Take a walk downtown and keep your eyes on the storefronts. Most of the newer shops and restaurants boast modern vinyl signs, but every now and then you'll spot a lovingly hand-lettered sign that reflects the neighborhood's history. The thick italic script marks businesses like King Street Station, Juanita Greenberg's, Dell'z Deli, and Honest John's Record Shop, setting them apart with a little bit of imperfect charm.
Created by a small and informal guild of specialty artists, these signs represent an art form that's slowly fading away as its practitioners settle into retirement. Business was better for them years ago when hand-painted signs dominated the streetscape, but these days they're in the minority — and they're becoming increasingly rare. Most modern businesses opt for cheaper and easier vinyl lettering and digital printing, but there are still a few painters who work to keep the old methods alive. And they hope to pass their skills on to a new generation when they finally do hang up their paintbrushes.
When Charles Desaussure was a kid growing up on President Street in the 1960s, he would climb the fence in his backyard to spy on the sign painter next door. Watching his neighbor work inspired a lifelong love of art in Desaussure, and after he finished a stint in the Air Force, he decided to pursue painting full time. He was 30 years old when he got his big break by helping a fellow painter in need.
"He was intoxicated and his work was halfway done," Desaussure remembers. "I told him I was an artist, and he asked me, 'Do you think you can finish my job for me?' I said sure, and I did, and he gave me 40 bucks. That was my first experience, I would say, as a professional sign painter."
Although he quickly developed his own style of painting, Desaussure credits the owner of a now-defunct sign company for teaching him how to paint letters properly. "Me being a curious artist, I would go to him and ask him for work, and he would put me off and put me off," he says. "One day he gave me a commission job and I went on that job, and since then he was giving me work on the side." Desaussure soon found himself painting signs daily, walking from his house on Congress Street down to the City Market for many of the jobs.
It was the 1980s, and hand-lettered signs were still highly sought-after in Charleston. "Everything that was done was either gold leafing or hand lettered," he says. "It was a wide open market with just a few of us that were able to paint hand-lettered.
"The '80s were like super times for a sign painter, basically the era where lettered signs were at their peak," he adds. "You could see the in-rush of the [future] with all that magnetic stuff, you know the stick-ons, you could see that coming in. It wasn't a factor because the average sign painter knew that that kind of stuff was only for little amateur stores. A Croghan's Jewel Box would never put that on their window. So you were secure knowing that, but now everybody uses it. It is taking over the market and has swallowed up the lettered man, except for those who have exclusive work."
As more people started seeking cheaper and faster methods, Desaussure found the work drying up. "An established sign painter still goes because he has clients that are loyal. I still have clients today that would hire me on, because they just like the work that we do. So there is that loyal group, but then the masses have left us dry. It went all corporate, you know." While many of Desaussure's paintings have been covered up over the years, you can still see his work at Jestine's Kitchen, Reeve's Shoe Repair, Martha Lou's, Alluette's, and a number of other Lowcountry businesses.
Desaussure has filled his spare time working on more traditional artwork on canvas, most recently a series of old jazz scenes from the juke joint days. But he still does sign work every now and then, and he approaches it with the same artful pride. "When I go out to paint a sign, I'm not going out to just paint a sign," he says. "I am going out to put something out there that is going to be unique in its essence. This is going to be something that people are going to admire, not just read or find directions by. It is going to be something with the fancy curves or the old outlines or the particular font that I would use. It would be expressive in a way that it matches the business ... I wanted to do something that was extraordinary, and also please myself by doing work that makes me happy. I love doing things that everybody loves, but I want to be satisfied too."
He hopes that people still appreciate his craft and recognize the thought that goes into it. As fewer people do it, it becomes more valuable. "Twenty years from today, the letter man would be almost like a Rolls Royce out there — someone that is hard to find, unique, and has a skill that is rare," he says. "All the businesses that I did signs for are gone, basically. That is the sad part about it."
When we met with James Anthony, he was covered head-to-toe in paint splatters. He smelled like turpentine, and he carried with him a photo album bursting with pictures of the work he's done over the years: murals at Sticky Fingers, Charleston Crab House, and A.W. Shuck's. Lettering at Wild Wing Cafe and Hyman's. And the hard-to-miss tidal wave that still dominates the corner of Spring and St. Philip, which he painted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo.
Anthony's company is called Artistic Attitudes, and he promotes his services with a hand-lettered flyer. He started working in Atlanta in the 1980s after attending the Atlanta College of Art, doing billboards and other work for companies like Coca-Cola and American Graphics. When he decided to return to his hometown of Charleston in 2001, he wanted to make a mark on the city.
"When I came here, there wasn't too much going on," Anthony says. "It was suffocating to me. When I left home in '74, Charleston was completely different." The country was still recovering from 9/11, and local businesses hired Anthony to paint American flags on their windows in a show of patriotism. "From that point I came here to help my hometown be transformed," he says.
And he's still going strong. After a few minutes of chatting, his Blackberry buzzes and he's off to the next project.
In the male-dominated sign painting field, Jequetta Devine is a minority. The daughter of Julian F. Devine, Charleston's first black city councilman, Devine studied graphics and interior design in Miami. "At the trade school, we were doing signs and all, and I kind of liked the graphics. I had people coming up and asking me, can you do this sign or do this sign, and I started sign painting," she says. "I wound up moving back from Miami in '85, and that's when I started painting here in Charleston.
"I've done big companies that were on Meeting Street that I had to use a scaffold to paint the sign that's no longer there," she adds. "I have done many restaurants and beauty salons all the way from downtown Charleston to North Charleston, but they aren't there because they didn't stay in business that long ... I'm 54 years old and the town has changed, and there are a lot of signs that I've done that are no longer up." She's suffered four strokes since 2007, so she only does a few projects every now and then.
But she hopes the art of sign painting isn't forgotten. "It's really the way we show our gift that God has given us," she says. "I've got training with the technology ... but it's been a dying craft because more people want vinyl letters more than hand-painted. It's beautiful because it shows more artistic flair."
Although Devine doesn't get around as easily as she once did, she wants to pass her skills on to the next generation. "I've been trying to find a way we can incorporate it into the school system," she says. "I would [like to] try to find a school system to try to teach those children that are interested in art or really interested in sign painting to keep the history going on, just like the blacksmiths, you know. Keep passing it on. You want to pass it on."