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Local artist turns heads with creative sandwich board signs

A portrait of actor Ryan Gosling on a sidewalk sign proved to be a winner for 1369 Coffee House in Cambridge this summer — customer after customer walked in.

Perhaps it was Gosling’s twinkling blue eyes that drew people. Or maybe it was the mouth-watering “Fro-J” he beckoned them to try.

But Tim Wells, who created the image, likes to think it was his combination of art and humor that led customers into the cafe like moths to the flame.

“You’re walking down the street. You don’t expect to see Ryan Gosling there telling you to buy this thing. But it’s fun. You take a picture of it, and you send it to your friends,” said Wells. “My job is to get your attention, and if I happen to be talking about a product that we sell? Fine. But it’s more about getting the person to realize the shop is there in the first place.”

At many businesses in Greater Boston, the signs with hand-drawn art on them have become a popular means of grabbing the eyes of potential customers, often prompting them to stop and snap photos before sharing them on social media. In Boston, the signs, which are known as sandwich board or A-frame signs, have proliferated so much that officials are now mulling changes to ordinances affecting them.


“We have been doing sidewalk signs for a long time, but Tim just brought it to a new level starting at the beginning of summer,” said Josh Gerber, owner of 1369 Coffee House, which has locations in both Inman and Central Square. “It’s been great.”

The 31-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, who works part-time at 1369’s Central Square shop, relies on special acrylic paint pens and his background in sculpting and cake decorating to make his masterpieces.

With a toothpick in hand, Wells meticulously chips away at the paint once it’s applied to a sign to add fine lines and smooth details. Sometimes he does the drawings freehand, and other times he uses a projector to cast an image onto the board before tracing a basic outline.


Like the flirty Gosling display, a version of the popular “Hey Girl” Internet meme, his other work mixes funny phrases with intricate portraits, which Wells says is a guaranteed win. He makes a new sign for the coffee house each month.

“I get it now. I know what people want to see — or I know what people like to see,” he said. “I get a month’s worth of satisfaction of standing there watching folks walk up, take a picture, laugh and look up at the sign.”

In June, Wells drew a picture of rapper Ice-T’s face alongside a lemon wedge on a sidewalk sign. The sign advertised the cafe’s Arnold Palmer drinks, a mix of lemonade and ice tea.

It was an instant hit. People shared the image on social media, and stopped into the cafe to comment on the artistry.

September’s drawing was of “Harry Potter” characters Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. In the picture, Weasley was trying to cast a spell to make espresso, but the young wizard pronounced the name of the drink incorrectly, calling it “expresso.” Granger looks unamused.

The sign welcomed students back to the city, and landed Wells more than 50,000 “likes” when it got picked up by a Harry Potter fan club online.


“That was our most successful one so far,” Gerber said.

Wells’s latest piece for the cafe features pop star Taylor Swift. Beneath the singer’s face are the words “Cuz Baby We Got Hot Soup,” and “Chickpeas fix your hunger woes,” both takeoffs from the lyrics in her chart-topping song, “Bad Blood.”

The artist has also expanded his reach, working on signs for other businesses.

On Thursday, Wells started his second sign for JP Cross Fit, a gym in Jamaica Plain. It features C-3P0, the nervous golden robot from “Star Wars,” and the the skeletal T-800 robot from the Terminator films. The sign, once finished, will offer a before-and-after perspective of the results of working out at the gym. The hulking, deadly Terminator robot will be the “after.”

“It’s fun. It’s a game. But on a local level, it still gets people’s attention,” Wells said.

He’s also working on a series of signs for a Brookline grocery store.

Wells would ultimately like to turn his craft into a viable source of income, but doesn’t expect that he could make it a full-time venture.

“I don’t see it being a reliable thing like that,” he said. “But if it could be a side business and I could make as many signs for as many shops in Boston as possible, that would be awesome.”

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.