Willis Arcade Artwork
Willis Industries Inc. was a prolific screen printer and distributor of artwork for the arcade game industry during the 1980’s. While best known for their extensive line of replacement control panel overlays, Willis also produced dedicated artwork for several game manufacturers, including Centuri, Gremlin and Exidy. Artwork packages for other coin operated manufacturers, like U.S. Billiards and International Game Technology, were also produced. Willis is most famous for the production and distribution of licensed, replacement arcade game artwork. Willis control panel overlays could be used by operators to spruce up a worn control panel on a classic game, at a much lower cost than an original factory replacement. Willis artwork had high production values and quality materials, but sometimes missed the mark on the design aesthetics. While this probably didn’t matter much to the operator looking to save money, the classic arcade game collecting community hasn’t fully embraced Willis artwork.
Even though Willis was responsible for the dedicated artwork on many classic arcade games, sometime during the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, the name Willis became synonymous for any “bad” arcade artwork found on a classic machine. Any poor quality control panel overlay, or ugly side art that couldn’t be quickly identified, or wasn’t original to the game, was quickly labeled a “Willis” by the collecting community. That is unfortunate as most of the really bad arcade artwork from the 80’s is either from another distributor, or most likely a bootleg piece of art. Willis did make some great artwork, so take a look around the gallery, I just might change your opinion of Willis arcade artwork.
Pick the section that you are interested in and click the button below. If you are looking to sell your Willis artwork, check out the Willis artwork grading guide – It will give you a framework on how to evaluate what your side art, control panel overlay, or marquee is worth. If you are a Willis artwork collector, read about the history I’ve uncovered and please contribute if you know more! If you need help identifying your piece of Willis artwork, check out the gallery below of my personal collection, or contact me directly and I can help you identify it.
How do I value my Willis arcade game artwork? No price guide exists, so pinpointing a value will be subjective. However, one simple but important factor to any Willis artwork collector is the condition.
Take my Willis Galaga control panel overlay for example. This piece is clean and intact with bright, vivid colors. The design is well done and while it may not match the classic cabinet, it has an interesting “electric company” type styling that makes it appealing. The adhesive backing is not peeling off and all the die-cut punches are in place making the full design visible. The only minor flaw is a bend in the upper right hand corner, very minor, but I would give this overlay a 9 or 9.5 out of 10. I would value this overlay at about $25 because of the condition.
Things to consider when assigning a value to your Willis artwork:
- Are there any creases, holes, tears or other damage?
- Is the artwork dirty, stained, or faded from sunlight?
- Is the adhesive backing paper or protective mask intact?
- Is the artwork rolled or is it flat? Are the edges crushed?
- Are the die-cuts in place or are they missing? All of them?
- How common is the piece of artwork?
Some examples of damage to artwork can be seen below.
Now some damage can be corrected so even if the artwork looks really bad, it might not be a total loss. Rolled artwork can be flattened, and dirty artwork can be carefully cleaned. Holes and punches are permanent and bends in the poly-carbonate will leave creases, even after flattening out the artwork. Some of the other issues may not matter. For example, missing die-cuts from a Willis X-O football overlay won’t be missed, there is no artwork in those areas.
Rarity is the next important piece of the puzzle when trying to figure out how much your Willis artwork is worth, as some overlays are harder to find. Operators installed replacement artwork on the popular games because a clean, neat game brought in more money. Tracking down a nice example for a popular game might be difficult. The more common stuff that you see all the time has less value. Common artwork is just easy to find and not sought after by collectors. Don’t be surprised if you can’t get $20 for your Super Cobra cpo, it just isn’t worth much. If you have a piece of artwork and you’d like some help grading it, contact me and I’ll be happy to help.
The last thing worth mentioning is that we’re talking about Willis artwork. In general, Willis artwork is going to have less value than original, new old stock artwork. Willis artwork was made as a low cost alternative to high priced replacement factory artwork. Overall Willis has a bad reputation in the hobby and most collectors just aren’t interested in the stuff. I personally think Willis made an important contribution to arcade history and every piece is worth saving!
Looking to Sell?
I am always looking for nice examples of Willis, bootleg or other interesting artwork. I’ll consider anything you have, from single pieces of artwork to large bulk buys. Arcade and pinball related magazines, catalogs, receipts, or any other coin operated information is of interest. Contact me if you have any of these items for sale, or just want to share some pictures and information. Please click the button above for an ‘appraisal’ or message me using my contact page.
What is Willis arcade artwork and how is it different from bootleg artwork? The primary difference is that Willis was a printing company, not some Mom and Pop print shop, located in San Jose California. I am not sure how long they were in the printing business, but the quality of their work suggests it had been for some time. How they got into printing arcade artwork is also a mystery, but it’s reasonable to assume that they bid and won jobs to print artwork packages for various game manufacturers. During this time they also started licensing and producing replacement artwork for popular classic games.
A great example is Phoenix by Centuri. This dedicated artwork package was produced by Willis and sometime later Willis released a licensed replacement overlay that shares much of the same styling and detail. While the artwork is well done on the Phoenix cpo, this was not always the case. The quality of Willis artwork – in terms of production – is excellent, but the actual design aesthetics often feel rushed and inappropriate for the game it was made for. Willis production quality can be seen in the Phoenix replacement overlay. It is reverse screen printed on lexan, has die-cuts for the button holes, and uses 3M paper and adhesive. They used multiple colors in the design, sometimes as many as 8 (see the Willis Galaga cpo), which made for a more attractive piece. All the things we want in a quality piece of reproduction artwork. Willis also put their name, date, and a part number right on the front of the artwork. This makes it very easy to identify a piece of Willis artwork.
A bootleg piece of artwork is not licensed or authorized so the artwork is typically hand drawn, looks rushed or incomplete, or sometimes in a cut and paste style from existing artwork. Paper quality varies greatly, but most bootlegs I have seen use an inferior backing paper and adhesive. Die-cuts are rare as die-cuts require tooling and a good run of parts to make the cost worth while. Color quality also varies, some have lots of color, while others use as little as possible. The whole premise behind a bootleg is to save money. Either the manufacturer making bootleg pcb kits, or the operator making cpo’s to spruce up his own games, the cheaper the better. Quality paper, die-cuts, professional artwork layout, all of these things would have added to the cost. For a gallery of bootleg artwork visit my Bootleg Arcade Artwork page.
So let’s talk about why Willis arcade artwork got such a bad reputation within the collecting community. The first thing that comes to mind is the horrible replacement artwork produced for Ms. Pac-Man, especially that side art. I think we can all agree on that. Why was the artwork so bad? Perhaps they didn’t have the experience to tap into a quality artist, or perhaps Namco would have smacked them hard if they used imagery that was too similar, who can say? Regardless, these overlays got installed on games when the original cpo’s wore out. Ms. Pac-Man is a popular game and was produced in great numbers. That means there were a lot more replacement overlays installed. Which means collectors had to deal with these replacement graphics more often when doing a classic game restoration. It’s easy to see how the bad rep developed.
Willis Industries was a printer first and foremost and if promotional materials are to be believed, Willis was the first company to take the leap from screen printing metal panels to the Lexan (poly carbonate) cpo’s we’re familiar with today. They pioneered the reverse-printed, pressure-sensitive, poly-carbonate control panel for video games. So take another look at your Willis cpo’s, there is a lot to be seen.
Below is my gallery of Willis arcade game artwork. This is my personal collection of control panel overlays, side-art, marquee’s, posters, and signs. Anything Willis related that I can find and preserve. Willis Industries played an important role in the history of arcade game artwork and replacement graphics, their work deserves some appreciation.
Additional Willis pieces will be added as they are found or acquired. Dimensions provided are for reference use only and should be verified. If you have any information about the Willis artwork shown or if you have any Willis artwork you would like to sell, trade or donate, please contact me to discuss, thanks.
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