When I arrived in Mildura and people heard I was into sign-writing, they immediately told me:
‘You’ve got to talk to Moose. He’s painted signs all over town for 40 years.’
‘He’s old school—refuses to work in digital.’
‘Lives in the old dairy in Merbein.’
‘Rides a Harley.’
‘You can find him playing his trumpet in the mall.’
I had become interested in old signs—often known as ‘ghost signs’—a few years earlier. I loved the way they lingered in laneways or on the side of shops, sometimes more than a century old, whispering stories in faded paint. Coming across an old sign felt like finding a forgotten letter in a drawer, or a travel ticket tucked into a book.
I frequently thought about the people who painted them—forgotten craftspeople, presumably retired or dead. And yet their work has long been an essential part of the visual landscape of the city, in the service of humble products such as beer, soap, candles and flour. Mildura is an irrigation settlement, and for more than a century Australia’s major producer of citrus fruits. Its walls are a gallery of murals depicting, among other things, oranges, lemons and limes, the work of skilled signwriters over many decades. One of these is Moose.
I tracked him down in a Mildura café. As we discussed his career, I felt I was making a connection across time with the men who had painted the old signs I had been spotting for years; and further back, to those who painted the shop signs of Paris, or the inn signs of Tudor England; maybe even to the anonymous painters and carvers of medieval Europe, whose hands shaped the gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals.
Terry ‘Moose’ McGowan has flowing white hair and beard like a veteran rock guitarist, professorial spectacles, eyes narrow from years of looking closely, and thick paint-spattered fingers. Among other things, he collects euphoniums and motorbikes. His career, though, has been in signwriting, and he showed me photographs drawn from almost half a century of practice.
Work like his is not collected in galleries—it’s around you every day on shops, vehicles, factories, schools, clubs and pubs. It tends to be destroyed in areas of rapid development: you see more of it in working-class areas and country towns. The craft requires skill in lettering and illustration, patience and physical strength. And inventiveness: the signwriter rarely works to a set template, but makes every sign to match the terrain.
Signwriters are the artists and archivists of everyday Australia—their canvases are the city streets, their work often ephemeral and sometimes beautiful, their subjects the stuff of daily life: cars and bikes, beer and bread, groceries, sport, religion, clubs. The urban and suburban visual landscapes were created by signwriters working quietly under the radar, coming and going with their ladders, hardly ever known to the general public.
They work on all surfaces: bricks, glass, plastic, wood, banners, fibreglass—Moose has even painted footballs and urns. He does the lettering for honour boards in 23-carat gold leaf. Signs on windows are done in reverse, by painting on the inside, and taking into account the distortion caused by refraction. He works around obstacles, skirting windows and vaulting drainpipes, producing visually striking work in fine detail while up an 18-foot ladder at the mercy of the weather.
Moose is modest about his work but there’s an artist’s pride in the way he talks about it. ‘I like a job that just falls off the brush.’ He always had a knack for drawing, and in other circumstances might have gone to art school, but that path was not much trodden by working-class country boys in the 1960s. His visual flair found an outlet as a ticket writer for Maples department store. When he turned to signwriting in the seventies he found his niche, and he’s been in the trade ever since.
Some of the signs Moose has painted include: the Cottee’s cordial factory; the Grand Hotel; Merbein Bakery; Cardross general store; the Wentworth Museum; Olympic Park motorcycle club; the Aquacoaster Water Slide and the Putt Putt Family Fun Centre; the Coral Sea fish shop; paddle boats, motorbikes, sports clubs; Begg & Vallance Electrics; Yum Yums fruit shop on the way to Red Cliffs; ‘a bit of Christian stuff for the Catholic church’; Olsen’s panel beating shop; the Gol Gol orange cart; Broken Hill hospital; huge lettering on the roof of the airport, visible from the air; the Mildura Brass Band and orchestra (with detailed illustrations of instruments); Cabarita Lodge bed and breakfast; the Merbein Motor Inn; the motorcycle museum; the Doll and Teddy Show …
‘Oranges Keep the Blues Away’ reads the slogan along one wall of the former Citrus Board, Mildura, flanked by two illustrations: one a realistic group of oranges, segmented, gleaming with juice; the other a funky abstract swirl. The wall on the other side has the companion piece, in huge yellow capitals with black shading: ‘Lemons add a lot to life: Be in it!’ and a composition of juicy lemon segments. The fruit was painted in the 1980s by Kevin Bourke of Le Gassick Signs with the loving detail of a Dutch still life, and both murals are at least 12 metres long. Unfortunate renovations to the front of the building have sliced into them, casually destroying half the fruit, and along one wall a row of trees has been pointlessly planted, obscuring what’s left of the lemon sign.
No sign is guaranteed to endure or to be treated with respect. Moose shrugs: ‘You can’t get too attached to ’em, they might not be there next week!’ but each sign has a little bit of himself in it, and it must be painful to see them go. Sometimes his own hand is the destroyer. ‘At times I’ve gone somewhere to do a job and painted over what was on the wall, and realised it was something I’d painted myself, 30 years ago.’
Some signs last longer than expected. There’s a brick cottage on Pine Avenue, Mildura, once business premises, now a private home, which still displays layers of signage—from long before Moose’s time—for a firm of plumbers, Matthews & McCreath. In fine script to one side is an ancient phone number, ‘Phone 233’, and the words ‘Private address’ in a couple of different fonts. High up on the front wall you can just make out the name of another former occupant, whose signage survives in the form of negative space where the paint has worn away: ‘T. Yates & Co. Motor tyre and tube experts’. You imagine old cars coming and going for puncture repairs, the man in overalls answering his old-fashioned phone before heading out to some plumbing emergency, and the building is brought to life for you, time seems to slip, and all its stories are there at once, recorded in ghostly paint on the patient walls.
Signwriters know their history. ‘When I first started out as a ticket writer, there was a signwriter in Mildura called Reg Jones,’ Moose told me. ‘He did a lot of black letter work, with blue and yellow shade. There was the Billington Brothers. And Bill Jensk, who did all the work for Heleys [a local cordial company, now defunct]. Then, in the late seventies, Phil Le Gassick came to town and raised the standard. He trained a lot of people. But Phil had a bad fall onto concrete and was critically injured. He was off work for a time, and when he returned I worked with him as subcontractor for the last few years of his life. Phil went computerised and I did all his gold leaf and hand-painted work. But since the nineties, it hasn’t been the same.’
Signwriting declined with the rise of digital culture. Plastic and vinyl became ubiquitous. Drive through many Australian suburbs today and you won’t see hand-painted signage—just massive vinyl boards screaming ‘Mega City Barn Crazy Galore!’ This has a lot to do with technology—it is seductively easy for unskilled people to shunt fonts around on a screen. Perhaps to his disadvantage, Moose refused to go digital.
The decline also relates to the rise of chain stores. Small groceries, furniture and hardware shops might have hired a signwriter to give them a unique look—like the idiosyncratic Leonards plumbing shop, adorned with paintings of sinks, taps and palm trees swaying in the breeze. But corporate branding is the enemy of individuality. These days, machines churn out identical signage by the mile for the likes of Bunnings, Bed Bath N Table, Spotlight, Coles, Forty Winks—a trend likely to continue, you suspect, until every suburb, every city, is populated by identical signage, and the monoculture is triumphant.
Despite globalisation, a counter-movement has begun to sprout that values the handmade and authentic. In these circles, signwriting has become cool again. ‘For 20 years I was almost forgotten about, but now the wheel has turned back in my favour,’ Moose comments wryly. Some clients who had switched to getting their honour boards done in vinyl are coming back to him for old-school gold-leaf lettering done by hand.
In similar vein, a Mildura café recently uncovered on its walls handpainted advertisements dating back to the early twentieth century for ETA peanut butter and Velvet soap. (ETA still exists, but these days is made in China; Velvet soap, created in Victorian times by a Melbourne firm, survives in name only as one of the brands of a global multinational.) Instead of destroying the signs, the owners painstakingly brought them back to light, removing the layers of paint on top until they were restored to their original glory. The palimpsest of signs now serves as a point of difference for the café; it also arouses nostalgic memories in some passers-by.
The poet Robert Graves said that anything handmade was imbued with the spirit of those who made it and those who used it: these old signs are more than paint and bricks, they are dreamlike vestiges of time, infused with the eyes that looked at them, the hands that painted them.
Signwriting is not a trade for the faint-hearted. Studio artists can step back from their canvas but signwriters work high off the ground, on scaffolding, planks and ladders. Moose has fallen a few times but never been seriously hurt. He came off his ladder at Balranald while painting an Ampol sign and fell 4 metres. ‘I just forgot, and stepped off—landed on my feet, and thought, that was lucky—then the paint pot landed on my head.’
Writers and artists are celebrated for their visions of the national identity. But if Australianness is David Malouf’s novels, Rosalie Gascoigne’s artworks and Judith Wright’s poems, it’s also names in gold leaf on a community honour board, the pinstriping of a loved car, the familiar logo on a factory or a café wall. The work of people like Moose. But old signs are rarely protected. There’s an outcry when the work of street artists such as Banksy is removed, but no such concern attends the destruction of signage. In Mildura I saw a beautiful handpainted advertisement for the old cordial manufacturer, Heleys, with a vinyl sign for brewing supplies slapped over the top of it.
There are bigger stories lurking behind these signs. Heleys was an important regional employer: thousands worked in its factories, millions bought its products. There’s nothing left of the company, though you can pick up a Heleys bottle for a few dollars at junk shops; the manufacturing sector has been decimated. Casual forgetting is an Australian art form, but surely saving a few signs is not too much to ask, before like them our memories are obliterated?
As he heads towards retirement, Moose is stretching his wings beyond signwriting. He’s always done some purely artistic work on the side, and his Merbein studio is adorned with surreal images and nostalgic paintings of old speedway riders, as well as countless motorbikes and his collection of musical instruments, from First World War bugles to old violins. Among other things he has written an autobiography—handwritten, of course—and rides his Harley into town to perform in the local orchestra. He recently collaborated with Sydney visual artist Wendy Murray on a couple of original pieces for Mildura’s walls: one portrays a paint roller and the words ‘Value the Artist’. I’d like to see one that reads ‘Value the Signwriter’, but maybe that’s for the future.
We all want to leave our mark. Signwriters have written and painted Australian settlements into life. They have made our streets into galleries—or, to put it another way, transformed them into novels peopled with characters whose stories layer the walls: plumbers, fruit pickers, cordial makers … To know this is to become a more subtle reader of places, and of the plots unfolding across the decades. Proust referred to memory as ‘the inner book of unknown signs’; these signs, bright or faded, are the memories of the city. •