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Keeping the dying art of hand-painted billboards alive in Los Angeles (photos)

by Leo Duran | Take Two

Sign painter Estevan Sanchez uses oils to hand paint an advertisement on the Figueroa Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 27. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

When billboards do their job right, they get your attention. Rarely do they inspire you to say, "wow!" In downtown Los Angeles, though, there’s a great reason to look up.

Just weeks ago I was harnessed to 3-foot wide metal platform called a stage that’s hugging the outside of downtown’s Figueroa Hotel, conquering my fear of heights to watch actress Chloe Grace Moretz get a bloody nose.

Or at least a picture of her face in a huge billboard ad for her new movie, "Carrie." From far away, it looks just like any other ad, but get up close and you’d be surprised to learn it’s all painted by hand. 

The man behind it all is Riley Forsythe, owner of Walldogs. He's been in the industry for more than 35 years, specializing in hand-painted ads that are on the outside of buildings like the Figueroa Hotel in downtown L.A.

It’s not something that just anyone can do.

"If I were going to hire you," says Forsythe, "I would look at some of the paintings you’ve done and see how accurate you paint. Let’s say you paint from photography, I want to see how accurately you can make a painting look like a photograph."

Painting billboards is a dying art in America. Nearly all the ads you’d see on your commute are either printed on paper and slathered on with glue, or screened onto a vinyl canvas and stretched taut across the billboard’s frame.

Walldogs is a relic from the time when most ads were made this way – handpainted.

How It's Done

First Forsythe takes an image from client, and makes a huge paper stencil of it. Then that stencil will make guide marks on the building. Then comes the next step. 

"Now we’re coming up to 'Carrie''s nostrils. You can crawl in her nostril," said Forsythe as we dangle under a stencil of Moretz, 10 stories above ground.

Forsyth is assisted by one of his veteran painters, Esteban Sanchez. He brought with him a movie poster of Carrie’s face for reference.

"See this red color that is there, this blood? We prepare a color like that," said Sanchez. 

Then, with a brush in his right hand, he outstretches his whole arm and makes huge circles on the wall, painting Carrie’s left nostril dark red.

While it may be tough for an amateur to figure out how he take details from a small picture and translate it into a nine-story painting, it’s second nature to him.

"I guess it comes with the practice and what it looks from a distance. I don’t know, it’s like painting with your mind," said Sanchez. 

These two "Walldogs" are just a handful of people in the country who still make billboards this way. But once upon a time, there were thousands more like them.

A Dying Art

UC Riverside history professor Cathy Gudis, who has authored a book about billboards, cars, and the outdoor landscape, says there were once companies in L.A. that had staffs of about 30-40 people working on wall ads like this one. These companies were pioneers in the field of billboard design, mainly due to the city's car culture. 

"The ones in the '20s and '30s, that were my particular fascination for years, were really figuring out how logos worked for people who were moving at a faster and faster pace," said Gudis.

So the best sign painters in the country would work in Los Angeles, but with the best in L.A. came a problem.

"You’d go to other cities, and you’d see some really horrible paintings," said Forsythe. "I think that’s why they perfected vinyl printing because they wanted advertising to be uniform nationwide."

That happened in the early 1990s. Vinyl ads stretched onto billboard frames were easier to reproduce, maintain, and keep consistent throughout the country, putting most of America’s billboard painters out of work. Except on walls like the outside of the Figueroa Hotel.

Forsythe says because the building is so huge and can’t accommodate a frame, so the logistics keep his business alive.

"If the agencies could put vinyl up here, they probably would. So my days may be numbered, I don’t know," said Forsythe. But Forsythe and a handful of other veteran sign painters are trying to keep the art alive, even if they’re all in their 50s and 60s now.

"Just personally I think it’s more interesting to look at when it’s hand painted because it’s not exactly perfect," said Forsythe.

So next time you’re around places like L.A. Live or at Wilshire and Western, look up and you might see a work of art.

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