Who started painting those colorful plank signs with sayings first, Dr. Bob or Simon?
"Be Nice or Leave" is a simple statement that encapsulates the spirit of many New Orleans venues, so a painted placard or with this phrase can be found in many po-boy shops, dive bars and neighborhood restaurants. Dr. Bob was the first to make the phrase into art and it has become one of his trademarks, but it is a message that also can be found in pieces by Simon Hardeveld, better known as Simon.
Bob Shaffer, called Dr. Bob after he delivered his only son, was born in Kansas but grew up mostly in Louisiana. He began his art career as a sculptor who worked on Wilkinson Row in the French Quarter. While in the flow of a piece, wielding chainsaws and heavy power tools, Dr. Bob simply did not want to be interrupted. So when passersby would poke in their heads, Shaffer would use his tool to point to a posted sign that he had painted with the familiar message.
He says he first saw the message in an old juke joint he frequented in his youth called St. Joe's or Working Man's Paradise. Scribbled with Marks-A-Lot marker on one side of an old cardboard box was "Be Nice or Leave." The other side read, "Nothing in this world is worth getting shot or killed over." The "Be Nice or Leave" sign Shaffer painted and posted in his studio was stolen, as was each duplicate he made, so the artist was convinced people were interested in his style and this particular message. A friend who owned a gallery and gift shop nearby convinced Shaffer to sell signs and T-shirts with the slogan, and they were a hit.
Shaffer moved to his current Bywater studio on Chartres Street in the 1990s. On most days, you can find him in his spacious studio and shop painting his familiar slogan or whimsical scenes of the city or Louisiana wildlife, especially alligators. He creates his pieces on found materials, including Hurricane Katrina detritus, old ironing boards, trash can lids, coffee cans and more. He adorns many of the frames with old bottle caps. Shaffer says, "Ya gotta have soul and use real stuff" to be a good folk artist.
Over the past 20 years, Shaffer has had his work featured at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It also has appeared at the Smithsonian Institute and is in the permanent collection at the House of Blues New Orleans. He plans to open a gallery on Magazine Street in the near future.
Hardeveld moved to the U.S. from France and began his career as a chef, once operating a brasserie in Metairie. Increasingly, customers became more interested in the signs posted in the shop. Hardeveld says he has been painting slogan signs ever since.
Some people have described his style as Haitian-esque because he uses capitalized and shadowed letters and brightly colored patterns of polka dots and starbursts. Hardeveld says he uses only high-quality plywood to ensure the pieces will last for years. He doesn't take credit for the messages; each slogan is customized for the individual who orders it, from "Shalom, Y'all" to "There's No Place Like Home," "Ain't Nothing A Po-Boy Can't Fix" and "Be Nice or Leave." He and his wife Maria operate the shop Simon of New Orleans on Jackson Avenue near Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District.