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.
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.”