A few years ago, I tracked down Rudy Gonzales of Tucumcari, N.M., who hand-painted signs along the Route 66 corridor in the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico for five decades.
Another sign painter has operated along Route 66 for about as long in eastern Arizona. According to an article in the Arizona Journal, Severo Barela of Holbrook, Ariz., now 84 years old, has hand-painted signs and billboards in the region since the late 1950s.
If you’ve never heard of Barela, you’ve probably seen his handiwork. The article details it nicely:
His work was featured on sign boards, billboards and buildings of Babbitt Brothers, the Phillips 66 station, Hatch’s car dealership, Heward Motors and “various restaurants in town,” including Joe & Aggies, Romo’s, Tom and Susie’s, the Holbrook Pizzeria and Jalapeño Poppers, among many others. His work for the Butterfield Stage Company can still be seen on the large billboard located at the intersection of Navajo Blvd. and Hopi Drive. He also worked for such well-known Route 66 businesses as Jack Rabbit and Ortega’s. […]
Asked about his work at Jack Rabbit, Barela said he did some painting there when the business was owned by state senator Glen Blansett.
Barela said Jack Rabbit’s famous “Here it is!” sign was already in place for many years before he did some work there, “but I did touch it up,” he said.
Many of the other tourist attractions Barela did sign work for are still around, such as Geronimo and the Painted Desert Indian Center.
In Holbrook, one of Barela’s most visible projects is the Rainbow Rock Shop on Navajo Blvd. south of Hopi Drive. Barela painted all the dinosaur statues that fill the yard of the shop, as well as the large dinosaur mural, all the small signs for the shop and yard, and the caveman family with cutout faces, where tourists can pose to get their pictures taken.
Barela said a lot of the demand for his work dried up with the arrival of vinyl printed signs. His son, Mike, has taken over much of the business, and includes hand-painted and vinyl signs. Severo also is teaching his grandson, Jimmy, the trade.
(Image in 2003 of the Rainbow Rock Shop in Holbrook, Ariz., by Kai Schreiber via Flickr, all painted by Severo Barela)