Kern Your Enthusiasm (13)

By: Rob Walker
August 13, 2014

Photo by Rob Walker
Photo by Rob Walker

One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite (and least favorite) typefaces.


You recognize Savannah from movies or travel photography: antebellum architecture, moss-draped oaks, shady downtown squares. All true. But escape the horse-drawn carriage circuit and you’ll learn there’s more to the local aesthetic: gloriously dilapidated buildings, odd small businesses (barbecue joint X car wash, etc.), and, best of all, hand-painted signage.

Shortly after moving here, my wife and I became mildly obsessed with a particular sign-lettering style that recurred all around town. Gritty and elegant, bold strokes connected by delicate lines, it was the visual equivalent of a seductive but unplace-able accent. Was one person responsible for this style? Or was it a lettering vernacular that never crossed the Talmadge bridge?

I asked around — for a couple of years. Everybody knew the aesthetic; nobody had facts. I idly referenced my attraction to the style in the caption to a photo posted to Flicker in 2007, and to my amazement received a confident response: “Mr. Marcus Polite, an African American, did the freehand letter painting, 5 yrs ago.” I eventually had coffee with the guy who left that comment — a 60-ish Asian man chock-full of local lore I wasn’t sure I should believe. Over the years, however, I have concluded that on this subject (and probably others) he is correct.

Later I met the creator of the Hand-painted Signs of Savannah, Georgia Facebook page. But in general, genuine knowledge and appreciation of the hand-painted signage here seems rare even among locals. So it was another year or two before I belatedly discovered Savannah College of Art Design graduate Rebecca Boehm Carr’s thesis, “Straight By Eye,” evidently completed in 2005.

This focused on three local sign painters; one was Marcus Polite. But even here, he’s elusive. “He rides around on a bike and talks to small business owners, often-undercutting [other painters’] prices,” Boehm Carr writes, in one of just two Polite mentions.

Notably, the thesis’s chapter headings are set in a Polite-esque typeface made by another SCAD alum, Chris Risdon. (He’s made two: Sav Display, and SAV PT.) Risdon’s work is quite nice, considering the challenge: In real life, this lettering style varies from location to location, and it’s impossible to know whether they’re all made by Polite, or if some come from imitators. (The guy who answered my Flickr post told me Polite had died — yet I feel certain I’ve seen new instances made in his style since then.)

Although it says little about the man, Boehm Carr’s thesis notes that among local sign-painters, his work is “arguably the most prevalent in terms of numbers in the landscape.” Precisely. He ought to be a celebrated figure, for contributing brilliantly to Savannah’s visual charisma.

But the Polite mystery only adds to the appeal of his work. The effort required to get the lowdown, through a patchwork of informal sources on a near-ubiquitous feature of the local aesthetic strikes me as very Savannah. If you want see beyond the moss-draped oaks here, you have to try. This town is shady, in more ways than one.

Via the Facebook page "Hand-painted Signs of Savannah, Georgia"
Via the Facebook page “Hand-painted Signs of Savannah, Georgia”


2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.


2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.

2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins

2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker