Stepping in to Dr. Bob’s iconic shop located in New Orleans’s Bywater neighborhood, curious wanderers will find themselves among hundreds of his instantly recognizable art pieces, which range in price from $20 to $20,000. The collection includes stylized nature paintings, friendly caricatures of characters around the city, and, of course, his most popular work: signs urging people to “be nice or leave.”
Dr. Bob’s art can be found all over the Big Easy from inside residents’ homes to painted on the side of the now-passed Mr. Okra’s legendary produce truck. Some visitors, however, might not know that the artist behind those signs is as much part of New Orleans’s identity as the signs themselves. That’s right: Dr. Bob, the owner of quirky shop Dr. Bob’s Folk Art, is one of the area’s main attractions, with many folks making a detour to the area just for a lively chat.
The draw of his larger-than-life character isn’t lost on Shaffer himself. “I’m a roadside attraction,” he says referring to himself as much as his store that, by his own account, features “alligators that are 8 feet long, birds that are 12 feet tall, and dinosaurs that are 8 feet tall.”
Born Robert Shaffer in Kansas, Dr. Bob, now 70 years old, has spent most of his life in New Orleans, where his family moved to in the mid-1960s, when his father found a job at the Michoud NASA Assembly Facility.
“Moving from Kansas, which sucked, to here, which is awesome, changed my life,” the artist says. “There were no trees and only melancholy and snow [in Kansas]. Louisiana was cool and there were all kinds of things going on here.”
Among those things was a burgeoning art scene. Always interested in the arts, Shaffer recalls meeting the owners of a picture frame shop after relocating to the city. “I would go over to the picture frame shop and help nail holes with frames as a kid to get away from home,” he says. “I would see all this incredible art that was being framed. I learned how to make picture frames at a very early age.”
Fast-forward a few years and, in 1990, Shaffer set up shop in the same location he is at now—making and selling paintings, sculptures, signs, and more.
When asked about the origins of the ubiquitous “be nice or leave,” posts that have become his trademark, Dr. Bob cites his younger years of gallivanting around town before he was old enough to legally enjoy New Orleans’s many honky-tonks. “I was a young juvenile delinquent going to bars,” he says. “I had some cash and was buying some cigarettes and, if you could do that—be nice or leave—you could do anything.” In other words? Respect the people and the environment around you, don’t be rude, and if you want to stir up trouble . . . just leave.
While spending time in his studio throughout the years, the artist would repeatedly put up signs with the catchphrase in an effort to ward off folks who would interrupt his work flow. “I put the sign over the door and it kept getting stolen, so I started making them and selling them,” he says. “That’s what pretty much has financed me to be able to make my own sculptures and pay the rent.”
The majority of Shaffer’s pieces can be purchased online, but to truly enjoy the artist behind them requires a physical trip to the shop. Still, to arrive at the heart of his personality and to understand Dr. Bob’s ethos proves to be a challenge. Every question posed to Shaffer leads to multiple trains of thought that never quite seem to reach their respective destinations. A story about his days in New York morphs into one about a young girl with a brain tumor (she’s now fine). That tangent eventually takes us to the perils of social media and how COVID-19 has affected his business (like everyone else, he had to close up shop for a while), and the life stories of the two fellas whose works are on display alongside his very own at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis. There’s clearly a lot to talk about, but no time to actually exhaust a theme.
There are, however, some topics that are completely off limits. “I don’t discuss religion or politics,” Shaffer says. “People form their own opinions and I try to stay out of it.” When it comes to the message behind his art, Shaffer also sets boundaries. “It’s to cut the shit and be nice,” he notes before saying that, actually, he doesn’t have anything to say about that in particular. “It speaks for itself,” he says. He’s not wrong about that.