Photo by Rūta Smith
For generations, the landscape of Charleston has been shaped by local mural and sign artists whose work is proudly on display across the city for all to see. This week, we checked in with just a few of the folks who are responsible for those scenes.
Whether you know it or not, if you’ve spent any time in Charleston, you’ve seen Gregg Pavone’s work. Over the past 10 years, Limelight, the custom sign operation Gregg runs with his wife Sara, has carved out quite a niche for itself.
The steady hand and the custom fabrication you know from murals, signs, and lights adorning Lewis Barbecue, Pacific Box & Crate, Verde, and more, you can expect to see even more of as Limelight expands into a new workshop off Spruill Avenue near Park Circle. As he takes over the 3,100-square foot shop, Pavone’s most excited about the new work his team will create in that space, and the jobs he has no idea how he’ll pull off.
“What’s fun about this job is that we’ll get a crazy idea from someone creative in town who says, ‘Can you do this?’ And we have a real habit, whether it be a good habit or a bad habit, of saying ‘Yea, sure we can do that,’ and then we figure out how to do it.”
That kind of trust and creative freedom, even within the confines of client specs and city rules, has produced some of Limelight’s best work. On the landmark Pacific Box and Crate neon sign, Pavone says he got the green light after mulling over proposals with the city officials, but was sent off with encouragement to give it one more hard look before moving forward.
“I would like you to try a little harder this weekend and present something final on Monday,” Pavone says city planners told him. “So it kind of gave us a lot of responsibility to come up with something that we thought was really special and unique.”
That particular project involved drawing up more than 50 different versions of the sign, Pavone says, but in the end, it was worth it. “It did turn out better. We scrapped the whole damn thing and started over. And it worked.”
Things don’t always work though, even on a project that you put a lot into. Like so much of the artistry by creative folks featured in this week’s issue, some jobs are lost to time or bottom lines. Projects that included splashy signage and custom paint, like The Americano in Mt. Pleasant and Pancito and Lefty downtown, have closed up shop. Pavone returned to 1011 King St. to paint Rodney Scott’s BBQ where his work for Chick’s Fry House lived originally. But even as things come and go, Pavone still draws energy from businesses putting their trust in his team.
“I love the confidence that people give you. Let’s face it, the sign thing can quickly become the last thing that you’re spending money on … But they gave us confidence by just saying, ‘Go do it.’ And we did it and we did it really well.” —Sam Spence
S E V E N
Four years ago, when Connor Lock was brainstorming concepts for his company, S E V E N, he didn’t want to set limits for himself or his work. Although his original forte is in graphic design, Lock didn’t want to be known as just an artist or just a designer. So he settled on describing himself as a visual craftsman, a term he felt encompassed a broader creative skill set.
“I like to work with my hands, and I like to do everything start to finish,” Lock says. “A visual craftsman is coming up with the visuals and the concept behind the design, and craftsman is we make, install, and create murals, which is the hands-on side.”
In addition to logo development, Lock has made the design and hand-painting of murals and signs a central part of his company’s creative offerings. The first mural he did is on the exterior of the Recovery Room Tavern to commemorate the bar’s status as one of the nation’s top sellers of Pabst Blue Ribbon 12 oz. beer cans.
“I sketched it out and had a great concept,” Lock says. The project’s execution was a mix of research and self-determination. “It was a lot of YouTube-ing [to learn the process], and I had to have confidence in myself to go out and do it,” he says.
These projects offer a different creative environment for Lock, one in which he feels most comfortable.
“I don’t like being in front of a computer or TV for very long,” he says. “It was a new avenue to challenge myself. I wanted to get my hands dirty and get up, get moving around. That’s what’s fun about doing the signage.”
“People aren’t used to seeing people hand-painting signs. It’s such a rarity nowadays in the world of the vinyl sticker. So when I’m painting, people come and say, ‘Wow, I never knew how this was done,'” Lock says. “I like talking with people and engaging.”
Lock recently completed a project with Kwei Fei, Chef David Schuttenberg’s new Sichuan restaurant next to the Pour House on James Island.
“[They] hired us to do all their brand development and the signage,” Lock says. “Everything painted on the building out front, the logos, the graphics, the menus, the stamps — everything in that restaurant has been designed by S E V E N. And there’s still other stuff being released, but that’s really exciting.”
For Lock, hand-painted murals and signage embody an authenticity that can’t be replicated by a printer or machine.
“It’s still crisp and clean-looking, but there are imperfections that show someone put work and time into this,” he says.
And the businesses that decide to showcase that aesthetic differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd.
“When people walk down the street and they see this well-painted design or graphics on the windows or wall, it draws people in,” Lock says. “It’s like, hey, this business owner has enough faith and confidence in their business that they’re willing to invest in this type of art and design work. When people see that, they perceive value.” —Emily Pietras
We don’t make it 100 feet down the road from James Anthony’s North Charleston home before he’s pointing out his work, a sign on the side of the local body shop. And the funeral home. And the carpet store. The seafood shop. A food truck. Take a look around you pretty much anywhere downtown, in West Ashley, or in North Charleston, and you’re probably within a few blocks of his work.
We last checked in with Anthony in 2013. Since then, the city around him has continued to change, but he has not. He continues to get calls every day, he says, from people looking for murals and signs — original works of art for their homes and businesses.
Anthony has been making his mark in Charleston for darn near 50 years. Growing up on Cooper Street, he says he’d head down to the docks on the weekends and sketch ships, crew, and cargo as they stopped to drop their hauls.
Today, his unmistakable freehand script is the logo for Dell’z. You know it from the sides of Charleston taxi cabs (a crime crackdown made it illegal to use stick-on letters at one point.) You’ve seen it in and outside Gilroy’s pizza on King Street. And pretty much everywhere else.
James knows he’s good at what he does, but stays humble. He’s grateful for restaurant owners like Arun Maneejan, who runs Tasty Thai downtown and similar restaurants in West Ashley and Summerville, who keep bringing him back to cover their inside walls with one-of-a-kind artwork.
Pointing to a 20-foot wall depicting a scene of cherry blossoms and a snow-capped mountain inside Blue Fin on Orleans Road (currently switching from sushi to hibachi), Anthony says it took him about four hours to paint. Around the restaurant, even the drop ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights are painted blue like the sky. He’s particularly proud of the bathrooms, which depict a bamboo forest and floral scenes.
At a time when businesses illuminate, decorate, and situate themselves to optimize for likes, Anthony has no website. No Instagram. When I tell him my duties at the paper once included web and social media, he says he has some ideas for how I can help him spread the word about his work — his music, not his painting … he’s multitalented, folks.
For artist David Boatwright, the rise in popularity of hand-painted murals and signage displayed at restaurants, retail shops, and other businesses is intertwined with a world that continues to become more digitalized.
“Those vinyl lettering, especially the kind you can put on windows, they’re perfect and very well done. But there’s something about a hand-painted sign. You try to make it as perfect as you can, but there’s a human hand in it. You’ll never get it perfect, but I think the ordinary person, a layperson, responds to that without even knowing it,” Boatwright says. “I think in general society sort of has come around to appreciating craftsmanship, whatever it is — sign painting or specialty furniture or whatever is handmade. It’s valued in a society that’s going in another direction.”
Boatwright created his first mural in Charleston about 15 years ago on the exterior of Hank’s Seafood Restaurant. That led to another project, one Boatwright says people still mention to him today: the “Grits are good for you” sign on the exterior of Hominy Grill.
Other prominent murals by Boatwright are located at the former Mira Winery building and GrowFood Carolina. He’s also designed and hand-painted signs for East Central Lofts, Freshfields Village on Kiawah Island, and PURE Theatre, among others. Recently, he painted a monkey on the exterior of Xiao Bao Biscuit on Rutledge Avenue.
“It really makes me feel a part of the town in two ways. One, it’s just there. People see it — so there’s that general public recognition,” he says. “But also during the general process of painting a sign, I often have a lot of interaction with people. And frequently, it’s an interesting conversation. That enhances the sense of relationship to my town, and I really feel fortunate with that.”
Through his numerous projects, Boatwright has at times struggled to stay within the parameters of city regulations regarding acceptable signage while also maintaining a sense of artistic integrity and freedom. While searching for that balance, he says he has grown as a painter.
“So the first obligation if someone is going to write you a check for artwork is that it works for them, but you have to go before a board of people with various backgrounds and various tastes, and a committee has to approve of it. And on top of that, there’s the client, the board, the city process. And I need to like it as well. So there are limitations in that kind of public art,” Boatwright says. “But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. It gives you some boundaries, and ideally you push up against those boundaries. In some cases, you maybe go over the boundary a little bit. I do think it’s a fine line between that and making something that’s bland or mediocre just because it’s controlled, so you need to push it as close to the boundary.”
Boatwright’s next projects will take him to Greenville and Ridgeland for work with Half-Moon Outfitters and Gretsch USA Drum Manufacturing, respectively. Those endeavors have been put on hold for some time, Boatwright says, but he’s confident both will come to fruition in the near future. —Emily Pietras
Alison Brynn Ross is nationally recognized for her wire taxidermy sculptures, but she takes on way more than bending and twisting metal alone.
“I’m one of those people that functions best with a dynamic group of projects,” she says. “You tend to get kind of burnt out focusing on just a single thing. I thrive on having variety.” And to say that her creative talents are varied is an understatement. She illustrates. She’s a graphic designer. She embroiders. And she creates large-scale murals and sign projects for small businesses. You’ll find them all over the Park Circle area. She created the precise lettering you’ll find at Orange Spot Coffee, Commonhouse Aleworks, and The Junction. She painted imaginative murals for Itinerant Literate Bookstop and Nippitaty Distillery. She’s drawn colorful chalk signage for Park Circle Creamery.
“I’m honored to be all over that area,” says Ross. “I really enjoy the process of being outside, working hard, getting dirty. It’s one of those things that I’ve been trying to focus more on, especially in the next year. I’m directing my business more toward signs and murals.”
Park Circle’s multitude of small businesses and its familial, laid-back vibe are perfect for Ross’ work. She gets what it’s like to have big ideas and a small start. “We all understand each other and want the best for each of us. I love to help them create the visual that helps them get noticed,” she says. Before paint touches the walls, she photographs the space and creates mock-ups for approval. “It always starts with a conversation to see what their goals are and to make sure I’m the best person to work for them,” says Ross. “Once the design is approved, there’s a few different methods to actually getting things up on the wall from using stencils to projectors to just winging it. Sometimes it’s a more freeform, malleable process.”
And when she needs advice, she turns to her network of creatives like Connor Lock who created the graphic design company, SEVEN, or Mollie Howey, who works in set design and knows how to maneuver various textured surfaces. “It’s been a lot of learning from established sign painters and people who are at the same level as I am,” she says. “We’re learning from each other and picking up tools and tips as we go.”
Ross studied graphic design at the Art Institute of Charleston and has been hand lettering and taking on freelance projects for years. She spent a year working with Ink Meets Paper, another small business in the Park Circle area. She also worked as a designer with a local magazine, but that wasn’t the right fit. It lacked the creative diversity she needs. “I’m not good at cubicle,” she says. “I appreciate being able to get outside and work in different and challenging environments that aren’t nailed to an office.” —Melissa Hayes
Douglas Panzone has spent the last 12 years creating vast, colorful, attention-grabbing murals on buildings and walls all over Charleston. He can work effectively with pop culture icons — you’ve seen his Willy Wonka and Samuel L. Jackson’s Pulp Fiction character, Jules — or fantastical animals, like dragons and tigers, or infinite geometric patterns, depending on what his clients want or what his own imagination conjures up.
His vivid creations are certainly striking, and it’s ironic that he makes his living putting them up on the walls of businesses, because he first fell in love with an art form that most people didn’t want on their walls.
“I was a graffiti artist when I was younger,” Panzone says. “I discovered that kind of work when I was in eighth grade and I loved it, even through high school and college. That whole world was like an underground thing. You wouldn’t know any of the artists who I loved, because there was no Instagram; you had to know about that world. I loved that culture and just started learning how to paint on a larger scale when I was 20 or 21.”
But mural-making remained a hobby instead of an occupation for Panzone, at least at first.
“I graduated college and became a carpenter because I had an art degree and there were no jobs in that field,” he says with a laugh. “I went to work for my friend’s company here in Charleston, but I was painting on the side, or for fun, like behind an abandoned building. But I got better and better, and more and more people came to hire me to do things, and I decided to pursue this. I quit my construction job, I was able to fall right into work. I didn’t have to go and advertise myself; I had a client list built up already.”
Panzone credits Charleston for being open-minded about a one-time graffiti artist evolving into a creator of dynamic murals.
“Charleston has been good to me,” he says. “Graffiti is not something that’s native to here as much as it has been in bigger cities, and I think that people still like to see something new and exciting as much as they like traditional things. It’s big; it’s bold. It has a little more edge. I’m not saying that it’s better than traditional work, but there are different styles for different folks. And there are options here.”
As for where his work fits in in the city’s arts scene, it’s not something that Panzone thinks about too much.
“I don’t know what my role would be,” he says. “I’m just kind of doing my thing. I feel like I provide a service, if you want something big, I can come knock it out. And I love all different styles from photorealism to letter-based stuff, geometric stuff. I just provide a service and there’s a market for it here that’s growing. I feel like that means that Charleston’s growing and getting more progressive.” —Vincent Harris
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