Tracey Lindeman is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa where she writes about technology, transportation and business.
A distinctive local tradition is kept alive by a handful of mostly older black artists.
Hand-painted signs signalling the presence of funeral homes, salons, car washes, churches, cemeteries, grocery stores, bars, and restaurants can be found all over New Orleans. They’re painted in a variety of colors, sometimes on a piece of plywood fastened to the building, but most often painted directly onto its window or siding. The writing alternates between cursive and block lettering—sometimes on the same sign—and looks naive and homespun.
Collectively, hand-painted signs are a hallmark of the city’s culture, a visual evocation of the famous New Orleans spirit and charm: They’re improvisational, a little weird, unapologetically imperfect, boldly colorful and made largely by hand. These signs are part of an ages-old tradition kept alive today by a handful of mostly older solo black artists. In a digital age where computer-assisted signage is easily accessible and efficient, they may also be anachronistic.
“I understand—it’s probably cheaper for [store owners to buy digital signs]. But the character of the neighborhood loses something,” says Anthony DelRosario, a library worker at Tulane University who photographs and catalogues hand-painted signs and their creators in his spare time. He fears the tradition will die when these painters do. “They’re the last of their generation doing signs,” DelRosario says. “None of them have apprentices.”
Hand-painted signs as a functional art form
“A business with no sign is a sign of no business,” says Tom White, known locally as Uncle Tom and Tom the Sign Man. A native New Orleanian from the mixed-income Uptown neighborhood, White speaks in the city’s characteristic Yat accent—warm, loose, and at times incomprehensible to Northern ears.
At 67, he’s made his mark on the city of New Orleans. His work can be seen all around town, and specifically along Claiborne Avenue, a thoroughfare that stretches from the Lower Ninth Ward through Treme-Lafitte to up near Tulane University. Sometimes he can be seen there, wearing his signature baseball cap with a paintbrush tucked into the edge. “She’s a wench; that wench make my money. That’s my girl,” he says of his $2.50 paintbrush.
Though White spent his childhood scribbling on his bedroom walls and his young adulthood studying at local art schools, he hadn’t predicted a life in sign painting. But after losing his job, he had a revelation. “I went to the main street in New Orleans, which is Canal Street, and I started walking and putting in applications here and there. And then I paused and I looked at all the buildings and I started estimating the signs and what they cost,” recalls White. “I said, ‘Wait a minute! This is it.’”
Pam Collins still recalls her first sign. She was 20 and new to the city’s official sign department when she was tasked with painting a 12-foot-long banner for Tambourine and Fan, an event and association for the New Orleans Indians. “It was a test to paint a big sign like that,” she says.
Throughout her 31-year career at the city, she painted signs daily for various municipal departments and events, from the fire department to Mardi Gras, while also moonlighting as a sign painter for hire. She took an early retirement a few years back at the age of 51—young enough, she says, to give self-employment a go.
Collins’s style is more ornate and stylized than some of her fellow commercial sign painters. “I have a signature that I use with all my signs—you know, with the curlicues and stars. People know my work when they see that,” she says. She’s also fond of using glitter. “I make it sparkle, make it stand out, make it shine.”
But wading into full-time self-employment as a sign painter hasn’t been easy for Collins. With limited digital marketing skills, she’s still struggling to find steady work to supplement her pension. “It’s slow, because they don’t want to pay. They want something for nothing,” she says.
For these sign painters, bridging the digital divide has required some help. DelRosario has taken up the cause of Lester Carey, who has struggled with alcoholism and homelessness for years, by bringing him supplies and helping him secure gigs. He’s also collaborated with local clothing brand Defend New Orleans on a couple of Carey-inspired t-shirts, and occasionally sells sign-related accessories, prints, and apparel through his NOLA ‘Nacular side project.
The painters credit DelRosario with shining a light on them and their trade. “I didn’t think I would be discovered until I was deceased,” says White.
Folk artists deal in New Orleans weirdness
Sign painting is not particularly lucrative, but Simon Hardeveld has found a way to make it work. A former chef from southern France, he moved to New Orleans in 1994 to open a French bistro, decorating the place with a few signs he’d made himself to save a few bucks. “People were buying all the small signs on top of the bar, and no food. So I stopped cooking,” he says.
Hardeveld’s signs aren’t nearly as utilitarian as the work of White, Collins, and Carey. Rather, his brightly colored, eye-catching folk art—mostly painted on portable pieces of plywood—is primarily decorative and easily marketable. If you’ve visited New Orleans, you’ve surely seen his work: His paintings of black cats, alligators, and slogans such as “Shalom y’all” and “Laissez les bon temps rouler” are all around town. “All the restaurants have one of my signs, nearly,” he says. (He also paints “Be nice or leave” signs, though the popular slogan originated with another New Orleans artist, Dr. Bob.)
By his own estimation, Hardeveld paints 80 to 100 signs a month, charging between $125 and $325 depending on size, detail, and whether the buyer brought him a case of beer. And unlike most of the other sign painters, he also ships his work to other states and abroad. His commercial signage is a little harder to come by, though he did paint a locale for New Orleans hot dog chain Dat Dog.
At 66, Hardeveld’s in the same age group as Carey, Collins, and White, even if he’s not in the same kind of sign business. There will come a time when they can no longer paint, and that worries documentarian DelRosario.
DelRosario first started cataloguing New Orleans signs following Hurricane Katrina, when he noticed that many hand-painted signs were still intact. He spotted Carey’s signature on a few and set out to find him, discovering the work of other painters like White and Collins along the way. DelRosario, who continues to bike around town on the lookout for new art, hasn’t seen any young black artists picking up the trade, though he has seen the occasional white bohemian with a paintbrush in hand.
That the work of this older generation of painters—almost all of whom are working-class black New Orleanians—could be completely replaced by computer-assisted signage one day concerns DelRosario. Hand-painted signs are integral to the city’s fiber, a cloth woven together by community, poverty, necessity, and creativity. “I feel sort of a responsibility to keep sign painting going,” he says.
Fortunately—unless these hand-painted signs are intentionally painted over or bulldozed—there’s still time and opportunity left to preserve this particular city tradition. After all, if they can survive Katrina, there’s no knowing what else they can withstand. “My signs will outlast the building,” White says, laughing.