A popular song from my youth decried the use of signs as stepping on our freedoms.
“Signs, signs, everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind.
“Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs,” proclaimed the song by Five Man Electrical Group.
They say signs have been around since before formal written language. I had one aficionado of Paleo-Indian rock art tell me that he thought a particular petroglyph, because of it’s distinct and highly visible location, was like a sign to a nomadic people advertising good hunting grounds.
Highway billboards were a big form of advertising when I was growing up. On a trip you could measure how big a place was or maybe how great a tourist trap it was by the number of billboards you saw and the distance away from the attraction at which they started.
Burma Shave mastered the art of sign tease by breaking the catchy quote up on successive billboards and ending with their name.
A good billboard campaign could still bring in a nomadic crowd, weary and traveling the interstate highway. Tucumcari in the middle part of the last century started a billboard campaign that touted its 2,000 motel rooms with the catch line “Tucumcari Tonite.”
Lots of towns put their best foot forward with their entry sign. The Hollywood sign is a world famous icon as is the Las Vegas sign. Neither has changed in years.
Even the little burgh of Portales got into the act with a sign that declares: “Portales, Home of 18,000 friendly people and three or four old grouches.” That sign seems to be unique in its comical view of the town as a friendly place. Originated by local banker David Stone over 30 years ago, the sign has received a following all over the country in magazines and online.
One of the most unique signs I ever ran into was the DOOFNAC XEMI sign in Tucumcari. It was on a gift shop in big letters and tourists stopped just to find out what the heck a Doofnac Xemi was. Usually a lot of fun was had at the expense of unsuspecting shoppers before the help usually revealed that the owners had just scrambled the letters on the building, which had originally housed a Mexican food restaurant.
Over the years since the famous song came out cities, states and the federal government have stomped on our freedom of expression with lots of regulations about where signs are appropriate. Sort of flipping the song’s meaning on its ear. But the sign may not be done just yet.
These days electronic signs are the rage. My church is in the process of putting one up. The days of churches and gas stations using the suction cup on a long pole to change the prices or the verse of the day are gone. Just punch it into the computer, and while you’re at it add a few cool animated graphics.
It’s a long way from rock art.
Karl Terry writes for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at: