Trio works to revitalize advertising signs on buildings

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 2, 2012

SALISBURY — “Ghost signs” are a good name for them.
With time, they’ve faded into walls and become apparitions of the products or businesses they once advertised.
Salisbury has at least 22 of these ghosts clinging to downtown buildings waiting to dissolve completely from memory or be revived.
Here’s where three young friends come in.
Like many of us, Michael Alexander, Justin Dionne and Nassar Farid Mufdi Ruiz have always noticed these old advertisements on the brick walls and thought how great it would be to restore each one of them.
Except that now they are trying to make it happen.
Start the ball rolling
Last summer, the trio were hanging out at the Salty Caper on South Lee Street when they started talking about the ghost signs they could see just from the restaurant.
By October, Alexander and Mufdi had taken photographs and inventoried all the ghost signs they could find in the downtown while Dionne lined up a presentation to the Public Art Committee.
The committee, an offshoot of the Community Appearance Commission, had recognized since its founding the potential behind ghost sign restorations.
But Dionne says he sensed some skepticism among members as to how far they thought the three guys could run with the project.
He is a Salisbury Civitan member with Lynn Raker, a senior planner with the city, who told him the idea to bring life back to the ghost signs seemed to surface every couple of years.
Raker became impressed with the guys’ resolve. They had done the inventory, interviewed artists/painters, received cost quotes and completed research.
They also laid out plans for the first two ghost sign restorations, obtained a financial gift from Coca-Cola Bottling in Charlotte and received a facade grant and the necessary approvals from city boards.
“We just had to figure how to make it happen,” Dionne says.
Last week, veteran sign artist Andy Thompson of Charlotte began painting an old Coca-Cola advertisement on the back wall of Cooper’s restaurant. He expects to finish this week.
Thompson also will be repainting the Coke advertisement on the north side of the Meroney Theater, visible from South Main Street.
Because he’ll be using a bucket truck and hanging somewhat over the sidewalk on South Main, Thompson intends to work on that ghost sign only on Sundays.
Raising funds
Alexander, Dionne and Mufdi negotiated a price of $7,600 for the two signs. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated contributed $4,000, and the project also received a $3,000 facade grant from the city’s Community Appearance Commission.
They will be raising the rest of the funds. Tax-deductible donations can be made through Downtown Salisbury Inc., which has set up a ghost signs account.
“We cannot emphasize that enough,” Alexander says.
The friends hope these first two signs are a catalyst for more.
“We’re not the experts, just the executers,” says Dionne, marketing director for Piedmont Players Theatre.
The men see their collaboration on the ghost sign restorations as a way for them to make a difference in Salisbury.
Alexander is 28; Dionne, 27; and Mufdi, 26.
Involved in community
They hear a lot of times that young people aren’t involved in the community. It’s not from a lack of interest, Mufdi says, but it could be from a lack of direction and guidance.
Mufdi relocated to Salisbury from Miami more than two years ago, and he built from scratch a Sunshine Bouquet Co. production facility which supplies cut flowers to Food Lion.
He also looked for ways to become involved in Salisbury and has recently been appointed to the Community Appearance Commission. Mufdi hopes, for example, that a ghost sign restoration committee can be formed to provide, at the least, a mechanism for regular upkeep of restored signs.
The men have set up a Facebook page, “Salisbury NC Ghost Sign Restoration Project,” which includes several photos of the signs to be restored in the future.
The daddy of all the ghost signs might be the Wrigley’s gum advertisement high on the back of the Meroney Theater building.
“That would be a great one,” Raker agrees.
Mufdi estimates that a restoration of the Wrigley sign might run between $20,000 and $30,000.
Painting new signs
The two Coca-Cola ghost signs aren’t exactly restorations in the purest sense of the word. Thompson is, in effect, painting new signs which will be exactly like the old ones.
In recent years, artist Earle Kluttz Thompson had restored a couple of the ghost signs in Salisbury by painting in a patina, so they wouldn’t look spanking new.
But the Public Art Committee agreed with the notion of painting the signs fresh, because that’s what Coca-Cola would have done in years past to update its advertisements.
“It will ‘patina’ with age,” Raker says, “and that is the way this particular artist paints his signs.”
Thompson, 71, has been a sign painter since 1958, and many of those years he worked exclusively for Coca-Cola in Charlotte.
Over the past 20 years, he has been repainting these kinds of old advertising signs in small towns just like Salisbury, he says.
As Charlotte tore down its old buildings for new, Thompson laments, it lost all of its signs, except one huge Coca-Cola advertisement that he repainted. It won an award for the most unique sign in Charlotte three years running, Thompson says.
The sign behind Cooper’s is interesting in that the slogan, “It’s the real thing,” originated in the 1960s, but the man with the mustache holding a Coke bottle goes as far back as the late 1940s and 1950s.
Thompson knows this because he has a treasured Coke advertising book, “Designs for Painted Walls and Buildings,” which he used in his sign painting days with the company.
It’s an invaluable reference source.
The man with the mustache was known as “The Clark Gable” figure.
Thompson also kept and creates his own pounce patterns, perforated with holes, which allow him to use chalk and stencil in the design he will be painting.
The advertisements on the sides of downtown buildings were the billboards of their day. Owners of the properties often rented the space to advertisers such as Coke.
Thompson figures he has painted thousands of signs over his career, and he appreciates the nostalgic sentiment that’s bringing some of the ghost signs back to life.
Alexander, Dionne and Mufdi try to imagine Salisbury with all of its ghost signs restored. If that ever happened, Dionne says, the signs could even become a tourist attraction.
Thompson smiles at the young men’s enthusiasm and complains that all the delays from people coming by and talking to him will raise the price.
Then he’s back on a ladder and painting.
“I just enjoy doing it,” he says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or