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Artisans of Michigan: Motown Sign Company

If you spend much time in Detroit at all, you’ve likely seen this guy’s work.

Jordan Zielke is a sign painter with Motown Sign Company. But he didn’t start out doing that. He went to school for fine art. He left that behind and hasn’t looked back.

“I feel great about it,” he said, laughing.

Zielke said he had a hard time finding meaning and purpose in fine art. But, in commercial art and sign painting in particular, the purpose is clear and the rules are definite.

“It’s meant to convey and idea or an image. And, with lettering and signs there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way to do it. I felt with art in some regards there is no wrong way,” he explained.

Zielke also likes the variety of the work. Some of it’s mundane. Some of it is spectacular.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Zielke worked on this mural in Detroit. The design is by Detroit artist Charles McGee.

“One day you’re lying on your back lettering ‘NO PARKING’ on a roll-up garage door. Another day you’re 14 stories in the air painting a mural that’s 200 feet tall,” he said.

That mural is on the 28Grand building in Detroit’s Capitol Park. It was designed by Detroit artist Charles McGee. (See more on this here.)

Zielke says favorite jobs are wall signs. There’s a big one that a lot of people drive past each day.

“We did a job for Carhartt. They opened a flagship store in Midtown Detroit that faces I-94,” he said. He also made the point that he just painted it. The design work came from a couple of “awesome guys” at the College for Creative Studies.

When I talked to him, he was at the Foundation Hotel's restaurant The Apparatus Room in the old Detroit Fire Department headquarters. He was painting a window and preparing it for copper leaf. It’s like the more common gold leaf. Basically he applies thin leaves of gold (or in this case copper) to a clear adhesive that he’s painted in the shape of a letter.

“Gold leaf window job was very common in the earlier part of the 20th century. You see it a lot on transom addresses on buildings downtown,” Zielke said. Having a gold-leafed window was a prestigious statement that indicated the business was high quality. (You can see an example in the slide show above.)

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Zielke is applying copper leaf to an adhesive he's painted within the black outline on the window. He'll remove the excess. See what it looks like from the other side in the slide show above.

Sign painters draw spectators. People like watching. Some like kidding around, shouting out things like, “You missed a spot!”

“I usually get this one from a passing car: ‘You spelled it wrong!’”

He says other people stop and talk about a grandparent who painted signs or an uncle who had a shop.

Zielke says there are not nearly as many sign painters as there once was, but the trade is experiencing something of a renaissance. Especially in Detroit where new businesses and those who are improving want a custom look to their signage.

“It’s a really great to be involved with Detroit and to be not just a spectator, but a player in it,” he said.

One job he’d really like to get, but hasn’t yet, is a Vernor’s wall sign. He’s just waiting for the call. “That would be a blast,” he said.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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