Sign Language: Coney Island

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY JANETTE BECKMAN

I’ve been obsessed with hand-painted signage since art school, when I spent summers following the fairground carnivals around Britain. The hand-painted carousels, haunted ghost houses, bumper cars, cotton candy, and cheap prizes fascinated me, and I started to photograph them. Traveling the country chasing the renegade carnies had a certain ‘run away to the circus’ thrill. Coming to New York in the early ’80s, I knew one of my first destinations had to be Coney Island.

Coney Island is one of the last places you can find hand-drawn signs by those unheralded fine artists and sign painters here in New York City. When you exit the Coney Island Stillwell subway station, you are immediately overwhelmed by signs promising excitement, danger, thrills, and fun – signs that appeal to your emotions and taste buds. Look to the right, where primary-colored signs advertising candy apples, ice cream, cotton candy clams, fries, and hot dogs sway in the wind, and American flags create cravings for Nathan’s Hot Dogs with side orders of fries. Look to the left to see artist Marie Roberts’ beautiful paintings adorning the Coney Island USA building. Hers promise unheard-of excitement: The Fire Eater, The Human Blockhead (a gentleman about to hammer a nail into his nostril), ‘Snakeology Alive & Deadly’ (a lady wrapped in a huge snake) and ‘The Positively Shocking Electra.’

Roberts is the artist in residence for Coney Island USA. She’s also a professor of fine art at Farleigh Dickenson University. She grew up ‘carney.’ Her uncle Lester Roberts was the smooth “Talker”for the Dreamland Circus Sideshow that had its heyday in the 1920s. Uncle Lester’s friends were the sideshow “freaks” Roberts paints on the banners that adorn the historic landmark’s USA building. “I fell into it. I ran away from my family’s sideshow lore to be a painter,” she says. But in 1997 Dick Zigun, who started Coney Island USA, needed banners painted for the Surf Avenue building. So Marie painted 27 banners and never stopped. She views her art in a classical tradition. “In a funny way, I think I am painting in the tradition of Italian quattrocento painters like Giotto and Maso di Banco,” Roberts says.

Artists have long been attracted to Coney Island. ESPO, aka artist Stephen Powers says “Coney Island signage is “art and commerce coming together.” Powers’ love of the art of sign-writing inspired him to start a program with Creative Time called “The Dreamland Artist Club,” after seeing signs in Coney Island fading and being replaced with cheap vinyl iterations. He worked with artists and the local businesses and attractions to repaint the signs, murals, and rides. In 2015 he created an installation of paintings and signs “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull)” at the Brooklyn Museum honoring Coney Island’s rich history of sign painting. Powers says: “For us, the best signs are painted one letter at a time, without really any forethought. Just in the moment.

”The Famous Nathan’s Hot Dog logo and signage was designed and painted by an uncredited artist. What artist hand-painted the sign at Pete’s seafood stand: “Eat Clams make BABIES. Eat Oysters and Make TWINS”? Who painted the “BUMP YOUR ASS OFF” one for the bumper cars? Or the scary spooks at “Spook-A-Rama,” and the “Ghost House”even? Ever wonder who designed the type for the legendary “Cyclone,” and the “Wonder Wheel”? And how about the snarling painted faces of horses on the carousel? Whoever these unsung artists are, they created art that is for everyone. It is all “Fun Games Excitement & Thrills.”

*This article appeared in PATTERN Magazine vol. 12

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