls, one boy. Three wives, man. They be on you strong for child support. I work and I just pay it. They say $100, I give ’em 200. You know, just to be free to go. One day I’m gonna go overseas, man, I’m never comin’ back here. I’m really not. I’m not sure where. I’m just gonna go to a travel agency. I’m gonna take Jah with me. He’s definitely going to go. He’s a nice guy. I like him. When I go to work, he try to be an artist too. Got his paint, messing everything. Paint all over. My house is an art gallery. Paint on the doors, paint on the sheets. I sit on my bed and paint, man. I wipe my brushes on my covers, go to sleep. I do my laundry, but the paint still in there. But then it’s like art, though, you know? You can hang that shit on the walls and it look like a giant canvas. Yeah, man. Everybody that comes to the house always want to buy something. Really, everything is not for sale. I want to keep something for myself, because a lot of times I like standing around just walking through my house looking at my work. Talkin’. I’m not nuts or nothin’, but I talk. It’s just like thinkin’ out loud. I see somethin’ I coulda done. You know, painting’s never really finished, really. I always see something different, especially when I do scenery. I do a little photography too, man. I got some helluva shots. I been thinkin’ about enterin’ them, you know, like contests or somethin’ like that. Basically slices of life. Somethin’ like that.”
He gestures across the street, where an an old woman is sleeping in a doorway.
“Like that, see. Boom. It’s just captivating. I saw a man once who was walkin’ in the snow with no shoes, right? No shoes, walkin’ in the snow. And he had a bike. The bike had no tires on it. And he was pushin’ it. He had everything he owned on this bike. And I took a picture of it. I took it because I was gonna make a painting. I haven’t made the painting yet, but I still have the photo. And in his hand, he got a pack of cigarettes. Lucky Strike. I’m gonna name the painting “Lucky Strikes Again.” You know, he had a pack of Lucky Strikes. He was in bad condition. You know what I’m sayin’? Lucky. Luck. It’s just somethin’ that blend like that. Click. Nobody ever noticed that before, you know?”
Sweet says he spent his childhood in Louisiana, came to Chicago for high school in the early 1960s, and has been here ever since, except for 1968, which he spent in Vietnam. “I even painted then, when I had the opportunity,” he says. “I drew pictures. I did a lot of army stuff, scenery. I sold one for $550. That’s the most I ever got for one of my paintings. Most of them not for sale. I got my dog tags, my medals. I got ’em hangin’ on my walls. It means a lot to me, you know? When you first get home, it’s hard. But as time goes by, it’s like a dream. To me, it’s like a dream. It’s in the past. Thirty years ago. That’s life, I guess. Shit happens. My father was in World War II. My uncle was in Korea. There’s always gonna be war, man, always. There’s always gonna be war.
“I went to school, but it just wasn’t really my cup of tea. All the pretty girls was in the art class, so I said, ‘I know where I’m goin’.’ I was a talented man. My mother say I was. Me, I never thought about it. It was just somethin’ that I did. My mother say, ‘One day you gonna be rich, and you gonna be sittin’ at a desk wearin’ white shirts.’ That’s what my mother told me. It came true. Of course. Rich to me is not just havin’ a stack of money, man. To me, being rich is being able to give of yourself. Money’s OK. I do it for money. You have to have money ’cause you gotta buy paintbrushes. A lotta times, I meet poor people, I paint for free. They have a business and they starvin’, you know, like poor people do. Some churches too, poor preachers who don’t have no money, I help them out. It really doesn’t matter, though, because in the run of a day, man, I make $500. That’s a good day. But every day, it’s always more than 200. No less than 200. The least I made was 175, and that was because I didn’t start until late in the afternoon. I work seven days a week. Even when it rains, I be at work. I work the inside, I go inside and do somethin’. I just give ’em somethin’. Give ’em ideas. Start the meter to runnin’. Makin’ more money. You see another hundred from them. Like that. It’s like a business, you know.”
In 1990 Chris Maylone was hanging around Evanston painting houses, mostly over on Hinman Avenue. He was living with his parents, both of whom are librarians at Northwestern University, and trying to figure out his next step. In 1986 Maylone graduated from the Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn and bummed around the New York gallery scene for a couple of years. Then he took his bumming and his yellow labrador Agatha to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he fell into sign painting. He developed some steady clients but got tired of lugging around his gear in the heat. So he moved home. He heard about a sign shop on Dempster and wandered over.
The place was called MikeSigns, and it was being run by a young woman named Maria Rapajic. She had just bought the shop from her great-uncle and needed some help. “I thought she was really something, so I just kind of hung around,” Maylone says. He was an artist who didn’t particularly mind learning about business. She had a keen business sense, a taste for 19th-century French novels, and didn’t particularly mind practicing art. It was a match made in sign-painting heaven.
MikeSigns was opened in 1963 by Rapajic’s uncle, a Serbian immigrant named Mike Dudic. The business was originally located at Clark and Diversey, but Dudic moved it to Evanston after a dispute with his landlord culminated in his roof being removed. He reopened as a French restaurant. “He lost a lot of money and had to start over,” Rapajic says. “He was an extremely unusual person. During World War II he escaped to Belgium and to France. And that’s where he learned French. He worked at the consulate there for a while. He was fluent in French. And when he came here, he was very busy. He was always writing letters to newspapers about political things, and he started to write his own memoirs, which I haven’t seen. He was just sort of a Renaissance guy.”
Unlike most Renaissance guys, Dudic was not particularly fond of painting, and after he reopened his restaurant once again as MikeSigns he was always looking to hire people to do the sign painting. Rapajic stepped into the business just as Dudic was getting sick of it. She was born in Yugoslavia and moved with her family to Des Plaines at age 12, where she stayed just until she could “drive and get out of there.” In subsequent years, she danced, worked as a model, took classes in accounting and fashion design, started a computer company, and made a bundle of dough. But corporate life didn’t suit her. Luckily her uncle called her up, and a week later she was basically running the shop. After eight years, she bought Dudic out and soon after married Maylone and took him on as partner.
The Letterheads revival of the late 70s changed the parameters of sign painting. Even if attendance in trade and union schools continues to be low, that’s partly because young people are often entering the business sideways, apprenticing in small shops where most of the interesting work is being done and then starting small shops of their own. MikeSigns was there for Rapajic’s taking. “It just sort of clicked,” she says. “The power of it, I can’t describe it. Of creating something. Of creating an image that you see plastered on cars. Of doing a really good sign and driving by and saying, ‘Wow, this is really nice.’ Things like that are really exciting. To do something like that on a first try. To be able to hit on it, to be able to read a client’s emotions. And most of our clients end up being friends. They don’t go anywhere else, and we meet interesting people. It’s very fast paced, day to day. Sometimes we work 12 hours, sometimes we work 14. Sometimes we work 8. But it just kind of slips by, and before you know it, it’s over. You’re not in an office writing forms. You’re doing something that’s recognized. That people can see. Most people don’t have jobs like that.”
“I never heard about sign painting in high school,” Maylone says. “None of my professors in college even had a clue that there were guys who were brilliant painters, technically brilliant, who were actually not making paintings. They were actually out there doing stuff on commission for people. And I think one of the coolest things about it is when somebody comes to you and says, ‘I want you to do a sign.’ It’s very rare when somebody comes to you and says, ‘Do a painting for me.’ Most artists do paintings because they have to do them, and then they worry about who’s gonna buy them. But this is like, people know your work, people like your work, they come to you and ask you to do stuff. It’s like a commission every time.”
Maylone and Rapajic recently moved MikeSigns to a 2,400-square-foot space one block away from their original location. It’s off the main street, and they no longer have to deal with foot traffic. There are separate areas for cutting wood and for painting, room for Agatha and for Zola, their rottweiler, and a reception area complete with a conference table and an opaque projector for showing sketches to clients. Off to one side are the contemporary sign painter’s stock-in-trade: a computer and plotter. “I don’t spend nearly as much time with a brush in my hand as I do sitting at the computer,” Maylone says. “There’s no comparison. But on the other hand, a computer is just a dumb machine. It’s just gonna do what you tell it to. I don’t think the art’s gonna die, because there’s always gonna be a need for people to use their creativity and their artistry to create commercial graphic images. It’s just that the mediums will change a little bit and the way things are done will change a little bit. But people were doing signs a long time ago. Carving hieroglyphics. Visual communication is always gonna be around. But it’s gonna change. It’s gonna evolve.”
“You have to have some sort of sense of it,” Rapajic says. “It isn’t like anybody can walk through the door. I think it’s really something that you’re born with. You have the ability, but it’s something you haven’t figured out yet. And it happens and you go on from there. Sure, you’ll be pretty bad, but you’ll get better and better….When I started there was one sign painter here, a Filipino guy, and he did most of the work. But soon you take over. And everybody else goes out to pasture.”
The most pressing issue in the sign business today is the rise of franchise shops. These places, with names like FastSigns, Signs Now, and Speedy Sign-a-Rama, are threatening to cut into most sign painters’ territory. Franchises have several computers in each store, a ready supply of vinyl, budgets large enough to advertise on television, and an easy, simple design strategy. No sign professional is without an opinion on the topic:
“These guys might have owned a tanning spa five years ago, a hot dog stand five years before that. Whatever the latest thing is. A franchise seminar directs them. Some guys who are buying these franchises are talented and are trying to put out some good work, but to me they’re just catering to a certain segment of the business world that doesn’t care about quality or a certain look. They don’t know nothin’ about layout or design or they don’t try to. There’s a certain thing about this business: You gotta love the alphabet, you gotta like layout and design. It’s more than just making a dollar.”
“What makes one sign painter better than the other is the ability to design. Anybody can copy. These franchise shops, all they can do is copy. That’s what makes one painter better than the other. There’s a lot of guys who have franchises, they don’t know how to design, and they’ll fax us to do their work for them.”
“In the beginning all the regular sign painters didn’t like the machines, but we saw it as a necessity. Most sign shops, like these FastSigns and all that, that computer is their whole business. To me, that computer there is just another tool, just like a brush. I can do a whole lot more than these guys who just have the machines. They have no idea how we spread paint or anything like that.”
“I know guys who have invested a lot of time learning how to letter….The cats who get these franchises haven’t made that kind of a commitment to a craft. They’ve got a bunch of money. They basically buy it. They buy the setup, they lease the space, and boom! They’re a sign painter. In a way, it’s too bad. I see signs that are really lame, and you know who did them. You know one of these places did them. It’s too bad that people get rooked like that. But on the other hand, those places make us look good. Because people come in here and go, ‘Wow, you guys actually have paint here! It’s amazing!’ Those cats, they’re really pretty limited in what they can do. They serve a need, sure, but it’s not even craft. It’s just commerce.”
“Some of the older guys have said, ‘I give up. I can’t compete with it.’ It’s kind of like a David and Goliath thing. Or a better scenario would be a Paul Bunyan-type thing. They’re still swinging an ax, and there’s a guy down the road with a chain saw, and they’re not going to be able to keep up.”
Guys like Lionel Lewis have been affected the most by franchise shops. This summer, he was working mostly for the lower end of the retail scale, doing paper signs for grocery stores and kebab joints and painting awnings and windows for tire shops and thrift stores. He’s been a sign painter for 15 years and has worked at various shops. For a while he was at Pellegrini Signs on Lawrence Avenue. More recently, he was at Paldo Signs in River Grove. Then he struck out on his own.
In September, after two years, he was evicted from his sign-painting shop on Glenwood near Bryn Mawr. But Lewis saw it coming since he wasn’t licensed to have a business there. “It’s sad, but that’s how it goes,” he says. “That’s the life of a sign painter.”
A couple of years ago, Lewis loaded his paints into the back of his beat-up Volvo station wagon and took off for Los Angeles. On the way, he stopped in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, painting as he went. This is the life of the Drunken Sign Painter these days. They don’t wander from tavern to tavern; they go from state to state. Lewis is more than aware of his heritage.
“I will drink, but I try to stop or get away from it,” he says. “Your friends, and your workers and stuff, they try to mix that. That’s why I guess a lot of sign painters don’t click too much with their friends. They’ve got to be loners. You know, you can always find a party. But it’s more exciting to make a living than all the nonsense that you could do. That’s all a lot of people like to do. Party and so forth. A lot of drinkin’ and sittin’ around. I’m drivin’ around, takin’ care of business, seein’ persons, clients, giving estimates on a job. Every stop, this guy I’m working with, he runs into a liquor store and comes back with a 40-ouncer, or brings me one. It’s not too cool. But I’m not goin’ to overdo myself. Whereas if I’ve got a friend with me, he’s gonna do it. Just to have fun. He’s not thinking of the overall thing.”
This summer, Lewis wasn’t so confident that he could overcome the franchises. “Everybody’s goin’ over to vinyl. The way they cut it out on a computer? All they gotta do is type it, and faster than you typed it, it just spits it out. All you gotta do is peel it off and put it on the area that you want. It’s gonna look just as perfect as any sign painter can ever do. It’s only a matter of time before we get to feelin’ it. But we’re feeling it already, we just don’t know it. Ain’t gonna be no paper sign people calling soon. They’re gonna start getting that stuff laser printed. As long as I can do buildings, that’ll help me. I can keep going. But the paper business, it’s already good as gone.”
His shop, Glenwood Signs, was formerly a bar, and for lack of money Lewis had never totally redone the place–it was all pipes and cracked linoleum. On any given day, his two sons, Sherkhan and Kokoh, ages 8 and 10, would be running all over the place with their friends, sometimes helping out with the signs, sometimes getting in the way. A picture of Malcolm X hung over a ratty couch in the front room. In another room, where Lewis did most of his work, hung a poster of a Richard Avedon photo titled Nastassja Kinski & the Serpent. Sketches were scattered on his drafting table, mostly for paper signs: “Cakes–Ready to Go!”; “Today’s Special–Sultani Kabob”; “We moved to Chicago & State”; “New HOTT Chop Suey.” Lewis had written phone numbers on all the walls, for insurance companies, food stores, pagers, and pawn shops. There were paints, pans, and brushes everywhere. A 12-inch color TV, attached to a VCR and a Nintendo, blared in the other room. A shaggy mattress lay on the floor for the nine nights out of ten Lewis slept in the studio. On a bookshelf sat an assortment of reading materials: Black Enterprise magazine, the Good News Bible, some Zane Grey novels, and The Social Contract. There was also a picture by Lewis’s favorite artist, Norman Rockwell. “He inspires me. The way he did quality work. He used to give lessons on how he did it, step-by-step. It’s just the perfection he put into it. He made it look like a photograph, but it was more than a photograph because he put character into the people, made you feel what he wanted to make you feel. It’s like he wrote a story in paints or somethin’.
Lewis grew up on the south side. He was born Baptist, but his father later joined the original Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad, and Lewis was schooled in the mosque. He says he’s no longer affiliated with any church, or any organization for that matter. Lewis had always painted for friends and won contests in a couple of art fairs. But he’d never considered painting professionally until the early 1980s, when he was working as a night-shift janitor for the phone company. “During the day I ran into this left-handed sign painter,” he says. “And I’m a left-handed sign painter. I saw him working, and he wanted to know why I was watching him. I said, ‘I’m an artist.’ So he told me about givin’ up art and startin’ the letters, that I would make money at it. He told me I couldn’t make too much money at art. Artists only make their money after they die. Then the value of their work goes up. So I was listenin’ to all of that. Then all I did was letters.”
One weekday afternoon in July, Lewis got into his Volvo and headed out to paint a plumbing supply business around Irving Park and Pulaski. He popped in a Dr. Dre tape and drove down Clark Street to Irving. He talked about the trip he took out west.
“There was always a paint supply place and always a business that needed things, you know? By the time my cash got to runnin’ low, I ran into a new job. I just went out there cold turkey. I didn’t know nobody. I figured that would be the best way. I’m good to click with people. I know what they want. I had my little toolbox and my paints and brushes. I had some photographs of my work, somethin’ they could visually feed on. And then I did ’em up with a job. Tell ’em what the situation involved, what I could do. They asked me what the price is. I’d give it to ’em. Then we would shake hands or negotiate on it or whatever.
“I can make a living, no problem. Matter of fact, there’s more demand in the rural areas because there’s no sign painters. And if they know about you, the business community is really tight, and they’ll take you in and you’ll stay busy. In Chicago there’s a lotta competition. Any major city. Because when I went to different places, like Oklahoma, now there was maybe in the phone book two or three pages of sign painters, so that mean there was probably enough sign painters to supply the city but really not to supply the new business that were comin’ in, like the Mexican businesses, the Pakistani businesses. They spreadin’ all over. A lot of those people, they own hotels or grocery stores, and their businesses weren’t gettin’ all the signs unless guys like me were there….I got to see how it was. I got to realize that Chicago isn’t the only place in the world. I was wonderin’ why we sufferin’ here when there’s so many other places. A lot of beautiful places to go to. So I know that there’s a better place if I wanna take my kids one day. Get out of this place.”
He drove up Irving, getting closer to the plumbing company. He’d been having trouble with this job, he said. His assistants kept getting drunk and flaking out on him, and the rainy weather made it hard to work outdoors. “I believe a lot of sign painters, they have the mind to finish somethin’. You say you gonna do somethin’, you finish it. Like this guy we’re going to. I’m kind of worried about him. I don’t want to lose the job, I need the money. But he’s gotta understand that I’m tryin’ to finish other jobs so I can get to him. I don’t want him tellin’ me, if you don’t do it by this day you gonna have to see my lawyer. I don’t wanna hear all that. He try to harass me like that, I’m gonna tell him that I’m gonna go ahead and do the job, but you just gotta be a little more patient.”
When Lewis arrived, he inspected his work, which was about half done. He went inside the building to talk to the owner, who came out, looked at him, and said:
“Oh, you still hangin’ around here? I thought you were gone.”
Lewis got upset and decided not to work that day. “He knows I’m tryin’. He knows I’m tryin’, man. Art takes time. I got a lot of equipment there. I may finish it this weekend.”
He drove the Volvo down Montrose. “I wish I could retire from this kind of business,” he said. “Find some better way to support my kids. I’ve been at this business a long while. I kind of know what time it is.”
Soon after, Lewis was evicted. Then he worked out of an apartment for a while, but was looking to get involved again with a shop. In October, he got hired on. Chris Maylone and Maria Rapajic at MikeSigns, his new employers, report that business is good and that Lewis is fitting in perfectly. Lewis says he doesn’t have much time for partying now, except for maybe on weekends, and that other things have changed as well.
“I’m into this computer stuff now, man,” he says. “It’s a miracle maker. It helps the sign painters. I’m over the fear of it. It was some phobia. I’m over that one now. It’s a lot better than lettering all the time. And I’m doing a lot better work.”
It’s June. Eddie the Palestinian is in front of his store, kicking a stray dog down the street. The store’s awning has never been finished.
“I haven’t seen that painter,” he says. “If you see him, tell him he owes me money.”
Back in February Billy Sweet was still working on the sign. And still talking:
“You know, a person supposed to be themself. You’re supposed to be yourself. You’re supposed to do the things that you enjoy in life. If you like singin’, then be a singer. If you like writin’, you write. If you like takin’ pictures, take pictures. I like painting, man. Making signs. That’s my love. First love. I’m gonna do that. I don’t eat all day. I have no appetite. When I see I’m finished, then I have an appetite. No water, no nothin’. I don’t care how hot it be.
“You know, any artist that’s true to what he do, man, he don’t care. You read about some of the old masters. I remember readin’ about one particular artist, van Gogh. That guy. All he had was bread and cheese, man. That’s all he had. My food had run out once, and all I had was some bread and cheese. And I thought about that. Thought about van Gogh. But at least I had electricity. He had a piece of cardboard, stuck a candle to it so he could have light to paint with. I could see that, I could really feel how dedicated he was to his work, although some of it look like I don’t know what. But he had his own style, and no matter where you see it, you know it. It stands out. That’s what I like about it. I made some copies of his work. The sunflowers. I like plants. The one self-portrait where he cut off his ear. I got that one. I think he was expressing his love or somethin’.
“When you do things like that, the average person gonna see you different. They gonna say you nuts. I used to wear my dreads much longer than I do now. Much longer. And I be painting. I looked like some kind of wild man. I had a face full of paint. I remember when I did downtown, in the Loop. State and Lake. And nobody wanted to talk. They just thought I was maybe panhandling. I had maybe $300 in my pocket, and I was sayin’ a few things to the people. Nobody wanted to talk. But you should never judge a man by how he look. You never know who you talkin’ to. Looks like I have nothin’. But if I wanted a Rolls-Royce, I know how much it cost. If that’s what I wanted, I could get it. That’s what makes me happy, man. If I had a Rolls right now, it would look like these clothes. I would fix my paint on the roof and drive it around. It wouldn’t mean nothing. It’s just the same, but different.”
Eddie comes out of the store again, and he’s really steamed.
“Billy, what time is it?”
“Billy, man, it’s getting dark. You got to finish.”
“Fuck it. Eddie, man, I’m an artist. You know what I’m saying?”
“Billy, I think you’re a fucking asshole.”
“I think not. I think you are a fucking asshole.”
“No, man, no. Fuck you!”
They walk away and bicker for a while. Then Sweet comes back, puts his paints in the store, and folds up his ladder. He says he and Eddie have to go over to the Currency Exchange on 79th to wire some money to a woman. He does not say who the woman is.
Sweet and Eddie head down Ashland.
“This guy,” Sweet says, laughing, “I’m gonna beat him up.”
“Yeah, you can’t beat me up,” Eddie says.
“I will. Old man gonna beat you up.”
Eddie puts his arm around Sweet.
“I beat you up, hah hah.”
“Right. Sure you will,” Sweet says.
“You see, Eddie, you’re wrong. You’re very wrong. Because nobody beats an artist.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Lloyd Degrane/ Lionel Lewis, Chris Maylone, Maria Rapajic: photograph by Mike Signs; photograph by Billy Sweet; signs by Billy Sweet; Billy Sweet sign showing self-portrait; Mike Stevens photo; Precious Eleby with signs by Billy Sweet;.