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

Staff are evaluating two more light rail alternatives for the Everett Link extension. One would follow Interstate 5 north of 128th Street SW to the Everett Mall and back to the freeway. Another would go west of 128th Street SW to Highway 99 and north to Casino Road. (Sound Transit)
Snohomish County leaders reject light rail routes bypassing Paine Field

Those options weren’t what voters approved — and would be like “butchering” the plan, the Snohomish County executive said.

A Sound Transit train arrives at Westlake Station in downtown Seattle. (Sue Misao / Herald file) May 2019
Should light rail skip Paine Field and Boeing? We asked, you answered

More than 300 Herald readers responded to an online poll. Here are the results.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Highway 9 work could disrupt travel through Lake Stevens

Construction is set for roundabouts on South Lake Stevens Road and one at North Davies Road and Vernon Road.

Lynnwood City Council members, from left: Jim Smith, Shirley Sutton, Shannon Sessions, Josh Binda, George Hurst, Julieta Altamirano-Crosby, and Patrick Decker. (City of Lynnwood)
No penalty for Lynnwood council member’s ‘underinformed’ views on racism

The City Council didn’t censure Jim Smith after a report found he discriminated against a Black city employee.

All ears: Mukilteo couple provides surgery for kids born without ears

Dr. Prabhat and Trish Bhama are part of a HUGS volunteer team providing treatment for microtia in Guatemala.

Smoke from the Bolt Creek fire silhouettes a mountain ridge and trees just outside of Index on Sept. 12, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Humans caused Bolt Creek wildfire, authorities say

Specifics about what ignited the flames remained under investigation. Meanwhile, all evacuation orders have been lifted.

FILE - Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a news conference the vote to codify Roe v. Wade, in this May 5, 2022 file photo on Capitol Hill in Washington. Murray is one of the U.S. Senate's most powerful members and seeking a sixth term. She is being challenged by Tiffany Smiley, a Republican from Pasco, Wash. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Providence continues to face questions about hospital debt collection

The hospital group has pushed back against the notion that Providence “intentionally takes advantage of those who are vulnerable.”

Officers working in North Everett located and arrested the suspect from a June 20 shooting that left two dead and one injured in the 2000 block of Lexington. (Everett Police Department)
Everett triple shooting suspect tied to another homicide

A search warrant points to Shayne Baker, 26, as the suspect in the killing of Scott Pullen at a storage facility in Everett.

(Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest - US Forest Service)
U.S. 2 reopens east of Index as Bolt Creek wildfire moves north

The highway was blocked off earlier this week as the fire spread.

Most Read