Romancing California

“Just about a year ago I set out on the road
Seeking my fame and fortune
looking for a pot of gold
Things got bad and things got worse
I guess you know the tune
Oh Lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again…”

—John Fogerty

May 26, 2006, a Friday
Well, this was my first time to Lodi, but from the looks of it, it isn’t too bad a place to get stuck, what with all the vineyards around, cool temperatures (at least for this Memorial Day event, compared to the hot summer to come) and a small town, with friendly small town people to boot.

Lodi, California is not to be confused with Lodi, in the Lombardy region of Italy; Lodi, Texas; Lodi, New Jersey; Lodi, Wisconsin; Lodi, Ohio; or several other Lodi Townships scattered around the U.S. One place claims “Lodi” means “peaceful valley”. Sounds good to me. Then of course, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 rock-n-roll song about the town could bring back a different set of memories for some.

A train passes by about every two minutes—or so it seems, especially if you happen to be slinging paint thirty feet up and trying to hear your iPod tunes over the racket the train makes. The site used to be the train station; now it’s the fire station and a parking garage.

It’s tempting to hand over all my change to Johnny McDonald, who slips over there every now and then to place a few pennies or dimes on the track. If he’s diligent, he finds them after the train goes by and they make cool souvenirs. (I hear tell this is a highly illegal activity, but I now have two flattened quarters that I’ll keep forever, along with the wooden Lodi nickels from Tony Segale, in my odds-n-ends tray on my desk.)

May 27, 2006, a Saturday
This is the California that Steinbeck’s Tom Joad came west to be a part of. The history here is rich with all the others that came out for real. It’s a history replete with grapes, watermelons, trains, singing… and sign painting.

At least over this past Memorial Day weekend, sign painting has taken its place in the history books of Lodi, California.

It all started a few years back when Tony Segale began making plans to host a Walldog meet during the town’s centennial celebration. Segale set about to do something that Lodi would remember. At its core was a display of public art, produced by some of the people who make public art. The end result was an understanding of the connection public art has to the sign business: this is where fine art and commercial art exchange vows. 

Because, as it always seems to be at these gatherings, almost everyone on the walls is in the SIGN business.

This is the soul of outdoor advertising, albeit a soul that has been preempted by advanced technologies to the point that it has become something more of a community event and a gathering forum for Walldog aficionados and practitioners than it is a mainstream industry. But this kind of thing is advertising’s most public venue: the blank side of a building on Main Street, brought to you in living color by real people with hands and legs and eyes. Those who ply this craft have come through a change, and found, to the dismay of many that this form of sign work is still as viable as it ever was. It’s just different today than it was in the old days. Today there are many sensible reasons for advertisers to contract with large print companies that produce billboards, to conduct nationwide campaigns with different images in every city and new images every week.

Yet the kind of Walldogs who found this type of work rewarding back in the old days still find it rewarding today. And every now and then, a group gets together to “paint the town” something like this group did in Lodi, California.

May 28, 2006, a Sunday
Some surely have to ask why. What’s the sense in spending three or four days slinging paint in some town hundreds or thousands of miles away? But there are a lot of reasons, among them a chance to learn some basic skills from a few people who are extremely good at it. I asked Gary Anderson what he thought of this all. Anderson probably speaks for most people when he says it’s because of the friends he’s made, many of whom go back 10, 20 or 30 years now. This is the chance to spend a few days with people who have proven their dedication—both as friends and to preserving the craft.

Walldoggin’ is an old school craft with old school techniques. As far as materials go, it’s mostly paint, markers, pounce paper and the like. Equipment consists of scissor lifts, scaffolds, projectors, plotters, ladders, planks, some paintbrushes and sunscreen.

May 29, 2006, a Monday
The town of Lodi picks up on the energy level and participates in the activity overall. This, in a very real sense, is “performing art”. But it’s also Outdoor Advertising—for the town; for the businesses in it. It’s just a little different kind of Outdoor, compared to what Coca-Cola does.

So, all that said, who did what? Essentially when it was all over, there were nine pieces of Public Art/Outdoor Advertising produced over Memorial Day weekend in Lodi. All showcased different styles and different approaches to the craft. And all helped preserve a bit of history.