For me, the hand-painted signs of Mexico are soulful expressions from the heart. They are unique and individual, unlike the vinyl computer-generated signs that have almost decimated the traditional sign painting businesses in other North American cultures.
Here on Isla Mujeres one of my favorite hand-painted creations was the sign for La Esperanza, a little gift store on Juárez that ceased operation long before we arrived on the island.
The whimsical black cat sat under a large shade tree patiently waiting beside the bright red door, hoping someone would let her inside. Bit by bit the painting was disappearing, flaking away.
Then last year a new furniture and decorating gallery opened in the same tiny space, necessitating a fresh paint job for the store front. The bright new sign is a unique take on the old painting.
More recently I noticed the amazing canvas that decorates the street-side entrance of the Hotel Las Palmas on Guerrero Avenue. It is a happy mix of peacocks, flamingos, palm trees and tropical flowers.
What a great way to sparkle up the exterior, and to fix the tropical experience in the mind of their guests. How can anyone resist taking a photo or two of that entrance?
During federal, state or municipal election campaigns local sign-painters find a bonanza of work for a few weeks, painting the colors, slogans and promises on a number of vertical surfaces. There is one long concrete wall on the western side of the island that is painted with large billboards for every political party.
Then shortly after the campaign has been won or lost the signs are covered over with a coat of white paint, waiting as a blank canvas for the next election.
Many of the local restaurants and businesses also have hand-painted creations advertising their wares: cerveza, margaritas, piña coladas, or in the case of a refaccionaría, containers of motor oil, vehicle shock absorbers, fan belts and batteries.
It doesn’t matter if you speak Spanish, English, French or Yiddish a painted image translates just fine in any language.
For the most part the signs are created by one or perhaps two painters working together, but when the administrators at the high school decided to refresh the sign across the street from our house they organized a work party.
At one point we counted 10 guys chatting, painting, clowning around and dancing to their iTunes. Either it was good planning and teamwork, or luck; the sign turned out just fine – straight letters, and nice inside-the-lines painting.
It may be a dying art in most of North America, but here in Mexico the incredible art of hand-painted signage gives businesses a quirky and memorable personality.
The writers are Canadians who have been full-time residents of Isla Mujeres for eight years. You can read their blog here.