Artist David Boatwright is restoring hand-painted advertisements on the storefronts of Charleston, South Carolina. When new owners bought the building on the corners of Spring and Coming streets in 2005, they removed the existing vinyl siding and revealed two original hand-painted signs, surprisingly well-preserved underneath the vinyl.
The city of Charleston had forbidden painting over the areas of the former signs like the rest of the building’s exterior had been painted over. Instead, two large empty square spaces sat where the advertisements had been. Boatwright had taken photos of the advertisements 13 years ago, before the paint had been burned off by the sun and washed away by the rain.
Taken in the era before smartphones, Boatwright’s photos are in color, but small. The two original signs advertised “Kreuger’s beer and ales” and “Ashley ice cream”, two offerings of the corner store that stood there over 50 years ago. Small corner stores like these were the neighborhood beacon, serving the diverse population of Greeks, Jewish, and African-Americans who live in the area.
“I just like it. We have so few of these graphic artifacts in Charleston,” says Boatwright of the old advertisements.
As the use of illustration software, giant printers, and vinyl cutting became widespread, sign painting as an occupation and an industry took a big hit. Thankfully, there is a growing cultural reinvestment in the value of manual work that is giving sign painting its comeback.
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, while some contemporary sign painters consider themselves artists, some prefer the title “mechanic” as its the term used by original sign painters and frames the job more as a service. Others recognize that sign painting is heavily tied into marketing and realize that they’re essentially creating a brand identity.
In Charleston, the owner of the building that Boatwright is restoring realized this marketing potential. While the advertisements are not for his specific business, they draw attention and stand out among contemporary signs. Grabbing the attention of passersby is important, as about half of all customers enter a business due to its signage.
Although the city of Charleston turned down Boatwright’s proposal to create new hand-painted signs that actually advertise for the business now on the street corner, they were very enthusiastic about his restoration project that will showcase the authentic history of Charleston.