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Friday, July 31, 2015

Painted Billboards

(Image 1) A dying breed of artist. Death by "oops"?                          
(Image 2) Billboard painting today.
No other form of art (stretching the definition a little) has changed more in the past hundred years than that of the painted billboard. Actually, strictly speaking in the traditional sense (Image 1, above), it has all but disappeared. In reality, this type of art has merely changed venue. No longer does the painter hang precariously, dozens of feet in the air, plying his skills. More often than not today, it's all done safely inside, flat on giant warehouse/studio floors (image 2, left), or mounted temporarily on a sizable wall fronted by scaffolding or a "cherry picker." Moreover, even at that, the painted billboard is all but a thing of the past, now replaced by the computer-driven "printed" billboard, though the gigantic, pigmented inkjet printers are, in fact, closer to painters than printers (Image 3, below). Originally they printed on strips of paper to be glued on the billboard much like wallpaper (Image 4, below). Advertisers even managed to invent a glue that deteriorated at roughly the same time as the billboard lease, causing the various layers of advertising to become an unsightly mess (Image 5, below).

(Image 3) The computer driven billboard printer (painter).
(Image 4) Billboards hung like wallpaper.

(Image 5) This is part of what gave billboards a bad name.
For better or worse billboards, as we think of them today (no one would dream of calling them art at that time), came with the automobile. Where there were cars, there was billboard advertising. The faster the cars traveled, the bigger the billboards in order to allow for words which could be read at forty miles an hour. They were totally unregulated as to size, number, placement, content, and taste. Often there was a sort of "billboard war" going on in which one billboard obstructed the view of others (Image 6, below). Ugly would be too mild an epithet for them. The famous Wall Drug of Wall, South Dakota, offering travelers "FREE ice water," practically lined the nearby highways "wall-to-wall" with their billboards. More recently there have even been musical billboards and scented billboards (near Mooresville, North Carolina, by the Bloom grocery chain). The signs depicted a giant cube of beef being pierced by a large fork that extended to the ground.

(Image 6) Billboard advertising circa 1920.
Obviously something had to be done; and thankfully, First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson took action. She persuaded her husband, the president, to push through Congress the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which strongly encouraged states (through the threat of withholding federal highway funds) to pass certain specific laws governing billboards along interstate highways. For the most part the law has been effective, though some advertisers simply moved their billboards back from the highway the prescribed 300 yards and made them still bigger.

(Image 7) Still sold "everywhere" but for somewhat more.
Originally, all billboards were painted. Today, virtually none of them are. The painted billboard allowed existing surfaces such as the sides of buildings to become "billboards" (Image 7, above). Today, despite the ravages of old age, they often appear more quaint than unsightly. As with the antique Coca-Cola billboard, entire building today can sometimes be used as billboards. They take on such size and scale as to only be possible by painting them the old-fashioned way--by hand. Likewise, custom made billboards today, are sometimes of such size and/or creative invention as to rule out any digital printing device. The "bridge" billboard (Image 9, below) erected some years ago during the World Cup competition in Munich, Germany, could only have been hand painted, and may hold the record as to length and creative ingenuity as well. Sometimes, as with the bridge billboard, the locale suggests some rather creative adaptation of the billboard as seen in the Oldtimer rest stop ad incorporating, not a bridge, but a tunnel this time (Image 10, below, left).

(Image 8) The Nationwide wallscape (2007) stretches the definition of billboard
nearly to the breaking point with it's extreme advertising ingenuity.

(Image 9) Adidas Oliver Kahn bridge billboard, Munich, Germany.

(Image 10) How do you say, "Ahhh!" in Austrian?
Perhaps the last remaining stronghold for the billboard painter today is that of "billboards" painted on the fuselages of jet aircraft. Only good, old-fashioned, paint, hand-sprayed through stencils will withstand the speeds involved. In 1976, artist Alexander Calder was called upon by Braniff International Airlines to paint their new "Spirit of '76" Boeing 727 aircraft (Image 11, below). However, it might not have been a good idea. Braniff went bankrupt in 1982 and again in 1989. We probably can't blame Mr. Calder for that, though.

(Image 11) Alexander Calder's Braniff billboard.
Maybe he should have included the word "Braniff" somewhere.
Some billboards give the appearance of having been hand-painted when they're not. The shaped billboard for the Calcutta-based Berger Paints (Image 12, below) depicts the billboard painter creating a "fool the eye by matching the sky" image. The sky part is cut out. The billboard is not actually hand painted. I have to wonder sometimes if some of these billboards haven't caused traffic accidents.

(Image 12) Hand-painted? Not really, but the effect is not lost.
Occasionally, billboards are hand-painted out of necessity. Sharon Nelson of Salina, Kansas, has been on dialysis, waiting on the list for a kidney donor for six years. She has type "O" blood which makes locating a perfect match extremely difficult. When she heard that a Milwaukee man had obtained a donor by renting a billboard, her husband decided to do likewise. Unable to afford an artist, he painted the message himself (Image 13, below). That was nearly two years ago (2013). Sadly, they are still waiting.

(Image 13) A hand-painted plea for help.
And finally, hand-painted or otherwise, the traditional billboard is destined to undergo its most radical change ever. You've, no doubt, seen them, the digital LED billboards hovering over on of the busier highways in your area. At first they were little more than glorified electronic scoreboards. However, today, these digital wonders (Image 14, below) have a high-definition image to match your living room TV combined with gargantuan scale often making even the largest traditional billboards look puny. Moreover, though still quite expensive, they come in such a variety of sizes that small businesses or organization with even a modest advertising budget can afford them. Why post only one message, one image, when you can present a dozen or more? Let the passing drivers beware!

(Image 14) Only the sunset is more glorious.
The painted billboards of the past still haunt us.
This picturesque Mail Pouch barn is located in
southern Ohio not far from where we live.


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