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The sign painters of New Orleans 

Alex Woodward on the people who keep the art of handpainted advertising signs alive in New Orleans

click to enlarge Tom the Sign Man painted signs for Pop's 
House of Blues on Dryades Street. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Tom the Sign Man painted signs for Pop's House of Blues on Dryades Street.

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 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.


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