St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Sharpie Nation

In our name-brand, celebrity-obsessed culture, there's one signature line: Show me the Sharpie.

Published October 20, 2005

[Times illustration: Steve Madden]

Chests, breasts, cheeks.

Taut bellies, tan bellies, hairy, sweaty beer bellies.

Shoes, shirts, jeans.

Socks, hats, backpacks.

Bricks, walls, white patio chairs.

Some kid's poor pet frog.

In Sharpie Nation, we'll sign anything and have anything signed.

Forever ready for those famous 15 minutes - your 15, my 15, their 15 - we keep our preferred permanent marker tucked in our khakis, jammed in our agent's purse, clipped to our Dora the Explorer backpack as we trudge off to social studies.

If we are Southern-rock rebel Shooter Jennings, we need two black Sharpies to satisfy a line of nervous, tittering meet-and-greeters backstage.

If we are composer Dennis McCarthy, creator of myriad Star Trek musical scores, we use a green Sharpie in lieu of a baton to conduct our orchestra.

If we are hottie tennis pro Maria Sharapova - and unfortunately most of us are not - we keep a Sharpie in our purse, right next to our iPod, our cell phone and our sunscreen.

If we are NASCAR star Kurt Busch - and fortunately most of us are not - we sign with Sharpies, drive a Sharpie-sponsored car in the Sharpie 500 ... and get pelted with Sharpie pens by surly gear heads who hate our guts.

"We make a personalized Sharpie for the president of the United States," says Mike Finn, the penmaker's manager of public relations. "It has his autograph and his seal on it."

In Sharpie Nation, we all have ink on our fingers.

* * *

Making your mark, marking your territory.

Letting someone know YOU WERE HERE.

In Sharpie Nation, permanence comes in 29 colors.

Oh, don't fool yourself: You know you want to last forever. That's why, even though you have dozens of Sharpies in your junk drawer, you insist on schlepping to Home Depot and buying more. That's why Sharpie has become as smoothly synonymous with permanent markers as Coke is with soda, Xerox is with photocopies, and Kleenex is with tissues.

That's also why has-been rapper Vanilla Ice tucks a Sharpie into his trucker hat even though no one really wants his autograph. (No offense, Van. Word to ya mother.)

The only difference between you labeling a moving box so you won't forget and Tom Arnold signing an 8-by-10 glossy so he won't be forgotten is that one of you was once married to Roseanne.

It hurts but it's true: Two hundred years from now, more people will remember Beyonce than remember you. She'll live forever. And that's why we thrust our Sharpie at her.

Well, that's the most tasteful reason at least.

* * *

A few crucial facts before a gratuitous Pamela Anderson reference:

Sharpie is responsible for roughly two-thirds of all permanent marker sales, according to a 2004 report from the New York American Marketing Association. Forty percent of those Sharpie sales occur during back-to-school season.

More than 200-million Sharpies have rolled off the production line since Illinois' Sanford Corp. (owned by parent company Newell Rubbermaid) started making them in 1964.

According to Bob Jones, co-owner of Autograph World in Dover, N.H., Sharpies are not just the preferred pen for celebrities and the celebrity-obsessed - they're the only pen.

Jones, an autograph broker for almost 20 years, has an inventory of 5,000 famous signatures, from Jimmy Kimmel to Jimmy Stewart, from Lauren Bacall to Pamela Anderson.

And "almost all of them," Jones says, have been signed with a Sharpie.

"The only problem with Sharpie is they will smudge if you don't take care of the autograph until it's dried."

In Sharpie Nation, smudge is a four-letter word.

* * *

Baseballs, baseball gloves, baseball bats, baseball jerseys, baseball cards.

Basketballs, bowling balls, hockey sticks.


Football helmets.

A 23-pound NASCAR tire.

The start/finish line at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Golf balls signed by LPGA star Paula Creamer, who prefers to wield a pink Sharpie.

* * *

On Oct. 14, 2002, Sharpie Nation was born.

That was the night San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens performed the most controversial touchdown celebration in football history.

He did it with a black Sharpie fine-point marker. On Monday Night Football.After zipping into the enemy end zone against the Seattle Seahawks - in Seattle, no less - Owens pulled a Sharpie out of his sock and signed the pigskin. This premeditated act of arrogance in front of some 67,000 fans and more than 10-million television viewers was staggering for sure, but Owens wasn't done yet.

After inking the ball, he strutted to the stands and handed it to his financial adviser, who also happened to be the agent for the defensive back he had just burned!

In Sharpie Nation, we call that panache.

Sharpie's PR leader Finn was watching the game on television. He says his company had no previous knowledge of Owens' stunt.

"The first thing I thought of was, HE JUST PULLED A SHARPIE OUT OF HIS SOCK!" Finn says.

"I could tell it was a Sharpie 'cause I could see the gray barrel and black cap. The next morning, I came in to work and my voice mailbox was full. I had everyone from ESPN to every major daily calling for a reaction." He laughs: "Our reaction was, "Wow."'

Football analysts and related blowhards crucified Owens for the Sharpie incident. The people at Sharpie saw things a wee bit differently.

First, the company financed a TV commercial to spoof the incident. The ad, Finn recalls, featured "a high school football coach in a locker room saying, "Tonight we're going to make our mark on the game of football. We're not actually going to make a mark on the football.' So all the kids are filing onto the field and the coach is collecting all the Sharpies out of their socks."

A year later, Sharpie and Owens hooked up for a charity campaign called "AUTOgraphs for Education," which raises funds for schools. Owens was provided a "Sharpie Metallic Silver Hummer H2 vehicle" to take to events, where students were asked to autograph an 8-by-10 wall.

"We ask the celebrities to turn the tables on kids ... and ask for their autograph," says Finn about the ongoing campaign.

Finn won't reveal the financial benefits of Owens' MNF exposure, but allows that Sharpie has become "a brand that's really grown because of the popularity of celebrity as well as the passion that fans have for them."

In Sharpie Nation, we all want to be Terrell Owens.

Or the financial adviser who received the ball.

* * *

In Sharpie Nation, we've been led to believe that a magic moment between celebrity and fan can happen at any moment: in a Taco Bell (look, Elijah Wood is eating a chalupa!), or backstage at a rock show (omigod, Eminem was so giving you the finger!), or on the red carpet at the Oscars (Joan Rivers' ear just fell off!).

There's nothing like a scrum of fans circling a star, so close to fame, so close to feeling famous. It can get nasty in there. It can get hungry.

"A lot of times you don't even see what you're signing 'cause everybody's pushing," says Birgit Vonschondorf of Fourth Coast Management, a St. Petersburg company handling up-and-coming bands (one of which, it just so happens, is responsible for signing that kid's poor pet frog).

Celebrity autographs and related memorabilia now constitute a $5-billion-a-year industry, and Sharpie is tying two new products into our obsession with celebrity.

The Sharpie Retractable "is a one-handed operation," Finn says about the click pen. "For a celebrity, that's important. Imagine you're walking by a crowd of people, and they all have Sharpies with caps on them. You have to figure out how not to lose the cap, how not to tattoo your arm. The Retractable allows them to do that."

And then there's the Sharpie Mini, a wee nubby pen with a clip that's geared toward backpack-toting students.

"When a Sharpie is used by your favorite sports figure or by your favorite movie star," Finn says, "you want to emulate those people." Or so Sharpie hopes.

Autograph World's Jones can only stomach so much Sharpie talk - he actually prefers Sanford's Vis-A-Vis pen, which dries "extremely quickly" - but he good-naturedly gives Sharpie Nation a tip:

Use blue. Black Sharpies, he says, "tend to halo," meaning that over time a yellow ring may form around the signature.

Plus, he adds, "nobody wants an autograph in green, red or orange."

In Sharpie Nation, we are about to disagree.

* * *

A 1947 ad from Look magazine featuring Frank Sinatra selling a GE portable radio signed, with a red Sharpie, by Ol' Blue Eyes himself.

This last item is not for sale...

* * *

... because Frank Sinatra disliked singing autographs so much, he usually had someone in his posse (his press liaison, his secretary, his goons) scribble his signature for him.

That's why Bobby Rossi isn't selling his Sinatra Sharpie autograph for anything.The director of entertainment at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall, Rossi got his start in the music biz working for Fantasma Productions in West Palm Beach. In 1993, Rossi was assisting with an extended Sinatra engagement in Fort Lauderdale. The Chairman of the Board was in his late 70s at the time, weakening but still intimidating.

Rossi's wife Patricia had recently given her husband a gift: an exquisitely framed color ad from a 1947 issue of Look magazine featuring Sinatra selling GE portable radios. The young singer has a chiseled jaw and a thick head of wavy brown hair.

In between shows, Sinatra would golf, practicing for an upcoming appearance in the Bob Hope Classic. During one of Sinatra's outings, something bad happened.

"The Boss lost his club," Rossi remembers.

A Big Bertha driver. A powerhouse. Gone.

When the golf course eventually found the club, Rossi had the pleasure of telling one of Sinatra's cronies, who in turn asked what Sinatra could do for the young promoter.

So one night, in Sinatra's dressing room before a gig, one of the crooner's assistants presented Sinatra with Rossi's Look ad: "Hey Boss, it was Bobby's friend who found the club."

Sinatra grabbed the picture. He sat there, silent, staring at his youthful visage. Rossi, a trembling mess, remembers thinking: "This is something the SAT never prepared me for."

Finally, after an interminable silence, Sinatra looked up from the ad and said:

"I got fifteen hundred for doing this."

Cue exhales. Sinatra motioned for a pen. But when someone handed him a black Sharpie, the boss said no.

There was another great, dooming pause.

Then: "I want a red one."

Rossi and Sinatra. Forever linked. Just like that.

In Sharpie Nation, the shortest distance from here to eternity is a thin red line.

-- Sean Daly can be reached at 727 893-8467 or His blog can be found at

[Last modified October 19, 2005, 16:47:49]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters