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The Dying Art of Rotulos

The dictionary definition of rotulos is "sign" or "title". Here in Mexico it implies a hand-painted sign. Up until a few years ago, most of the signs you’d see in any town or city in Mexico were hand-painted, but with the advent of cheap and ubiquitous computers and printers, more and more signs are being created by machine.

Yet, the men who paint rotulos still work here in Merida, as we imagine they do in most parts of Mexico. For the past five years, we’ve been walking by a little shop that advertises this service. We’ve peeked in the windows before and noticed paintings inside. But for some reason, today was the day the shop door was open and inviting. So today was the day we met José M. Góngora.

The artist was standing just inside the door talking on his cell phone when we walked in. He’s a modern, working-class Yucateco, but he is practicing what appears to be a dying art. This is Merida’s loss, in our humble opinion. Since the day we landed here, and all throughout our travels in Mexico, we have been delighted by the hand-painted signs that grace the buildings in every town and city. Sure, there are the Rotulo: Always Coca Colacorporate logos like Coca Cola or Corona, but they’re still painted by hand. And some, like the one pictured to the left, which is slowly peeling away from the wall, are truly works of modern art. The real gems are not the rotulos advertising corporate wares, however, but the signs and drawings created for the small businesses that thrive in these cities.

Like the one below advertising GOTAS PARA LA OBESIDAD (Drops For Obesity). Sound delicious, don’t they? That big brown bottle promising weight loss sin reducir los alimentos (without eating less) is painted on the façade of a homeopathic drugstore. We don’t need or want the gotas, but we sure do love and appreciate the unique signage.

Today José told us that most of his business comes from people for whom he has worked before and who appreciate the quality of Rotulo: Drops for Obesityhis work. A Se Vende or Se Renta sign (which he says comprises a good percentage of his business) with an accompanying phone number can be painted on your façade for under $200 pesos (less than $20 US). This includes materials and the meticulous lettering styles that José learned at a special school in Mexico City where he studied dibujos publicitario (publicity drawing). Hand-drawn signs are cheaper, according to José, but many Mexicans prefer to use the more modern services as they think somehow they must look better.

José and his friend Carlos held up a huge manta (cloth sign) that they had just finished painting. The entire project cost his client $700 pesos and took José a day and a half to complete. The sign was full of meticulously printed information, and had a big logo that José reproduced Jose Displays a Manta for Tai Kwan Dobeautifully from a very small example.

José’s business card reads Rotulos Pegaso and features a flying horse. Underneath his name, in parentheses, are the words: experiencia en dibujos de historietas (experienced in drawing comic strips). We suppose he means "drawing in a comic-strip style" and we have seen some great car parts that he painted for a taller (workshop) down the street. According to the card, José paints mantas, fachadas (façades), vehiculos (vehicles) and he does dibujos (drawings). The dibujos brought us into the shop today, because as we walked by we saw a half-finished oil painting sitting on an easel inside the door. It turns out that when José isn’t on a ladder painting a representation of a car engine or a dental chair, he is here at his shop creating oil painting reproductions of famous Mexican artworks.

The Legend of the Volcanos by Jesus HelgueraThe one we saw him working on today is called La Leyenda de Los Volcanes (The Legend of the Volcanos). It was originally painted by Jesus Helguera, a famous Mexican artist that learned his craft in Spain where his family had gone to live to escape the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900′s. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in Spain, they repatriated to Mexico. It was here where he began painting the mythological and romantic figures from Mexican history that make him famous. His art has graced Mexican calendars for decades now, and we read that this particular painting has probably been reproduced by more artists and printers than any other. The picture shows Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl, the princess and warrior from the ancient Nahua legend. They are the Romeo and Juliet of Mexican folklore, and legend has it that the Gods were so taken with their story that they turned them into the volcanos that watch over Mexico City. The painting done by Helguera is dramatic, detailed and executed with vibrant colors. José Góngora is using all his experience in careful lettering and reproduction to create a beautiful hand-painted reproduction of this famous Mexican work.

Jorge's ChairWe couldn’t help ourselves. We gave him an anticipo (deposit) so that someday, when he finishes the painting, it will be ours. He told us he didn’t know when it would be done, as it is careful work and he needs time to do it well. No hay prisa, we told him. No hurry.

Later that weekend, we visited a local restaurant where José had been commissioned to paint a mural. It’s a seafood restaurant and naturally, the mural’s subject matter is what’s for dinner. Looking at José’s paintings and the quality of his work, we started having visions of a mural he might paint for us on the fachada of Chohol, our office in the Centro. José was quick to point out that INAH, the arm of the Mexican government that watches over the historical properties, doesn’t allow anything like that without a permit. They only allow commercial signs.

Que triste! We were going to ask José to paint a scene from Helguera on our façade, substituting us for the main players in a romantic scene. Now we’ll have to settle for the Yucatan Living logo unless we’re willing to slog through INAH’s bureaucracy. Well… Vamos a ver. It just might be worth it…


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19 Responses to “The Dying Art of Rotulos

  1. Bravo! I just love the way you two find the golden threads, like this one, that are woven into the fabric of daily life in Merida. We’ve all walked by hand-painted signs a thousand times, but now, for the first time, I have the vocabulary and background to be aware of what I’m seeing.

    Alas, there are few instances of hand-painted signs in Washington DC, but I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled… until I’m in Merida once again.


  2. Beautiful and sad – because these wonderful signs are the fabric of a country that my country of Canada, and yours of the US do not have, and that is one difference of many that has made Mexico unique. Soon the sign paint will peel off, and the replacements will be the uninspiring metal signs that blandly dot the rest of North America. Thanks for contributing this – and to this “cause”.

  3. And all the time I thought it was rotation, like in tires. . .

  4. Beautiful artucle!!! loved the included history too…..

  5. This was a wonderful article. One of the first things I really fell in love with here was the hand-rendered typography that seems to surround us. I am a bit of a pervert for letterforms, and seeing them done by hand with such care continues to surprise and impress me every day. When walking around Centro, I have to touch the pencil alignment lines, still in place long after the work is finished. It is fascinating to hear some of the backstory, and to learn that these artists are busy in their off-time creating more substantial pieces of art.

  6. Very cool!! We recently purchased a condo in Chicuxlub and would love to have a mural on the living room wall or possibly a sign for my business back home!! Do you have an address and phone number for Jose?

  7. Hola Rusty,

    Jose’s shop is located in the centro, on the corner of Calle 64 and 49a. If you look closely at the facade of his little shop in the photo above, you’ll notice that his phone number is (999) 985-1462.

  8. Little does Josè know but…he has now became Meridas most famous sign painter at this point in time. The Working Gringos should of left their names to thank them for their interpetation of a Mexican Sign Painter, I really enjoyed the story from persons of the outside world of sign painting…to recognize the art of hand painted signs

  9. Thank you, Francisco! By the look of your website, it seems that you know your sign painting! If you like old-time hand-lettered signs, be sure to visit Merida someday.

  10. I love the rotulos that you can find all over Mexico! And I didn’t even know what they were called. I usually don’t pay much attention to advertising, but when I’m in Mexico I can’t help but notice all of them. Nice story :)

  11. José Góngora es mi tío pero yo vivo en el distrito federal el teléfono de el es el 9851462 en Mérida o su celular es 9991912282 es un artista de la pintura yo tengo varios cuadros de el tanto a óleo como a lápiz y son hermosos. sus precios son muy economicos.

    Translation: Jose Gongora is my uncle, but I live in Mexico City. His telephone number in Merida is 985-1462 or his cell phone is (999) 191-2282. He is a painter, and I have several works of his, many in oils and in pencil, which are very beautiful. His prices are very economical.

  12. La critica es buena si es constructiva pero el arte es dificil, y solo aquellos que la intentan lograran sentir que el arte vive dentro de ellos, un don regalo del cielo.
    att. tu amigo, Charly Martin
    (Criticism is good if it’s constructive, but art is difficult, and only those who try will feel that art lives within them, the gift to create is a gift from heaven.
    Your friend, Charly Martin.)

  13. [...] oct 30th, art by Juan Pablo Mendoza, Aurea Palma, Lorein Toohey, Conchi Sanchez and our good friend Jose Gongora, whose new works of birds, butterflies and flowers are quite astounding! Location: Calle 54 #468 [...]

  14. Keeping hand painted signs alive in Northern California!

  15. [...] read an article recently about the fading trade, that is still hanging on in many parts of Mexico. According to the [...]

  16. Don Jose is showing his paintings in his workshop along with Conchi Sanchez. They are both beautiful!

  17. estan in presionantes estos cuadros
    bien chido y de poca

  18. Hello I have looked high and low for ehat is called MONKS CLOTH or MANTA CLOTH
    Please can you help me to find this

  19. No hay nada como un arte original. El arte ya sea en pared a más con computadoras como quiera es difícil. Cuando uno va a México y ve estas obras pintorescas nos podemos trasladar a las primeras formas de rotulación y vemos como todo a sido digitalizado. Éxito para ti por tan buen articulo y también para José.

    Editor’s attempt at a translation: There is nothing like original art. The art that is on the walls is hard to do without a computer. When one goes to Mexico and see the works of these painters, you can see everything from the older forms of rotulos to the modern digitalized signs. Success for you for such a good article and also to José.


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