Yang and yin. It’s as important to have not-lettered space as it is to have letters.

I consider myself fortunate to have had a sign making career. I feel particularly fortunate in that I learned the art of hand lettering, and how to make signs, before computers invaded the trade. When I was learning how to letter, computers were but a rumor. Today, nine-nine percent of the sign shops in this country produce most, if not all, of their work with computers and computer-controlled tools. I refuse to go that route. For me, the new system removes the simplicity and the soul from the work.

You don’t see this used much nowadays, but it’s as carefully thought out as any typeface. The old sign painters could reproduce this, and many other alphabets, without using visual references.

One of my mentors at sign school had learned his trade during the golden years of American sign painting, which were the first twenty-five years of the 20th century. Thank you, Mr. C. The skills and techniques I acquired from him over thirty years ago would have been familiar to any sign maker from the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century, or even earlier.

Scroll work example from an old International Correspondence School text. Those old ICS books contain an incredible amount of information.

Sign making is not as old as the “First Profession”, but surely the sign makers came hard at the heels of the Firsters, for their skills became desired as soon as the Firsters realized they could turn more tricks if they hung out a shingle.

OK, OK, the shingle makers came before the sign makers. But not by much.

Pete Ortiz was the primary Martha’s Vineyard sign maker during the ‘fifties, ‘sixties,’seventies, and even the ‘eighties. He lettered and silkscreened thousands and thousands of jobs in the course of his career.

Pete could have lettered this vehicle. His favorite script was very similar.

The  truest successor to Pete was Maynard Silva, whose stellar careers as sign painter and as blues musician were cut short, far too soon, by cancer. The last time I saw Maynard was on the ferry, when we met by chance, one day when we were each crossing over to Woods Hole. The last thing Maynard said to me was, “Don’t ever stop making music.”

Dear reader, don’t you stop, either.

Petronio Ortiz was a good man. He had a really, really big Latin heart. To be in his presence made a person feel warm. He was probably the person most responsible for Maynard’s decision to be a sign maker. His influence came from a random act of kindness. Pete worked at Brickman’s clothing store for years, and the Silva family came in to buy a yellow raincoat for little Mikey. Mike was Maynard’s handle when he was a little kid.

Mikey was feeling shy and awkward in the store, and Pete picked up on the discomfort. He told the boy and his family to wait a minute, took the raincoat, and disappeared with it. Soon afterwards, he returned with the garment, now handlettered with Mike’s name on the front of it. Maynard was thrilled, and never forgot that act of kindness. Acts of kindness can have lasting effects.

Maynard subsequently apprenticed to Pete, in his teen years. One day they were lettering Harry Athearn’s mail truck. Each one of them took a side to paint, and when they were done, although the doors said the same thing, the sizes and details of the roman letters they had used were very different. Pete shrugged the disparity off, with one of the great truths of sign painting. “You can only see one side of a truck at a time….”

When you’re lettering a truck, layout can be complicated by vehicle configuration and trim location. The presence of handles and hardware imposes obstacles.

Once, Pete lettered a big truck owned by an Oak Bluffs family-owned grocery store. The back of the box had doors that divided in the middle, and that division point had a pair of vertical bars for securely locking the doors. That division created a no-mans-land in the center, where letters could not be placed.

For years afterwards, that truck carried the title of this essay.

RELI                                                               ABLE

SELFS                                                            ERVICE

MAR                                                               KETINC.


  1. Love this. Miss Maynard a lot. He told me about RELI SELFS MAR once when we were standing in line at Reliable. I missed the part about you being the co-conspirator.

  2. While I was not a career sign maker, I have made my small share of signs as a freelance calligrapher and graphic artist. Similarly to the author, I too was trained in these arts before the days when computers overtook many such undertakings. Sadly, the use of “brained” machines has not resulted in the decrease of errors in spelling and punctuation. Rather, I have noticed perhaps an increase, as any entrepreneur may now hang her own, self-made shingle, thus becoming a sign maker. Despite most computer program’s built-in spelling correction functions, it appears the Average Josephine neglects to utilize it before clicking “print.” The author of this comment finds herself pining for the good old days of hand-painted signs and correct spelling, and thanks the blogger for keeping storytelling alive and well on Martha’s Vineyard island and beyond.

  3. Stories are so important. They are one of the binding agents that help a community to be a community, and not some random collection of bipeds. “Remember when….???….” is a part of many an Island conversation. You cannot reliably have these conversations if you move, as the census bureau reports, 11.7 times in your life. One out of six people moves each year. As a country, I think we’re moving less, but there are still many places where everyone is a newcomer. Go to Florida, and try to find someone who was born there, grew up there, and lives there still. You’ve got to stay put to have a community life.

  4. Pete was a really good man. He was my Godfather. I love you, uncle Petronio Ortiz.

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