Professional sign painter Mack Benek puts the finishing touches on the windows of an Edmonds building undergoing a transformation. The owner wanted the building to look good while it was empty. Benek, 72, has hand-lettered many signs on windows and businesses in Edmonds and Seattle. (Bob Sears)

Professional sign painter Mack Benek puts the finishing touches on the windows of an Edmonds building undergoing a transformation. The owner wanted the building to look good while it was empty. Benek, 72, has hand-lettered many signs on windows and businesses in Edmonds and Seattle. (Bob Sears)

Lost art or just old school? A sign-painting star in Edmonds

Whether it’s boat names or frolicking pancakes, artist Mack Benek has done it all in 50 years.

It’s a realm where frothy beer mugs are the size of people and pancakes frolic in a pool.

Where every brush stroke is crafted by the imagination behind the hand that paints it.

What’s up with that?

Mack Benek is a commercial sign painter. At 72, he has lived in Edmonds for 33 years.

For 50 years, he has painted signs for businesses, products and directions. His art is on boats, cars, doors, windows and sandwich boards around Puget Sound.

“I try to put a little life into it,” Benek said.

Mack Benek’s sign he created for Luna Park Cafe in West Seattle. (Bob Sears photo)

Mack Benek’s sign he created for Luna Park Cafe in West Seattle. (Bob Sears photo)

It goes beyond pancakes in sunglasses. “Sorry! This section currently closed” has a cartoon guy skidding in his tracks, with his hat falling off. “Please no smoking anything” shows a man having an unpleasant encounter with a cigar.

The ornate gold letters on the side of the city’s parade fire truck? Benek did that.

The signs appear as if digitally designed. Letters perfectly formed, characters artfully animated.

You know, like only a computer can do.

Benek does it by hand — and mouth.

“I have a bad habit,” Benek said. “Every time, before I make a stroke I position the brush handle in my mouth.”

“You know how much paint I’ve ingested over the years?”

Gallons, he said. Not to mention all he has splattered on his clothes.

The paint isn’t as good these days, he said.

“There was a standard paint called 1 shot. It covered nicely, it was really one shot. All because it had lead it in. They took the lead out.”

It’s still called 1 shot, but it’s unleaded.

“Now it’s two shots,” he said, “if you’re lucky.”

Sign painters were lowly craftsmen when he entered the trade.

“A sign painter was more of an obstacle, somebody who gets in the way, not necessarily a popular person. You’re interfering with the flow of whatever is going on. If you’re doing a door, somebody has to wait,” he said.

“I don’t know how many times I’d call somebody, and they wouldn’t say, ‘Mack’s on the phone.’ They’d say, ‘It’s the sign painter.’ Just the sign painter.”

Not any more.

“Now, you’re like a rock star. People take your picture. Especially kids, they haven’t seen anything like it.”

He often had to pause for photos during a recent project painting a seascape to dress up the windows of an empty building being renovated at Main Street and Sixth Avenue in Edmonds.

Benek appeared in the 2013 documentary “Sign Painter” about the dwindling number of independent artists who still make a living that way. He didn’t want the crew to see the messy corner of his garage where he works, so he showed them signs in Seattle, such as the logo and many other signs at Luna Park Cafe. “They talked to me for well over two hours. Most of it wound up on the cutting room floor,” he said.

His art caught the attention four years ago of Edmonds resident Bob Sears, a retired art director at a major Chicago ad agency responsible for the Marlboro Man and Virginia “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” Slims.

“Mack was doing a window painting at the Pancake Haus for Christmas. There he was, and he had his paints on the table and the brushes and it was all splattered,” Sears said. “He looked like a pretty interesting character so I struck up a conversation.”

He’s been his friend and official photographer since.

Benek started drawing at a young age. “I had trouble sitting up. I was weaker in my upper body and legs. I couldn’t run fast. I couldn’t do sports, so I concentrated on art,” he said.

His hero as a kid growing up in Olympia was by Bob Hale, known as Seattle’s “cartooning weatherman” on King 5 TV in the 1950s.

“I used to stay up to see the 11 o’clock news so I could see his weather forecast. He would do these cartoons to illustrate the weather,” Benek said. “Some people say they see a trace of his style in what I do.”

He wanted to be a portrait artist, but not a starving one. “So I learned sign painting,” he said, “and then computers came out.”

He apprenticed with sign painter John Hannukaine in Olympia.

“John has a national reputation. He has a line of brushes named after him,” Benek said. “He taught me the ropes of sign painting. That’s basically how people learn sign painting is to apprentice themselves.”

A staple in his younger days was doing boat names back when most were hand-lettered. At times this meant hanging almost upside-down if the boat was in water. On land came adventures as well.

“Once there were a couple boats being sent up to Alaska and there was a cold snap,” he said. “I had to chip the ice off the boat. I was freezing and I had this girlfriend and she stood behind me to keep me warm with her body heat while I was trying to letter the boat.”

That was before he met his wife, Janet, when they were both students in a nude drawing class in Seattle.

Unlike with other forms of art, much of his work doesn’t bear his name. A lot of it is temporary. Sandwich boards are painted over. Art on windows gets erased.

“I put it up,” he said, “but I don’t take it off.”

Andrea Brown:; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Dominic Wilson looks at his mother while she addresses the court during his sentencing at the Snohomish County Courthouse on Wednesday, March 15, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Grief remains after sentencing of Marysville teen’s killers

Dominic Wilson must serve 17½ years in prison, while his accomplice Morzae Roberts was given a sentence of four years.

The Washington State University Everett campus on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
WSU ends search to buy land for future branch campus in Everett

The university had $10M to spend. It tried for four years but couldn’t close deals with Everett’s housing authority or the city.

Former Opus Bank/Cascade Bank building in downtown Everett on Thursday, March 16, 2023 in Everett, Washington. It is proposed as the new home of Economic Alliance Snohomish County. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Economic Alliance asks Everett for $300K to move downtown

The countywide chamber of commerce and economic development organization also would reform the Everett chamber.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Mountlake Terrace leaders weighing federal ARPA fund options

Bathrooms, body cameras, generators, radios, roadwork, roof replacement, sidewalks, trails and more loom for the $4.5 million.

Vehicles on Soper Hill Road wait in line to make unprotected left turns onto Highway 9 northbound and southbound during the evening commute Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lake Stevens development prompts Highway 9 signal change soon

Turning left from Soper Hill Road can be a long wait now. Flashing yellow turn signals could help with more traffic.

Everett Public Schools chief information officer Brian Beckley, left, and state coordinator for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Ian Moore, right, pose for a photo in the server room at the Everett Public Schools Community Resource Center in Everett, Washington on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Schools are ‘target rich’ for cyberattacks, fed agency helps fight back

A Cascade High School grad is heading up the effort in Washington. This week, he checked in with Everett school leaders.

Defense attorney Natalie Tarantino gives her opening statement in the trial of Richard Rotter at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett, Washington on Monday, March 20, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Police give emotional testimony at Rotter trial

On the second day of trial in the slaying of Everett officer Dan Rocha, witnesses described a hectic scene after the shooting.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Monroe in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
‘He still lives on through others’: Teen charged in fatal Monroe crash

The crash north of Monroe left Szander Pouv, 20, dead. An 18-year-old faces vehicular homicide charges.

The Walmart Store on 11400 Highway 99 on March 21, 2023 in in Everett, Washington. The retail giant will close the store on April 21, 2023. (Janice Podsada / The Herald)
Walmart announces Everett store on Highway 99 will close on April 21

The Arkansas-based retail giant said the 20-year-old Walmart location was “underperforming financially.”

Most Read