The History of Hawai‘i From Our Files: City Signs Loved By Local Creatives

HONOLULU Magazine emerged from predecessor “Paradise of the Pacific,” which began in 1888, fulfilling a commission by King Kalākaua. That makes this the oldest continuously published magazine west of the Mississippi with an enviable archive worth diving into each month. Here’s a look back at May 1981.


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There are signs everywhere. And in 1981, a HONOLULU photo essay showcases a few of graphic designer Susan Merritt’s favorites Downtown. According to HONOLULU, “She responded not only to the message presented by the sign, but also to other visual stimuli such as texture, color composition and letterform design. She was especially intrigued by the effectiveness and artistic quality of certain signs ‘designed’ by persons untrained in the field.”


Her one-of-a-kind finds, more beguiling than beautiful, include practical messages painted on concrete walls and business entrances: “Stop. Here,” “Door Lock Any Time” and “Pau.” From the looks of it, the signs were written in Sharpie or painted and read more like broken English—not exactly pretty in ink.


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Apparently, telltale signs seem to be a fascination for creatives. In 2014, HONOLULU’s then-managing editor, Michael Keany, writes about his deep affection for the hand-painted posts in the Waikīkī Shopping Plaza parking lot. Odd. Like Merritt, Keany was impressed with the stylistic choices, and he contacted local companies to try to hunt down the artist/painter, but to no avail. Apparently “the quirky, off-center details that made me love the Plaza’s signage were imperfections that wouldn’t have been tolerated by professionals back in the heyday of the industry,” he writes.


SEE ALSO:  The Neon Signs of Honoulu


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To this day, typographical treasures are still hangin’ around adding character(s) to our city. In 2019 photographer Mark Jonathan Davis’ book, Fonts in Paradise, features dynamic typefaces from midcentury buildings, businesses and eateries. Far more aesthetically appealing than the aforementioned signs, Davis’ images take us on a trip down memory lane to a specific art period and hang-loose culture.


SEE ALSO: 15 Most Creative and Powerful Signs From the Women’s March in Honolulu


Some signs are noteworthy purely for their message. Hawaiian Rent-All is famous for its humorous cracks displayed high above, providing chuckles for commuters on Beretania Street. Last year’s quotes poked fun at the crazy life we were all experiencing: “Lockdown Update, People With No Friends Allowed To Sit On A Beach,” “Maybe We Should Ask Pfizer To Find A Vaccine For Our Unfinished Rail,” “Reopening Strategy No More Levels, Just Tears, Sorry, We Meant ‘Tiers.’”


For us, it’s a sign of the times that we need.



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Learn more about the evolution of covers in HONOLULU Magazine and Paradise of the Pacific: 125 Years of Covers, available at



Find more photos from Honolulu’s past every Thursday on Instagram @honolulumag.