MAZEPPA — They proudly called themselves letterheads or walldogs and consider themselves the vanguard of a return to art in sign painting.

About 100 sign painters from across the world met last week at the Mazeppa Mardi Gras Panel Jam to learn from the masters, such as Mike Meyer of Mazeppa, chat and have fun. It was the fourth such gathering in Mazeppa.

On Saturday evening, the painters combined with a Mazeppa chili cook-off contest for a community-wide party, capped by auctioning off some of the painters' signs to help pay the jam's expenses.

One of the proud painter/learners was Sam Roberts, of London, England, who wore a multi-colored Mardi Gras hat. He's one of the young generation of painters.

"It's a hobby that is becoming a bit like a job," he said. He also brought the "The Sign Painter Movie," with Meyer in it, to England.

Last week, Roberts created his first sign, with help from the masters.

"I'm in awe of those guys' skills," Roberts said. "It's incredible what they can do with a brush. They are highly skilled individuals."

One of his interests is old signs, called "ghost signs" that are barely visible on the sides of buildings. He leads tours around his London neighborhood, showing off the signs.

In the United States, the artists who painted those kinds of signs for Coca-Cola or Gold Medal Flour were called walldogs because they worked like dogs painting the walls. At the panel jam, walldog was a moniker of honor.

As Roberts talked, Meyer came and sat next to him.

Meyer said that for years, the masters weren't sharing their skills with others. Then in 1975, six men formed the Letterheads. There were no officers, no dues. They just get together to share their expertise and learn.

For a while, the art of creating signs began to fade because anyone with a computer and some digital equipment can make signs for vehicles or billboards. Now, there's a reaction against that.

"It's coming back because people are tired of the perfect stuff with digital," he said. "We are trying to bring it back to the basic crafted way that will last a long time."

Whether it's art or craft is fun to debate, Meyer and Roberts said. It takes an artist to create the designs but a craftsman to put it on a wall or billboard.

Ashley Bishop, of Bucks, England, said he's a lawyer who was in the military but decided he wanted to follow his great-grandfather, who was a sign painter and tattoo artist. "It's stupidity of the highest order" but he's enjoying it, he said.

He paints signs of all kinds for Windsor Castle, the Tower of London and Eton College as well as local pubs. "We are always the unofficial architects of the street." People see and remember the signs, not the buildings, he said.

"I love it, I love lovely lettering," he said.

"It's all about happiness," Meyer chimed in.

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