A conversation with Mark Stroup | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A conversation with Mark Stroup

Mark Stroup, 42, began collecting photographs of Pittsburgh signs in November at www.pittsburghsigns.org, where today about 40 people are posting their own views.

Why do signs on local businesses intrigue us?

It's a neglected part of our landscape. This is a lot more of what we're seeing every day than the view from Mount Washington. These are aesthetic choices people made. Plus, they tell a story. Usually, people put [signs] up when they are beginning a business. They tell the dreams and aspirations. Some of the dreams look a little funky in retrospect.


It seems like the less professional the sign, the more we like it.

Being simpler and having not enough tools, people are able to express themselves better. One of the best examples is PRIVAVATE [painted on the wall of a Downtown alley]. It's no longer there. But this guy really means it.


Why do we love even broken signs, the ones with hanging letters, like South Hills Bowl?

It gives you a dimension of time. The rusting of a sign, the fading, the de-laminating tells a story. That Kroger sign -- it became a Thrift Drug, then an Eckerd, then they moved, and all of a sudden the Kroger sign reappeared, with pockmarks. It's a palimpsest. It stirs our own mind to make up the story, fill in the gaps. That's what creates the depth to a sign.


Is it just sentimentality for the literal signposts of our lives, or nostalgia?

That's one attitude. I consider it to be a real Naked Lunch attitude. William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac are sitting down at the diner and saying, this is where we are right now, this is what we're seeing right now. We're not being sentimental. We're seeing lights and light boxes and people trying to sell us something. It gives you an idea of an authentic culture, rather than a toon-town culture. I was thinking, what if someone gave me a Wal-Mart sign [to post on the Web site]? We're not ready to process a Wal-Mart sign. Although we could do a McDonald's sign. I don't know why.


You have Arby's and KFC, after all.

Well, Arby's is a great sign. It's a classic strip-road sign. And it is in some sense local: Youngstown-originated. It doesn't blanket the country. The KFC sign is actually at an antique shop.


You grew up in Clarion. Are small-town signs different than city signs?

Clarion has a sign that I'm not sure I'll be able to get. One of the doctors has a sign up, "Internal medicine in rear." I remember what they call "ghost signs" -- signs on walls that are fading.


What's your favorite sign so far?
The Garden is such a pretty sign.


The Garden -- the North Side porn theater?

It was taken through a windshield on a rainy, misty night.


That's a case of photography transforming something into art.

I think we're in that area. The photography -- it makes you active. It's the opposite of much of technology. This is a quixotic way of looking at it, but maybe we are trying to get people to be ... here ... now.


What's your favorite sign, even without being photographed?

South Hills Bowl does stand a mention. It's like part of a Wim Wenders film. [And] the Real McCoy [Sandwich Shop in the South Side]: Not only do you have the familiar Carrera glass this stuff is painted on. If you look, [the lettering] goes big, small, then by the doors it's smaller, kind of drawing you in. It's like an adventure tale. You keep going farther and farther into the cave in order to find the treasure therein.

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