DECATUR — They are gypsies, by a true interpretation of the word.
“We sneak in and we sneak out,” said Rachael Luka, owner of Sign Gypsies Oakley. “And we leave a lot of glitter behind.”
Sign Gypsies are the characters who bring celebratory letters, numbers and decorations onto area yards to honor recipients for various reasons and occasions. The focus of Sign Gypsies Oakley, Luka said, is to spread joy.
“We want to brighten someone’s day, to let someone know they’re loved,” she said. “We connect with the communities.”
Kenney's Ace Hardware recently had a sign gypsy visit them, wishing Nana a Happy Birthday. "They did it real early in the morning so we didn't see them," said manager Pat Kenney.
The store's customers even wished the birthday girl a Happy Birthday. "It draws attention," Kenney said.
Luka, 38, began secretly placing signs in people’s yards more than two years ago after visiting family in the southern area of the country. “Yard greetings are really big in the South,” Luka said.
The displays are art exhibits that change with each visit. “They kind of create themselves as we get where we are,” Luka said.
At 18 inches in height, the corrugated plastic letters, numbers and pictures were purchased from the Sign Gypsies corporation in Texas, where they are created by an artist.
According to the company website, Sign Gypsies began in 2014 in McKinney, Texas, by Stacey Hess. “As a mom, I know what it’s like to watch those little faces light up when you surprise them with something special,” she said.
The displays cost $85 for a day-time delivery; $130 for the evening delivery. Each signage is exhibited for 24 hours. Three part-time staff are employed with the local franchise. Since the pandemic has required families to celebrate in alternative fashions, the Sign Gypsies have been busy.
Although birthday and anniversary signs are most popular, all positive celebrations are seen throughout Central Illinois. “We Miss You,” “We Love You,” are also signs of affection at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“And we love helping schools,” Luka said.
The gypsies have also honored those who have passed away. “Not everyone can gather for funerals, so they have been having drive-by memorials,” Luka said. “They’re not called funeral signs, but memorial signs, like ‘Always in our hearts,’ or ‘Forever Loved’.”
The displays that touch the hearts of the staff include encouraging signs for cancer or other ill patients. “There are more days that I cry then I’d like to admit,” Luka said.
Each sign consists of individual letters, spelling out names and occasions. The Sign Gypsies don’t ask for clarification or details, referring to one display that said “Snip, Snip, Hooray.”
“To have a franchise, I’m not allowed to display any political, hate or cuss words,” Luka said. “And I totally back this. We spread joy.”
Reactions have been positive from those who see the signs for the first time. According to Luka, the recipient often sees the white backs of the display first. “But to see the joy across their faces,” Luka said. “There are so many days I have cried, knowing that today someone was loved and felt appreciated.”
Since she began the Sign Gypsies franchise, Luka was able to help Champaign and Bloomington establish their own businesses. “Only because I can’t cover everything,” she said.
The staff often begin early in the morning, but can also show up at night. According to Luka, some of the county sheriffs and townships like to know when they are arriving. “They request we call in and let them know where we will be. We’ve only ran into them a few times,” Luka said. “We always make sure someone on the property knows we will be there.”
Discretion is important to the gypsies. “I try to uphold privacy,” Luka said. “They are giving me lots of information to customize these signs.”
Many of her signs are not posted on social media or used as advertisements. The displays that are used are not posted until after they have been removed from the yard. “That is for the family,” Luka said. “I don’t share them.”
The customers and recipients rarely view the installation, according to Luka.
Weather, especially rain and wind, as well as frozen ground, sickness and other obstacles can alter the time and date of the installation. “Right now everything changes,” Luka said. “My schedule changes daily.”
Due to copyright laws, the gypsies are unable to use iconic images, such as Disney characters. Instead Luka reviews the recipients likes and interests along with available color choices. Then she studies the inventory for additions that will bring more color to the display. “Or for more happiness for that person,” she said.
Before she found herself sneaking into people’s yards to set up celebratory signs, Luka was a dental assistant. “I’ve always wanted to own my own event business,” she said. “I guess this is a small piece of that.”
Luka has heard some surprising reactions. “Best birthday ever,” she said about a recent display. “We are in the middle of a pandemic and still managed to bring joy and celebrate that person’s day.”
Not all families are happy with the displays. “But I follow the person who ordered it,” Luka said.
Setting up the displays, Luka has found happiness as well. “It’s been wonderful getting to know more areas of our communities,” she said.
Sign Gypsies travel throughout Macon County as well as nearby cities such as Monticello, Cerro Gordo and Cisco.
COVID-19 has changed the need and the purpose of the business. Although they are working undercover, the gypsies have been busy. But they don’t seem to mind the work.
“Being able to give, especially at a time when it seems so hard to give, it’s still giving,” Luka said. “We’re bringing a little bit of joy at a time when we’re all wondering will we have joy.”
Children make bubble art with the Decatur Area Arts Council
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