Wall Dogs & the art of Signwriting

Posted: 1st March 2023
In the early 1930’s there were specialist sign painters who scaled buildings to create unique advertisements by hand. Using just brushes and a keen eye.

Where did it all begin?

In the mid-1930s, the art of signwriting was a fairly common job. While most cities had their own sign shops, many smaller towns and rural areas depended on traveling artisans to create their signs. These were known as wall dogs.

We can see the chipped and faded remains of many signs today, often called “ghost signs”, partial images from a time before digital processes.

They had to be painted on the spot by hand. If the sign was big enough and painted high on a wall, that hand was attached to a “walldog”. 

How did they do that?

Walldogs would scale buildings to paint signs that sold every day items. Signwriters were called walldogs for two reasons: first because they worked like dogs working in all weathers. Plus, traversing up and down the side of a building meant they needed to be tethered to the wall. 

The signs may have been commonplace, but there was nothing ordinary about a walldog’s skill or their influence on our landscape.

They were often poorly paid, and living dangerously with the scale of the work carried out. Not only were the designs and execution done by hand while hanging from the side of a building.

The paints themselves were “personal” formulas, each artist mixing his own slurry of toxic powders and additives.

A sign of the times

These days many places are bringing the old signs back to life by documentation, preservation and restoration. Signwriting has seen a resurgence and because of this more ghost signs are being restored to former glory.

In recent years, sign-painting has experienced something of a revival on the fronts and walls of new businesses.

While the term “walldog” may have been derogatory way back when, it has now been embraced in this resurgence by a new breed of high-flying sign-painters, proud to be Walldogs.

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