A lost art: 90-year-old Ell Sheckles is hand-painting this iconic Knoxville sign

For more than seven decades, 90-year-old Ell Sheckles has been painting signs in East Tennessee. Longtime Knoxvillians might have seen his hand-painted billboards over the years, but vinyl wrapping changed the industry.

Rather than retire, Sheckles stays busy practicing this lost art. His latest project is repainting the iconic Angelic Ministries Int. sign on Central Street at the former home of Merita Bakery.

Keep scrolling through photos for the full story, and click each audio player to hear from Sheckles.

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Ell Sheckles has been painting signs since he was 18 years old. It's a skill the East Tennessee native picked up from his father, who let him start out by painting a "clunker" of a car the family owned. Sheckles has since shared decades worth of painting knowledge with his sons, who have worked for sign-painting companies, themselves. For roughly two of those decades, Sheckles has been the man with the brush working to keep the Angelic Ministries Int. sign at the former Merita Bakery building looking good as new on Central Street.

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Urban Knoxville · Ell Sheckles: Painting an "old clunker"

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The ladder can be a little shaky, but Sheckles makes sure it's sturdy enough to climb using a secured rig of ropes tied in knots. Even without a harness, the 90-year-old is comfortable climbing to any height where a sign needs painting. "I used to like to climb," he said. "When I was real little, I liked to climb trees. Climbing doesn't bother me. ... It's a 36-foot ladder. It's getting it stationary where it won't slide either way, cause you can get hurt that way."

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Urban Knoxville · Ell Sheckles: "I'm in pretty good shape"

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Sheckles used to work for a sign-making company, but he's a one-man show these days. This specific shade of red is just one color among the nearly 400 gallons worth of paint stored at his home workshop in Powell. Sheckles tried to retire at age 72. But after about three days of watching TV, he was ready to start painting again. He paints his house every chance he gets and picks up jobs where he can. "The way I think of that is when you're painting your house, you're really not making any money," he said. "That's what we all work for more or less. But you've got to like your work I think. If you don't, there's no point in getting up in the morning and going to work."

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Urban Knoxville · Ell Sheckles: Do what you love

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As Sheckles looks off the side of the building, a steady flow of cars pass by on Central Street. He hopes people notice his hand-painting craft, a lost art in the modern era of vinyl wrapping. The vinyl industry put him out of work painting billboards, but there was a silver lining: Sheckles ended up going into business for himself in 1972.

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Urban Knoxville · Ell Sheckles: "I do it the best I can"

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"Anybody … could put vinyl on," he said. "I like the painting, myself, better. It will actually, I think, last longer if you use some good paint." Sheckles identified this red paint simply as "104." He has to be careful about the types of paint he uses – water-based or oil-based – to avoid cracks and fading. Painting signs is both science and art.

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Urban Knoxville · Ell Sheckles: Painting is art and science

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Of course, it's a messy job. The paint splatters on the ground, on his skin and on his clothes. Getting paint off your hands is easy, Sheckles said, but jeans are another story. His wife doesn't mind the extra laundry, and he buys new pants every couple weeks — nothing too expensive, he said.

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Urban Knoxville · Ell Sheckles: Can't keep the paint off

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It can also be a slow job for one man. On a smaller sign, Sheckles might use a roller to paint large sections. But on a ladder, one hand holds on tight while the other hand paints. "There's no quick thing about this one," he said. "You have to do it with a brush, really. ... You can only reach about 3 feet at a time."

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Urban Knoxville · Ell Sheckles: Painting right at home

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Sheckles is in no big hurry, but he also believes it's important to keep moving. At age 90, he can't imagine going back into retirement – even though it only lasted three days. "I probably wouldn't be here long," he said. He doesn't think of painting as labor — just something to do every day. While making money is important, he said, the greatest joy is "making things look good."

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Urban Knoxville · Ell Sheckles: Painting keeps you moving

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the Angelic Ministries Int. sign.

Ryan Wilusz: Knoxville's downtown explorer and urban reporter
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Iconic Knoxville sign on Central Street hand-painted by Ell Sheckles