Repainting a Downtown Icon

One of downtown's most recognizable murals gets a fresh coat of paint from the artists at Providence Painted Signs


In 2012, three painter/printmaker friends – Shawn Gilheeney, Buck Hastings and Greg Pennisten – put their heads and skill sets together and started Providence Painted Signs, a local sign and mural-painting company based in the West End.

“We figured it was a very practical way to get consistent work for ourselves while also doing a craft and getting to take pride in the jobs,” says Buck, who went to RISD for painting. It was “the practical application of skills we had been working on learning anyway,” and each job seemed to turn into one or two more. “We just got more and more busy.”

Because each job is different and the types of paint, surfaces and images or lettering varies, the trio is constantly learning new skills. They also learn from mentors who’ve been doing it a lot longer.

“There’s a whole community of people in the sign business – all different kinds of specialists, and they like to get together and be dorks and share tips and techniques,” says Buck. “It’s definitely a labor of love and a craft that you can never stop getting better at.”

One such mentor is Johan Bjurman, a fine art painter responsible for creating countless billboards, hand-painted signs, decorative projects and murals over three decades, with a special flair for trompe l’oeil (“trick of the eye”) designs. One notable example was painted on the side of Providence’s landmark Hanley Building on Pine Street. Commissioned by Joseph Cerilli in 1987, the original artwork showed the lower righthand corner of the building appearing to peel away from the wall – windows and all. In recent years the original paint had all but faded away, so the Hanley Building Condominium Association brought in Providence Painted Signs to restore it. This isn’t the first time Shawn and Buck worked to restore one of Johan’s murals. A few summers ago they restored a piece in Maine of a giant oceanscape visible from the highway. As a result of their restoration efforts, the recently retired artist “has been able to see some of his old projects come back to life,” Buck says. The team now consults with Johan each time they have a big project. “We ask him how he would have done it,” says Buck. Johan even sold the company his old swing stage – a 20-foot platform with pulleys that painters use to pull themselves up a wall.

“I have been admiring his work since I was a kid, from his hand-painted bil boards at McCoy Stadium to all the murals in the city,” says Shawn. ”We are honored to have the ‘Walldog’ torch handed down to us from Johan. It’s also inspiring to see an iconic painted image preserved as a landmark for the next generation in Providence.”