Writing on the wall: Area artists keep disappearing craft of hand-painted signing alive
by Benjamin Nunnally
Special to The Star
Jan 19, 2014 | 1652 views |  0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ben Howell touches up a hand-painted sign at his shop on Gurnee Avenue in downtown Anniston. Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
Ben Howell touches up a hand-painted sign at his shop on Gurnee Avenue in downtown Anniston. Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
Walk into Howell’s Signs on Gurnee Street, and the first thing you notice probably won’t be the hundreds of signs adorning the wall, but the smell of fresh paint drying. Two big racks to the right of the door hold up real estate signs the size of dinner tables — works in progress. If you touch them, your hands will come away yellow — they’re that new.

The text on the signs exists only as dashed, black outlines, extolling the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and swimming-pool adjacent apartments available at a local property. Before the signs are finished, Ben Howell and his sole employee, Brian Henderson, will paint the letters in by hand, precise text with sharp edges. Anyone would be surprised to learn that a computer never entered into the process.

“The computer isn’t an answer to everything, but it’s a great tool,” said Howell. A moment later the 88 year old notes that the most high-tech device in his store is the fax machine. Running a store that’s been in his family since the 1920s, Howell does not feel obligated to learn his way around a computer. A paint brush will do.

But many area sign shops do rely on them, and the industrial-size printers connected to them, to create their clients’ advertisements. According to Howell, the call for hand-painted work isn’t what it used to be, given that the finished products are often indistinguishable. But some local businesses are resistant to the wave of the future, if only for personality’s sake.

“It’s eye-catching work,” said Fred Adkinson, owner of AAA Pawn on McClellan Boulevard in Anniston. “It’s the best work around that you can get.”

You may not know AAA Pawn by name, but at some point you’ve probably seen the unmistakable “Jesus Saves” message cheerfully centered above “We Buy Guns” on the side of its building. Painted just below is a fist with a wad of cash bursting out from the wall, breaking through from some otherworldly void to pay top dollar for firearms.

The ad, along with the building’s other signs and a 9/11 memorial painting, are from the brush of Weaver painter John Stephens. His work is all over the county, like the mural on the side of Brother’s Bar in Jacksonville, the Blu’s Bar logo in Saks and the artwork on the now-shuttered Angelheart Tattoos in south Anniston.

“Computers came along and pushed me into different venues,” said Stephens. The introduction of computer fabrication in the 1980s brought in new, efficient competition, so Stephens left traditional signing like Howell’s behind and got into painting walls, creating something more akin to murals.

Though most of his work is commissioned for commercial use, the designs have depth. Take the sign at Blu’s Bar, for instance. It looks like it was pressed onto the wall with a stamp the size of a truck, applied not to the blue walls of the building, but the brick beneath.

The 3-D effect, called “trompe l’oeil,” is all about making the work look like someone can not only reach out and touch it, but reach into it.

Stephens also tends to use swirling, script fonts that, alongside the vibrant colors and contrasting light and dark shades, make for an image that’s pretty hard to miss.

“This is a lost art, if you think about what it was like before computers,” said Stephens.

And it gives local shopkeepers the ability to stand out from their competition, as artists like Stephens become more rare.

“He’s a local secret,” said Adkinson with a laugh. “If he gets real popular he’ll be spread all over the place.”
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