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Remembering the Artist Behind New Orleans’ Hand-Lettered Signs

Lester Carey contributed to the unique feel of the city's streets.

(Photo by Anthony DelRosario)

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Outside of a residential building on North Miro Street in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, there is a thin, white pole about six feet high. At the top of the pole is the frame for a two-part sign; the upper piece is completely missing, but the bottom remains. Hand painted in a muted blue, a mix of block lettering and script spell out simply: “Over 42-Years Experience.”

Outlasting any identifying information about the business, and it would appear, the business itself, this is the work of Lester Carey.

One of a handful of New Orleans’ hand-painted sign makers, Carey’s work appears on the sides of corner stores, bars, auto repair shops, funeral homes, barbershops and churches across the city. His vernacular style is at once distinctive and anonymous — an aesthetic most locals would recognize, but take for granted, and be unlikely to attribute to an individual artist, let alone Carey. Carey died earlier this month at the age of 64. He struggled with homelessness and drinking.

Despite his citywide presence, Lester Carey was a neighborhood man. He was known well in New Orleans’ Central City area, where he spent his days posted up on corners with friends and walking the streets with his shopping cart full of art supplies. He could usually be found hanging with his buggy on Felicity street, out front of a tire shop that boasted many of his own signs, advertising the shop’s business hours and instructing customers not to block the driveway.

Hand painted signs are prevalent throughout New Orleans as a cheap and lasting way for businesses to advertise. But beyond the practical considerations of finances and durability, most shop owners I talked to said, it’s just what they’ve always done. Carey would make regular rounds, visiting spots where his work was showing wear to make cosmetic updates, or offering to paint new menus on the sides of corner stores. For $10 or $15 bucks a pop, no one was going to tell him no, even in an age of cheap printed and digital signage.

Wilbert Chambliss Jr., a barber whose shop sits on Felicity Street across from the tire shop, said Carey would come by every six months or so to touch up his window display, originally commissioned by Chambliss’ father in 2000. The shop and the sign made it through Hurricane Katrina without much damage. Chambliss says he recognizes hand painting as something of a dying art.

“In this day and time, if this (shop) was just being started up, I doubt we’d have a window like that,” he concedes. But he says, he never thought about getting a vinyl or light-up sign. He prefers a custom design, like Carey’s. “If you walk around the neighborhood, each and everyone one of his signs are unique and different. That’s the way he did it; he did it to please the customer.”

One such customer is Billy Kattoum, who runs the Magnolia Market, just blocks from the barber shop.

Kattoum has been in charge there for 20 years, and says his predecessor worked with Carey before him. Carey used to paint the weekly meat board specials on the side of the market, updating the prices every time they would change on specialty items like turkey necks and pig feet. Kattoum said he didn’t think much of it; Lester always came around looking for work, and he gave it to him. “It was never about the money for him,” Kattoum said. “He was just living day by day.”

Not everyone took Carey’s signature style at face value. Anthony DelRosario is a librarian at Tulane University. After Katrina hit, he switched up his route to work, and found himself biking through Central City. He appreciated the hand-painting on the sides of corner stores and bars, and began to notice a consistent and idiosyncratic style among much of the signage: a playful yet commanding blend of script and block lettering, sometimes with a spirited curved word, unevenly sized fonts and sometimes a poor use of available space. The signs were often accompanied by images of food: cartoonish hamburgers or po’boys whose fillings were represented as triangles. DelRosario began taking photos to document the signs, many of which were on abandoned stores he feared could be demolished.

“The city seemed like it was going to change quite a bit post Katrina,” DelRosario remembers, “so it seemed like it was important to document what made New Orleans, New Orleans.”

Gallery: Lester Carey Lettering

After taking photographs for some time, DelRosario wanted to find the artist behind the work. One image, painted on an old wall of one of public housing complexes that would eventually be demolished and redeveloped, included a signature. And so began DelRosario’s quest for Lester Carey.

Once he tracked him down (on Felicity Street in Central City), DelRosario spent the next nine years supporting Carey and working to bring him the recognition he felt he deserved. He took hundreds of photos of Carey’s work and created extensive social media accounts to document it. Carey got his degree in commercial art at Delgado Community college, and Delrosario describes Carey’s style as “naive commercial art,” or a sort of commercial folk art.

“It’s maybe a little laissez-faire,” DelRosario said of Carey’s style. “The lettering’s not perfect.”

In a city that is constantly seeking ephemera and traditions, DelRosario had picked out an aesthetic unique to New Orleans that it seems even a city so self-aware had failed to notice. DelRosario started making pins and shirts with Lester’s designs on them and selling them online, under the name Nola ‘Nacular, with proceeds going back to Carey. Soon, Jac Currie, of clothing company Defend New Orleans, took notice. Defend New Orleans uses iconic symbols and phrases from the Crescent City to create a city brand appreciated by locals and tourists alike, and Currie partnered with DelRosario to make a t-shirt displaying Carey’s signature script and block blend. Currie, who at the time also owned neighborhood haunt and late night dance bar, The Saint, recognized Carey’s work as both innovative and essentially New Orleanian. He even commissioned Carey to paint a sign on the exterior wall of the bar.

I’ve lived walking distance from the “Over 42-years Experience” sign on Miro Street for almost seven years, and I’ve pondered it often. Last year, I noticed the sign had gotten a fresh paint job. Whoever felt it was important to give the sign a facelift wasn’t as concerned about illuminating the subject of its pride or updating its timetable. Today, seven years later, it reads the same.

In some ways, the tradition of hand painted signs like this one could be characterized the same way one might describe the entire New Orleans ethos: It might not be the most practical solution, but we’ve always done it this way; it is unlike anything else, and it’s beautiful.​

Lester Carey did not have life insurance. Anthony DelRosario created a gofundme page to assist Carey’s sisters with the funeral costs. Any funds raised over the goal will go towards establishing an arts scholarship in Carey’s name.

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Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.

Tags: arts and culturenew orleans

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