My obsession with record collecting has led me into many unexpected and non-musical detours. Of all these excursions, none have been quite so strong as my fascination with a local sign painter I knew simply as the Brush Master.
I initially encountered the Brush Master's work at a now defunct local record spot. For many years Frog's Record Mart was a fixture on the corner of College Avenue and 29th Street. It wasn't your average record shop. Aside from a few shelves of used LPs, Frog's was a typical inner-city corner store selling a variety of convenience foods and other random sundries.
My first experience shopping at Frog's would echo all my future visits. After digging through racks and racks of deservedly forgotten late-90s rap singles, I pulled out a pair of classic soul LPs - but the record was missing from the sleeve of James Brown's Black Caesar and the vinyl inside Donny Hathaway's Everything is Everything was in a state of unplayable wear. I never left Frog's with any remarkable finds, but that didn't stop me from going back.
On reflection I realize I was always drawn into Frog's by the elaborate signage surrounding the exterior of the building. The hand-painted signs advertised an amusingly diverse variety of items on sale, ranging from "hot rapp [sic]" to "nachos and pantyhose."
The signs outside Frog's would inevitably attract my attention anytime I journeyed down College Avenue. The style of the sign's painter eventually became embedded in my consciousness and I began noticing similar work in neighborhoods throughout Indianapolis. I quickly recognized these signs were all the creation of the same individual.
I soon began cruising through unfamiliar city terrain specifically to find new pieces by this mysterious crafts-person. I was seldom disappointed. From Martindale-Brightwood to Haughville, every commercial district of the inner-city seemed to bear an example of the artist's work. I was as captivated by the artistic design of these signs as I was their idiosyncratic presentation of information - like the "38th Street Men Club" inexplicably located at MLK and 16th, or the pool hall exterior admonishing loud talk and bad language.
The signs were often far more creative and artistically constructed than their utilitarian purpose required. For example, I remember Joe's Fish Market on the Old Northside. From top to bottom all four sides of the building's exterior walls were covered with the artist's landscape - a pastoral lakeside vista replete with lazy fisherman and frolicking wildlife. These signs added color and vibrancy to decaying inner-city neighborhoods ignored by city government beautification projects and public art programs.
When I noticed one of my favorite pieces had been painted over - an ambitious wall sized mural depicting a variety of soul food delicacies at a hole in the wall BBQ joint - I realized that I should start documenting the artist's unique work. The Iphone hadn't been invented yet, so I grabbed a disposable camera and got to work.
As I started this process I began to find that many of the pieces were signed by the artist, albeit in the form of a mysterious nom de plume - the Brush Master. I became fixated on the idea of finding the Brush Master. When I discovered a sign that bore a phone number in addition to the signature I knew I'd hit the jackpot. I rushed home to call only to find the number was disconnected.
I didn't lose hope. I started inquiring about the Brush Master at many of the shops that featured his work. But no one seemed to know anything about the artist. The following exchange I had with the owner of a blues club on North Keystone was the closest I came in my search for the mysterious painter. It also helped me gain perspective on my own interest in his work.
"Are you with the IRS or something?" the aging African-American proprietor asked in a suspicious tone as I inquired about the painter of the bar's sign. She'd seen me snapping photos outside and was understandably paranoid about a young white male encroaching on her territory with a list of questions.
"No," I replied. "Why are you out here taking pictures of my bar?," she countered. I thought for a second and tried my best to explain, "you know the sign you have out there? The guy who painted that has done work all over this city. The signs he created are as an important a part of my experience in Indianapolis as watching a Pacers game, or hanging around Downtown at Monument Circle. I just want to find him and thank him for making all this cool art." She shook her head and started to walk away, confident that I wasn't a fed, but certain that I was weirdo. "His name is Mississippi, he went back down South last I heard."
I'm not sure if the Brush Master is still around, I haven't seen a new piece by the artist in several years. But whenever I encounter one of his old works I'm reminded how the most mundane things can transcend their purpose when executed with style - even a simple sign for a shoeshine shop or nail salon.
Each edition of Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features a variety interesting new releases. You can subscribe to the Cultural Manifesto podcast on Itunes here.
1. Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe, Kronos Quartet & Stuart Bogie - Sorrow Tears and Blood
2. Machinedrum - Vizion
3. Salaam Remi & Corinne Bailey Rae - Makin' It Hard for Me
4. Dean Blunt - Eight
5. Zomby - Memories
6. BANKS - This Is What It Feels Like
7. Sampha - Without
8. Laura Mvula - Green Garden (Dave Invisible Remix)
9. Machinedrum - See Sea
10. Souleance - Georgian Kiss
11. Four Tet - Parallel Jalebi
12. Alex Barck & Christine Salem - Oh Africa
13. Iamnobodi - Maputo Dance
14. Milton Nascimento - Tudo o Que Você Podia Ser (Aroop Roy Remix)
15. Mulatu Astatke - Motherland Abay
16. Kelela - Something Else
17. Zomby - Quickening
18. Kool And Kass - Peaceful Solutions
19. King Krule - Neptune Estate
20. Charles Bradley - Love Bug Blues
21. Shy FX & Liam Bailey - Soon Come
22. Mulatu Astatke - Azmari
23. Gregory Porter - Liquid Spirit
24. Ms. Lauryn Hill - Consumerism