The wall dogs' last stand: technology puts sign painters out of work
By Leila Abboud
PHOTO: Leila Abboud
The "wall dogs" at work high above Shea Stadium
Alberto Gonzalez gazed out onto 55,000 empty seats at Shea Stadium. He stood on a scaffold 80 feet above the ground, with his back against the towering scoreboard. Below, men with white plastic buckets and hoes were picking through the brown grass of the field. A month before opening day, Shea Stadium still looked like a woman without makeup.
It was the first day on the job for the sign painters, Alberto Gonzalez and Ruben Sacastro. Over the next month, the two would paint all the advertisements in the stadium: the murals on the scoreboard, along the outfield, the curved stands, and the interior hallways.
Gonzalez, a 54 year-old immigrant from Ecuador, turned to face the 80-by-45-foot Budweiser advertisement that flanked the scoreboard. Red paint dripped from the roller brush he held in his hand, falling onto the already-speckled toe of his worn construction boot. Another season, another paint job, Gonzalez thought.
As Gonzalez rolled the brush up and down the wall he said, "I'm the last dinosaur. We're going to disappear."
Alberto Gonzalez is one of a dying breed -- outdoor sign painters who practice their craft on brick walls and billboards all over New York City. For decades, men like Gonzalez have balanced hundreds of feet in the air on scaffolds no more than two feet wide, braving the blazing sun, wind and cold to paint advertisements.
The advent of digitally printed vinyl ads over the past decade has rendered painted ads nearly obsolete. Vinyl ads are cheaper and faster to produce, and neon and electric ads have spread. The union to which Gonzalez belongs once had hundreds of members. Now there are a dozen. Similar shrinkage has occurred across the nation.
With the sign painters will disappear the last traces of an era of American advertising when itinerant sign painters ruled. Nicknamed "wall dogs," these men traveled the country from the 1920s to the 1950s spreading the first national advertising campaigns. They emblazoned the sides of barns with logos for products like Mail Pouch Tobacco and Coca-Cola.
The men earned a reputation for being wild, said St. Louis-based photographer William Stage, who published a book about the "wall dogs" and their work. "They would drink beer as they hung from rope scaffolds high above the street, and spill paint on cars and people below," said Stage.
In many cities, including New York, traces of the wall dogs' handiwork can still be seen. The lead-based paint of the old ads survived time and weather.
Although Gonzalez may think his craft is nearly extinct, his work and that of other "wall dogs" may not be forgotten. A small but devoted band of photographers and urban archeologists across the country has tried to preserve and document the remaining ghost signs. And in Los Angeles, outdoor advertising companies have seen an increased demand for painted signs after the city outlawed large vinyl draped signs two months ago. In Fort Dodge, Iowa, a building was torn down revealing a red, white and blue Coca-Cola ad on the adjacent building. The town is debating whether to restore the sign.
"People are drawn to them because it reminds them of another time," said Frank Jump, a New York-based documentary photographer who has photographed thousands of old ads over the past five years. Restoring old ads for historic or nostalgic value has become something of a trend in the Midwest, said Jump.
High above Shea Stadium, Gonzalez has no illusions about the future of the painted signs. He rattled off the names of new sign technology, "Flexface, Paraflex, G-Flex? They replace the artists."
Gonzalez adjusted his weight as his partner Sacrasto moved closer to the right edge of the scaffold. After painting side by side for 13 years, the men move about with the ease of longtime dance partners. Novice painters are taught to make no sudden movements that can throw their partners off balance. Scaffolds tilt under the painters' boots and a sudden gust of wind can send them flying away from the wall.
As Gonzalez painted, he recalled his early days in the business. At 20, speaking no English, he came to New York where his older brother got him his first job in a sign shop. "I lived like a gypsy," Gonzalez said of his frequent moves. His older brother, who was nicknamed the Maestro for the artistic flair of the ads he painted, trained him. Gonzalez's two younger brothers followed, also getting jobs in the sign business.
"If you don't pay me money, I'll do it for free," said Gonzalez, who earns $28 an hour, the wage set by the union for a master painter. He has worked through summer sun and winter wind. He even kept painting after his older brother was killed on the job less than a week before he was to retire. No one knows how the Maestro slipped and fell off the metal scaffold, but he broke his neck, and was killed instantly.
Gonzalez looked over to his partner at the other end of the paint-speckled scaffold and jabbed his finger downward. He flipped a switch and the electric scaffold began its descent.
Mike Lugo, the union chief, greeted the painters as the scaffold reached the ground. "This job keeps you young," said Lugo. "You go places only the birds go."
Ghost signs Images from bygone days linger on the bricks
Terri Finch Hamilton
1,165 words
24 June 1990
The Grand Rapids Press
(Copyright 1990)
In this day of signs that flash, wink, blink and otherwise assail our citified senses, there's a calm in the storm of technology.
Simple letters painted on brick walls. Faded with time, ravaged by the elements, but lingering, in ghostly fashion, along the streets we drive every day.
It used to be fairly easy to overlook these faded remnants of years past. But now there's this book out by a man who writes of them with such passion, we have to wonder if there's something we're missing.
Seems there is.
"Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America," is by William Stage, a former Grand Rapidian who spent 10 years traveling across country documenting these signs.
In the book's forward, Arthur Krim, founding member of the Society for Commercial Archaeology, explains the book's eerie title:
"Some call them `ghost signs,' apparitions visible under certain light conditions when their painted letters rise from the wall to herald a forgotten flour or smoking tobacco. In this muted light, colors become tinted again and sometimes portions of different signs will appear, their letters jumbled and overlapped - a cup of alphabet soup. Yet with a patient stare, one can see the letters re-form to a recognized order, as a Mayan codex deciphered in sudden discovery and delight."
If this seems like flowery prose for paint on brick, you haven't caught the fever yet.
Stage, a 1969 graduate of Catholic Central High School and a 1976 graduate of the defunct Thomas Jefferson College of Grand Valley State is an unabashed brick wall sign fanatic.
"When a building is torn down and it exposes an old sign on the building next to it - preserved so well from the elements, it's a miracle," Stage said in a phone interview from his home in St. Louis.
You don't have to believe in miracles to appreciate these old signs - whether you see them on the pages on Stage's book or come across one in this very town.
The signs on these pages aren't in Stage's book - but he's pickier than we are. You can see these signs around town. In fact, chances are you've already seen them, dozens of times.
And we know we didn't find them all, which means those who are moved to action by Stage's words can don their safari hats, grab their binoculars and hit the streets in a summertime hunt for ghost signs.
What makes a good sign?
"A naive or outdated slogan," Stage said. "And if it has a picture along with it, not just copy, that's really cool, too. I like that."
The bad news?
"Grand Rapids doesn't really have any good ones," he said. "They've all been painted over or the buildings have been torn down."
The one Grand Rapids sign he included in his book - a sign advertising Rindge, Kalmbach, Logie and Co. shoes - "has been gone since about 1915," Stage said.
The fact that these signs disappear as abruptly as they went up is what spurred Stage to start capturing them on film.
"Sometimes I would discover a particularly fine sign, only to drive past a month later and find the building gone," he writes in the book. "Razed. Sacrificed on the altar of urban renewal. I thought, `If these choice specimens have met the wrecking ball in just the last few months, think of how many perished before I came along.' I began carrying a camera in my car."
The advent of the highway system in the 1950s was the downfall of the brick wall sign, Stage said.
"In the past, traffic was confined to the cities, but when the highways were built, people started driving outside the city, and from city to city, so along came billboards," he said. "Billboards were a big factor in the decline of the brick wall sign. That, and the fact that they just don't make big brick warehouses anymore."
The good news is the art hasn't died out. You still can see newer brick wall signs, especially in brick-laden Cincinnati, Stage said.
Brick walls have become popular city canvases for artists, too, during the past decade, he noted.
Stage has considered writing a sequel to his ode to brick signs, but for now he's working on an extended photo essay of the Midwest. He also writes a column for the Riverfront weekly newspaper in St. Louis.
Meanwhile, not all history buffs embrace brick wall signs with the same passion Stage does.
"I see them mainly as triggers to memory," observed Grand Rapids historian Gordon Olson. "In and of themselves, they're not the kind of thing you think of preserving. They're too vulnerable to outside sources.
"They're worth getting a photo of before they disappear," he noted.
Olson does talk fondly of the old Silver Foam Beer sign that used to be on the side of the Shamrock Bar at Madison and Hall streets. Now that was a sign worth preserving, he said, maybe for the new public museum. But alas. "A fire in the building did it in, I think," he said.
The old Mail Pouch Tobacco signs on the sides of barns "were an integral part of the rural landscape," Olson said. The farmers used to get their barns painted for free if they offered the side for a Mail Pouch Tobacco sign, he said, and he knows of efforts to try to preserve some of those signs.
"But they didn't paint these signs for permanence - theirs was a transitory effort," Olson said. "Then it becomes a curiosity a generation or two later.
"I'm not dismissing their importance," Olson said, "but I see them mainly as memory triggers. That's what they were initially intended for - to catch your attention for a moment."
Those who want to hunt for these old signs should picture themselves as old "wall dogs" - the men who made a living painting them, Olson said.