Clean Up in Alley Three! Restoring a Giant Grocery Produce Sign

I don’t normally shop at Giant American Grocery Stores (G.A.G.S.); they simply overwhelm me, triggering a latent, primal agoraphobia, a fight-or-flight reflex, followed by a migraine. I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I feel strongly that human brains are not equipped to process two fluorescent-lit football fields of breakfast cereal all at once.

But one thing I do love about G.A.G.S. is their ridiculous, elephantine department signage — the static Jumbotrons® of the retail world. It’s understandable that a store the size of a small planet would need to label their meat department with a sign big enough to see from space.


If you look closely, you may be able to spot a couple of actual human beings among the Acres of Meat.

My love of obese retail signage makes sense if you understand my Taste in Art.  I adore objects rendered monstrously out of scale:  The shuttlecocks outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the “Big Sweep” sculpture outside the Denver Museum of Art:

big artMy heart skips a beat when I see “DAIRY” spelled out in eight-foot-tall letters, or a photo of a hot-pink, fat-webbed steak enlarged 500 times its normal size, lurking ominously over the butchers and their blood-streaked aprons. I often fantasize about what those signs would look like if they wandered out of the grocery store and into a more human-scaled place, like my little Babushka house. How absurd they would look, and how delighted I would be!


This would look so good over my living room couch.

Now my dreams of capturing my very own G.A.G.S. signage has finally come true! A few weeks ago I rode my bike to a free outdoor yoga class* in Millenium Park in downtown Chicago. Relaxed and loose on the ride back, I spotted something in a lonely alley, tucked between an unmarked brick building and some commuter train tracks. My Scavenger Senses tingled wildly, I had no choice but to stop and inspect. That’s when I saw this:

20150808_090750The Fruit Sign was stacked among several other giant Food Posters, including an even bigger one from the Egg and Dairy (and dish towel?) Department:

20150808_090832And the ultimate showstopper – the Late 1970s Candlelit Hors d’oeuvres Platter Scene:

20150905_082834Wow, can we get a close-up of those dueling cheeseballs?

70s app collageAfter documenting the treasures with my phone, I raced home to Scott, pleading permission to drag one home. With uncharacteristic enthusiasm, he agreed that I should go back for them RIGHT NOW, before anybody else got to them first.**

I pulled out our biggest cargo bike, and breathlessly ALL-CAPS texted our next-door neighbor David – who always has what we need in his garage – for extra bungee cords. Sensing the urgency of the situation, David quickly handed over every bungee he owned. Which was a lot.

I really wanted the “70s Candlelit Hors d’oeuvres Platter Scene” poster, but the back was covered in a shaggy carpet of green mold; too gross even for me. As you can see from the photo below, the “Egg and Dairy” scene was so wide it could have only been transported by barge.

20150808_111545I felt like the Goldilocks of the Alley (without the shameless trespassing)!  I finally found a Food Poster that was Just Right for me.  I laid the Fruit Scene poster flat across the top of the bucket, looped about a dozen bungees around it, and hoped for the best. Good thing I had ALL the bungees on the block, cause this poster was big, heavy and floppy enough to cause severe turbulence on the ride home.

20150808_112947With the poster on board, I was wider than a regular lane of traffic, so I wove my way through the industrial side streets of Chicago’s west side, where there would be few cars on a Saturday morning. Things only got tricky as I entered the final, mostly residential stretch of my journey, when the poster hit a light pole as I swerved to avoid beheading a little boy on a bike.

20150808_112958The whole family was home to help carry the newest treasure into the house, or at least sneer in disgust at whatever new thing Mommy dragged out of the alley today:


What I find most charming in this picture are the glaring imperfections in the fruit. The banana is pockmarked with bruises, and the Fruit Stylist didn’t even bother trimming the dead ends off the pineapple leaves. One of the grapefruits has an open slit that would make Georgia O’Kefffe blush:

IMG_6351Ah, Fruit Art in the days before Photoshop! It’s like finding a musty box of 1960s Playboy magazines at an estate sale,* delighting in the not-airbrushed, not-surgically altered realness of it all – the chubby folds, the asymmetrical pairs, and perhaps that stray pocket of cellulite.

Ahem. Anyway, this thing was FILTHY.  No, not Playboy filthy; Splattered-with-actual-mud filthy:

IMG_6311I washed the MDF board backing several times with a wet sponge and a kiss of dishsoap. I then wiped the front side down with a slightly damp sponge, careful not to exacerbate the existing water damage.

Next, was the Art Restoration phase, where I tried to hide the gouges, scratches and water stains. Since my Fruit Art was printed on glossy poster paper, actual paint would stand out on its smooth texture and possibly warp the paper even further. I settled on Permanent Marker, which is what I hear they used to restore the Sistene Chapel.

I started easy, filling in the black background areas with a Big Ol’ XL Sharpie:

IMG_6324Then used a finer point to dab at the smaller nicks and holes:

IMG_6318Once I got acclimated to the marker fumes, it was time to go color. I touched up the grapes slightly, using a combination of brown and purple. Most of my marker strokes went into the water-damaged apple at the lower left-hand side of the poster:

IMG_6321 The Sharpies available to the general public only come in one shade of each color, which presents a challenge to an Amateur Art Restorer faced with a complex fruit scene. First, I went over the apple with a layer of yellow, then a coat of red, and then dabbed it here and there with brown for a realistic, textured effect. I also redrew the stem (in brown and black), and added shadows where appropriate. To avoid that low-brow “scribbled” look, I dabbed the marker and then smeared the ink with my finger.

Scott secretly snapped this one with his phone, showing how a night of Amateur Art Restoration can be a relaxing way to unwind at the end of a long day:

WP_20150922_21_14_12_ProWhen the marker had dried, I used spry adhesive to re-attach a loose flap at the corner to the backing.

Since the poster was backed by a relatively thin and floppy MDF board, we couldn’t hang it up like traditional framed art. We used 12 clear plastic mirror clips to hold it to the wall – four each on the bottom and top edges, and two on either side.

IMG_6330Hanging this beast was certainly a two-person job, as most of the pilot holes had to be drilled with the poster in place. Except here, where I took a break from holding it up to snap a picture of Drillmaster Scott:

IMG_6335I’m so surprised that we managed to hang this thing straight that I went blurry with excitement:

WP_20150923_20_58_11_ProDoes our freshly-restored masterpiece stand up to the light of day?

* Free outdoor yoga is about the only yoga I’ve been known to do.
** As it turns out, our urgency was misplaced, as the signs I didn’t take with me were still in that same alley three weeks later.
*** If shopping at estate sales has taught me anything about marriage, its that when the husband dies last, you are guaranteed to find a musty box of Playboys at his estate sale. Oh, and dozens of rusty tools. You are advised to purchase neither of these things, especially if you are my (living) husband.


9 thoughts on “Clean Up in Alley Three! Restoring a Giant Grocery Produce Sign

  1. Now, Australians *love* Big Things, we’re famous for it, but you have gone where I cannot follow… I find the scale a weeny bit scary in a domestic setting, looming over you like a threat: Eat your fruit and vegetables, or the Big Apples will get you! Nice restoration job, Sharpie Ninja…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m hoping it will provide some subtle (OK, not-so-subtle) messaging to the family to eat their fruits and veggies. We’ve had one meal so far in the dining room, and that was my lunch with the 4-year-old. I documented a 200% increase in veggie consumption. Meaning, he ate all his carrots and then proceeded to eat my carrots, too. So it must be working!

      PS… Are Australian grocery stores as frighteningly big as American? Do you have Aldi there?


      • Aldi is slowly infiltrating, but none of our grocery stores are quite so super-super-sized as yours. Say one football field instead of two… Anything that leads to increased carrot consumption must be good, but the true test of effectiveness is cabbage!


  2. I would love to see a HGTV show where you help people decorate with things found in the alley. Your restored grocery art looks great!

    Speaking of oversized things, you reminded me of when I recently visited a friend and she had hung a huge street sign in her living room. Apparently another friend had stolen it off a construction site for her as a goodbye gift before moving to Korea. Note: I do not advocate theft, but I have to admit it looks really cool.


  3. I would not have been able to pass that up either! I have a full-sized pick-up truck to haul stuff in, so I would have grabbed that egg and cheese sign to hang on the outside of my chicken coop/milk barn. So cool! My husband is truly my soul-mate, as he also has been known to scavenge interesting stuff from the side of the roads and alleys in our rural community – huge pallets from behind a tanning salon (tanning beds were packed in them), a stainless steel industrial kitchen triple sink for my milk barn that was left behind in a rental building that he was property manager for. Very little in our home and farm was purchased new.


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