Questions?     Email us at:

navbar HOME

A Short Oral History from a Real-Life "Walldog"

albany, ORjamestown,caharrisburg, OR

I was an old walldog for 20 years at a company named Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising. I have been in the sign business going on 32 years now. I still get a chance to paint walls but they are few and far between nowadays. Too many ordinances. I really enjoy seeing the old washed-out walls as well as the old neon and painted signs along the highways. We are a dying breed now; computers, ordinances, and truthfully, the lack of recognition for sign artists, have left many of us finding new careers.

Yes, many of the signs were painted with lead. My family goes back quite a ways as painters. My great grandfather was a house painter and I still have packets of different colors with how to mix the white lead, linseed oil, dryers and pigment to attain colors. The old sign painters did the same. That's why the signs still show after all these years.

We worked where the signs took us, whether twenty stories in the air or six feet off the ground. Rain, snow or sunshine never seemed to be a factor, just get the job done. The knowledge we learned in the business was handed down through generations,one sign man to another. Layout, lettering skills, font types and art skill were just a few of the factors that made a good sign person. A small percentage of us had formal schooling on the subject but many had the art skill to begin with. The rest came from working with the pros. Some of the best artists and advertising people have been sign people; we were called upon to create and execute the best advertisement possible for the client. Hence, our well-honed skills.

The old ways are still being passed down but to less and less people. Seems no one wants to get dirty anymore. Computers have taken the place of many handpainted signs but they are only as good as the person behind the keys. Believe me, us old sign people have seen some very bad advertising out there. When I did billboards and walls, the client agreed with a professional artist on layout and copy. These were done by hand and consistently had punch, color and flair. They were handed down to us and either projected, gridded off or hand layed-out on the wall or board, painted to the signperson's skill and came out beautiful. Unfortunately, today billboards look like something you would see in a phone book or an ad in a magazine.

When I was in the business, the local newspaper did several articles on outdoor advertising. They were dumbfounded by what they learned. They had no idea that a lot of the ads were handpainted, another thing that led to our downfall.

As for the people in the business, I truthfully have never found a more unique group of people in my life. We all had our odd idiosyncrasies and moods. Many were skilled at several trades but made their careers in signs. Artists are unique in the way they look at the world and signpainters were no different, and to get a bunch of us together and execute a job was a treat in itself. But the bond we all had was unbreakable and a better bunch of people you couldn't meet. I could tell stories for hours about the people I met in the business.

The horse and buggy became extinct and so for the old "walldog". It was a tough bullet to bite but the memories are great. I'll bet you won't look at the old signs quite the same again; there's a human factor there that will never be seen again. BILL