|Photos: Cheryl Gerber for Gambit|
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Lester Carey parks his shopping cart full of paint supplies on the neutral ground on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Claiborne Avenue. Carey, dressed in a red shirt tucked into high-waisted brown slacks, sits on a folding chair and peels shrimp and crawfish from a clear plastic bag.
Asked where one can find his work, he waves a hand.
"Oh, everywhere," he says. "I'm citywide."
Carey's work is so prevalent that it defines the look of the neighborhoods in which he works. Where he sits is near an intersection he practically owns. His work — hand-painted lettering, elegantly imperfect brushstroked ads for businesses — fills entire walls and windows: Al's Garage and tire shop, R&B Package liquor store, 3 Star Barber Shop, Naturally Yours hair salon, and the Greater Full Gospel Church, a stout and stunning white stone building where its pastor Leonard Banks often preaches outside its doors. The building — like the block — is filled with Carey's signage. One home displays a sandwich board that Carey painted: "Frozen Cups $1"
A few blocks away on Jackson Avenue, Carey's lettering fills the facade at Chicken Mart (advertising specials like spare ribs and a 15-pound case of catfish for $32.99) and across the street at the Jumbo Peanut Co., where Carey painted the logo for the company that slings peanuts at the Superdome and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Next door, he painted a sandwich board sign for the St. Paul Community Baptist Church.
And at Jackson Avenue and Magnolia Street, there's Magnolia Market, a plain white corner store with Carey's most famous signs painted in a deep red on one of its sides — advertising neck bones, turkey necks and pig tails and tips, all in capitalized print letters followed by careful script with a little flourish for the O's and S's.
"That's my style," Carey says, looking at his similar signage on Brothers Discount Market on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (MLK) and Magnolia Street. The building has mostly replaced Carey's all-over text with vinyl photograph banners, though his lettering for "COLD BEER FRESH MEAT CHECKS CASHED MONEY ORDERS WIC ACCEPTED" remains, as does another of his signatures, a po-boy mural with triangular cuts of meat sticking out from under the loaf.
To outsiders, these low-budget hand-painted signs are an inner-city quirk, perhaps a reminder of poverty when compared to modern signs and their more impressive architectural counterparts. But within just a few blocks, or within a few neighborhoods, one artist can essentially own the look and feel and style of commercial signage, and there are only a few artists like Carey still working in the sign painting business in New Orleans.It's an aesthetic that draws largely from the style and influence of only a handful of people who happen to prefer old-school lettering techniques once common citywide. From the corner store where you bought fresh meat and eggs to the tire shop where you patched a hole and got an oil change to where you prayed on Sunday, you could expect to see the same hand-painted style by the same sign painter.
It's also a means to an end, a skilled gig learned in a trade school, like Delgado Community College's commercial art program. For local businesses, hiring a sign painter is cheaper than using a commercial printer and neon or electrified signs, though a finished product could take a few days or a few weeks.
But because there are only a few sign painters left — and all are nearing retirement — the tradition could be near its end.
Carey was born in New Orleans in 1953. He attended the University of New Orleans and tried out for football at Louisiana State University. He didn't make the cut. He studied commercial art at Delgado, and from 1976 to 1989, he served in the Army, the Army Reserves and the Army National Guard. By the early '80s, he had carved out a living painting signs for neighborhood businesses.
When he returned to New Orleans after evacuating to San Antonio, Texas, following the 2005 levee failures, Carey found he had lost his home and steady work. Since then, he has been in and out of Veterans Affairs health programs and regular housing. He still earns a meager income from painting businesses and meat board specials at deli counters.
Anthony DelRosario, a Tulane University student pursuing a masters degree in preservation studies, drives from his Lower Garden District home to meet Carey at his spot on the MLK neutral ground. He's dropping off a large plywood slab that's been painted with white primer for a commissioned piece.
Carey says he's been looking for slimmer, fine-tipped brushes. DelRosario brought him a Ziploc freezer bag full of them.
"I love the arts," Carey says. "I've always been interested in art."
Their arrangement has been like this for several years. DelRosario brings him supplies, meals and work commissions from art collectors and friends looking for replicas of Carey's signs.
DelRosario, aka Anthony Turducken, is an artist in his own right who has painstakingly documented hundreds of hand-painted signs — dubbed in the anthropology and art fields as "naive commercial art" — throughout New Orleans.
He also is collaborating with sign painters on commissioned works, and his imprint NOLA 'Nacular is releasing a line of T-shirts and prints featuring Carey and other sign painters' works through Defend New Orleans this summer. (DelRosario's Etsy site sells Carey's signs on pins and T-shirts, with proceeds going to Carey.)
DelRosario also has developed a following on Facebook, where his Society to Preserve the Art of Lester Carey page and sign painters' vintage appeal has attracted younger generations of artists and fans, including author and attorney Billy Sothern, who has commissioned Carey via DelRosario for his firm's Magazine Street sign, an image of which went viral earlier this year: "Law Offices of Glass & Reed, Connor & Sothern criminal attorneys, appeals, notary, cold drinks".
Before the ubiquity of supermarkets, liquor stores and big-box pharmacies, the corner store served as a neighborhood anchor — where people went for news, necessities and gossip — and a living bulletin board. One of those buildings, Delta Super Market on Desire Street, was a giant. Delta — along with Carey's and John Cannon's mural of African-American icons among names and prices for grocery store specials — was damaged by the levee failures in 2005 and demolished in 2008. DelRosario, along with preservation advocate Karen Gadbois, watched excavators and bulldozers tear it down.
DelRosario's Instagram and Flickr pages are filled with hundreds of photographs capturing works from sign painters.
"The tradition is dying out," DelRosario says. "I'm trying to document as much as possible. Preservation through documentation."
Tom W. leans back in a worn recliner in his Broadmoor home. Tom — known as Tom the Sign Man or Uncle Tom or Unk — askedGambit not to use his last name for "tax reasons." The sign painter has been in the business for more than four decades. A gallery of clocks hangs on the wall above his head
"I'm into clocks now," he says. "They play all the time behind me."
Underneath them is Norman Rockwell's 1960 painting Triple Self Portrait — in which the artist paints himself painting himself painting himself, and so on — torn from a magazine and pinned on the wall. It's Tom's favorite work.
"He's my favorite and an inspiration to me," Tom says, adding with a laugh, "I mean, who's painting his back?"
Tom's work stretches down Claiborne Avenue, from Well's Tire and K&T Community Store to Crump Seafood Market & Sandwich Shop. On Washington Avenue, his martini sign for the Big Man Lounge hangs next door to Jazz Daiquiris, where his "No Loitering" sign is painted on its brick exterior. He also painted the dozens of signs on the Freret Tire Center (advertising "Good Old Fashion" Service) and the murals outside Brown Derby diners.
"All this started from when I was a kid doodling on mama's wall," he says. "I got spanked for that. I should've gotten stronger in my own shop. I was just a freelancer. Now I've retired from that. All of us get that arm from painting in one area. You lose a lot of your grip. Then your sight goes. Then your mind goes. Then you just go."
Tom attended Delgado in the late '60s and McCrady Art School on Bourbon Street in the early '70s. He went on to paint signs for the city and work under sign painter Huey Beder.
"That's when I really got all the way into a sign painter and being competent enough to go out on my own," he says. "I did do one set of business cards and only got one call back. All the rest is word of mouth or they see me out, 'Man, you paint? Come here.'"
Tom's living room is filled with half-finished paintings and doodles. Above his couch is a long strip of scrap paper filled with dirty jokes and sign ideas. "I scribble scrabble. That's my graffiti wall," he says. "When I get stressed, I just go and do things on there."
Following the levee failures, Tom lived in Texas, earning money from painting signs for auto shops, beauty parlors and hotels (specifically, room numbers on all the doors). Before he was forced to evacuate his home Uptown via helicopter, he rigged car batteries to lights and a stereo and barbecued.
"Sign painters always did have a lot of character," he says. "We all look drunk, we all look like we've been thrown away. We're all dirty and full of paint. We have psychedelic paint because we're all loaded, loaded, loaded off that stuff."
Tom has slowed his painting business. He suffers from depression and says he has never felt like himself after surviving a gunshot wound to his torso in the '70s. He tinkers on a smaller scale — painting signs for food trucks and making souvenir posters at Mardi Gras.
"Building scaffolds, taking signs down, refurbishing them, repainting, cutting lighted signs and spraying them all — it's a thrill for me because I learned a lot, just observing a lot of things," he says. "I got my degree in other things but my passion for art was the No. 1 factor. For the most part, I just have fun with myself."
Sitting in a booth at Burger King on Canal Street, Pam Collins flips through laminated pages in her leather portfolio. Last year, Collins retired from the city of New Orleans, where she had worked since 1983. Her title was, unofficially, the official artist of the city of New Orleans. She retired in November.
"I'd paint signs for descriptions of parks, doing all the city agency signs, police department, fire department, all city government signs, NORD," she says, referring to the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC). "A lot of people don't know that. People recognize [NORDC] — they have painters, but they don't have no sign painters."
She points at photographs of purple, green and gold panels she painted outside Gallier Hall for Mardi Gras. For 30 years, Collins spent the weeks leading up to Carnival painting the boards outside the official city grandstand. When she worked for the city, Collins' signs included Carnival's elaborate second-lining silhouettes to auction announcements and "No Parking" signs under freeway overpasses. Mardi Gras 2014 was the first in more 30 years that Collins didn't paint.
"Gallier Hall, every year I did that," she says, flipping past pages of boards painted with marching musicians and a portrait of a certain former mayor. "Ray Nagin didn't want his picture up there, so we had to take it down. He was something else."
When Collins was 16, she started painting signs for birthdays, parties and events in her neighborhood. Collins graduated from Joseph S. Clark High School in 1980 and studied commercial art at Delgado and Xavier University.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to be," Collins says. "I never thought I was going to be a sign painter. ... It just happens it was meant for me to be a sign painter. I got my first job — a real job — and stuck with that. I loved what I was doing."
After hours, Collins painted signs for bars, clubs, funeral homes and auto shops, from longtime clients Seal's Class Act on Aubry Street and the nearby Littlejohn Funeral Home to the doors of the Sandpiper Lounge on Louisiana Avenue — all featuring her signature S-shaped accents, swirled lettering and asterisk-shaped stars.
"I've got my signature curlicues and those little stars," she says. "That's my signature."
She also adds glitter and highlighting to some signs, a technique she learned from former city employee Joe Bernard, aka Joe the Glitter Man. (Bernard also taught the trick to Tom, who painted signs for the board of commissioners briefly.)
"I was growing up drawing and painting," she says. "Remember the cartoons that used to be on TV? I'd sit all the time with a piece of paper, exactly like it was in TV Guide. My mama would say, 'What do you wanna be when you grow up?' I'd say, 'An artist. I like to draw.' ... But I didn't know what I wanted to do. Anything pertaining to commercial art — I wanted to be a cartoonist, I wanted to do fashion design. I had all kinds of dreams. I really didn't know until that happened for me, that sign painting position."
Collins' favorite character, Betty Boop, also is a signature addition in her work.
She opens her phone to show a photo of her Mardi Gras costume, a white jumpsuit she covered in hand-painted Betty Boops — touched up with glitter and her signature stars.
Primary colors," Carey says. "Red, blue, green, that's it. And black and white."
Carey works from a basic palette, but his brush strokes have a distinctive flair. They're sometimes cramped, with words squeezed into a small space despite the size of the wall or board. His work is instantly recognizable, even in the giant white letters outside Chicken Mart: "THANK YOU NEW ORLEANS".
Artists and companies in New Orleans like Mystic Blue Signs and Smallchalk have updated hand-painted sign production with more modern techniques. Even artists like Simon Hardeveld, whose folk art-inspired designs have become synonymous with New Orleans' quirkiness, have evolved — Hardeveld painted the bar-inspired set for WGNO-TV's News With a Twist.
But the city's smaller, low-income neighborhood businesses have come to depend on the skilled labor and art of what's now a rare and fast-fading industry. Many stores have replaced the outsider-art of hand-painted signs with mass-produced vinyl graphic banners.
"We bought a computer but never used it — almost 10 grand when it came out — for vinyl cutting," Tom says. "We still painted."
But computer-printed signs look flat and lifeless in the same way digital effects in a film look flat compared to a "real" special effect.
"There's no swing to it," Tom says of computer-printed signs. "It don't have that swing. The top and bottom is correct but there's some movement to it. That makes it art. It has some character to it."