Two words to start with. Sign painting and ghost signs.

Photograph courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Digital Collections

Sign Painting or what we call “The Craft of the Letterheads” is an ancient trade that dates back to 300 B.C. Or at least back to the moment we delineated it as the means to communicate what was being sold and why we should pause and step inside as a response to the art. Fast forward to the early 1900s where every store needed a quality sign painter or what is described as “everyday, working class people with a knack for color, design and mechanics.” Their work shaped the visual landscape of our city streets. The style was often specific to the culture of the place and dependent on the personality of the sign painter therefore creating a sense-of-place that today is a primary resource to the stories of its time. Albeit “art in public” both the public art and fine art worlds have rejected this talented, skilled class. Today we are left with faded works given the invention of both die-cut vinyl plotters and inkjet printers which killed the need for this classic craft. The old remnants of the hand-painted signs, those that barely exist to the naked eye that we are left with are referred to as ghost signs.

Photograph courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Digital Collections

Today, the building is located at 129 West Adams. According to a MetroJacksonville article from fall 2011, the building was constructed in 1924 as the Arnold Edwards Building and housed the Edwards Piano Company. During the 1950s, it was the Eastman Kodak Store. By the 1980s, it was Scottie Discount Drug Store. Lastly, before starting to sit as a vacant storefront it was Scottie Stores. Recently acquired by JWB Real Estate Capital as part of a $1.2 million deal.

Photograph courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Digital Collections

The ghost sign was once a hand-painted sign for a business on the next block called Leibo’s. The images showing the emboldened, original sign are dated 1971, documented by Norman Griffith.

NY printed matches advertising the same business prominent on the sign at 129 West Adams Street while the business was located at 217 West Adams Street.

When I taught undergrad art history classes on murals, street art, and graffiti in New York my work led me to learn to love this lost, rejected-art form. Through both studying and learning from the wall dogs, a midwestern group of classically trained sign painters, it became clear that sign painting and the former aesthetic are important to the history and culture of a place. I am thankful to the new public art at Vystar Alley that pays homage to this old craft and is an excellent design to compliment the visual landscape that is downtown Jax.

August 2022 image of completed mural by AR22

Article by Kady Yellow