About four years ago, Grant Zimmerman was inspired by a blank canvas, of sorts. It was on the wall of the BP gas station at 1130 Williamson St., owned by Mavi Kuldip Singh.
Zimmerman, who lives next door, approached Singh shortly after he bought the station, when he noticed that the station's marquee-style sign, typically used by other stations to advertise specials on 12-packs of soda or oil changes, hadn't been updated and that it looked "silly." He had an idea for the space.
Zimmerman told Singh he could update the sign if he had some letters. Singh pointed to a bunch in the back of the shop.
"Since then, I've been putting up the most interesting thing I can come up with," Zimmerman says.
One of the first phrases to adorn the sign was "FROG PARKING ONLY, ALL OTHERS TOAD."
That one fit nicely. But Zimmerman learned quickly that he'd often have to truncate his ideas to make them fit. The sign has four lines, which hold just 14 letters each.
The quips have to be short. They're not always sweet, but with a few topical exceptions, they're always funny. At least, that's his goal.
He got a kick out of watching people look twice when they read, "THIS IS A PRIVATE SIGN, DO NOT READ." Another favorite: "IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED, SKYDIVING IS NOT FOR YOU."
When Willy Street was under construction in 2011, the sign reflected its surroundings. "BEER IS CHEAPER THAN GAS," it read at one point. "DRINK, DON'T DRIVE."
"THE SHORTEST DISTANCE BETWEEN TWO POINTS IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION," it offered another time.
It's hard to predict when a quirky slogan will ruffle some feathers. Zimmerman was surprised that "IT IS EASIER TO GET OLDER THAN TO GET WISER" wasn't well received.
"We actually had people complain about that and we had to take it down," he says. "I had one that said, 'TO ERR IS HUMAN; TO ARR IS PIRATE.' I guess that might piss off a pirate or two."
Zimmerman created an unexpected firestorm in March 2013 when he put up a slogan he thought was funny: "DON'T DIE A VIRGIN, TERRORISTS ARE UP THERE WAITING FOR YOU."
The sign was the subject of a local news story reported by WISC-TV. The story quoted a woman who said she had seen the sign discussed on Facebook and that people were upset about it.
Singh told him that particular message should stay up for three months, Zimmerman says. The only negative feedback he was aware of in Madison was a father who asked how to explain the sign's meaning to his daughter. Ultimately, the order to take it down came from BP itself, Zimmerman says.
"It's meant to be funny," he says. "I don't put anything up that’s insulting."
The phrase that went up next? "SOME FOLKS ARE WISE, SOME FOLKS ARE OTHERWISE."
Zimmerman says he'll keep posting the messages until someone tells him he can't anymore. He has a list of about five phrases in reserve in case he can't think of one, and his friends and neighbors often offer suggestions. He hasn't used any outside suggestions yet, though.
He takes his inspiration from things he sees on TV or reads on the internet, or from old-fashioned puns. He tries to leave each phrase up for about a month, which gives him enough time to think of the next one.
The key to a good sign is to keep it simple, he says. He usually doesn't get topical, although he has posted a "Merry Christmas" message and one in honor of Nelson Mandela.
He avoids making political statements, but he's not afraid to tiptoe into the territory every now and then.
"This is one of my favorites. Republicans don’t get the joke, and Democrats always do: 'SLOWER MINDS KEEP RIGHT.'"
It's not unusual to see someone stop to take a picture of the sign. In fact, it's developed a bit of a following over the years.
"I actually have people that live in Verona … they fill up once a week, and they come to this gas station," Zimmerman says. "One of them is (former state Sen.) Joe Wineke. I put up a sign just for him: 'IF NO ONE TRUSTS POLITICIANS WHY DO WE LET THEM RUN EVERYTHING?'"
Zimmerman says people have called him the "evil genius of Willy Street" because of the signs on the BP.
"I could make it political, I could make it really out there, but I don’t," he says. "I’d rather just keep it funny, or topical once in a while. Instead of having a sign that says, 'Coca-Cola, two for 99 cents,' this is a lot more interesting."