Freak art! Expert talks sideshow banners in Coney Island

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Step right up folks, and see the artwork!

An expert on the history of sideshow banners will discuss the colorful cloth advertisements that showcased the freaks, oddities, and eccentric acts of the midway. The author of “Painters of the Peculiar,” who will read from his book at the Coney Island Museum on July 27, said that the over-the-top banners were designed to draw people in, and rarely reflected the reality of the sideshow.

“With sideshow banner art, they typically never depicted a real person, instead just depicting a generic sword swallower or fire breather or whatever. You really have no idea who these banners are depicting unless they are named, which is rare,” said Michael Papa. “They weren’t depicting whatever you were going to see — it was all a lie.”

Papa’s obsession with the banners began with his father’s collection of circus art created by painter Snap Wyatt. As a boy, Papa said he was mystified by the sideshow acts advertised on the banners.

“The banners that stand out from this line are ‘the Guillotine’ and ‘Levitation.’ Those banners were always very mysterious to me and I really enjoyed looking at them when I was little. They created an ambiance in the room where they are displayed that is not replicated any other way,” Papa said.

Papa wrote his book with Johnny Meah, a respected sideshow banner painter whose work is showcased in the Smithsonian and Barnum museums. The book discusses the history of the art form, and it provides biographies of some of the most prolific banner painters.

One artist featured in the book is Marie Roberts, a Coney Island native known for her modern take on sideshow banner paintings. Roberts, who paints images for Coney Island USA, said that her work needs to be bold to cut through the clutter of Coney Island in the summer.

“In a place like Coney Island, where there’s rides, noise, smells and foods, the banners will stop you in your tracks and you make you curious about the wonders,” Roberts said.

During his talk, which is part of the Museum’s “Ask the Experts” series, Papa will walk visitors through the birth of a sideshow banner, from its inspiration to the moment that it is presented to the public. He will also cover the history of banner artists, and the characteristics that mark their work, he said.

“I wanted the book to be a guide for collectors because there is a lot of misinformation out there about who painted what and when,” Papa said. “I didn’t want banner artists’ legacies to be mixed in with each other. They should all be recognized and celebrated in the same category, but individually because they all have their own individual styles.”

“Painters of the Peculiar” at the Coney Island Museum (1208 Surf Ave. at W. 12th Street, second floor, in Coney Island, July 27 at 5 p.m. $5 ($3 seniors and kids).

Reach reporter Chandler Kidd at or by calling (718) 260–2525. Follow her at
Posted 12:00 am, July 23, 2019
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