Billboard Painting in America Almost a Lost Art

Mike Frassinelli
Allentown Morning Call
June 13, 2001

ALLENTOWN, Pennsylvania—Pete Toth used to be one of a dozen or so billboard sign painters in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. But the lean, goatee-wearing painter is among a dying breed in America.

Now, Toth will tell you, "I'm a dinosaur."

Just as the dinosaurs were killed by the Ice Age, the Mice Age—the computer mouse—has all but killed billboard sign painters.

Toth, 54, has worked for nearly three decades out of the Hanover Township office of Adams Outdoor Advertising, which has 14 branches nationwide.

The other sign painters he worked with began leaving 10 years ago, when computers could produce multiple copies of advertisements in less time than it took Toth and his colleagues to paint a single one.

One of Toth's well-known roadside billboards, which took four days to paint, was a giant set of eyes with the inscription "Gotcha Lookin'." Some drivers looked so much they drove off the road. Another time he did a billboard for seafood restaurant billboard, and spent two weeks painting hundreds of clams—steamed clams, fried clams, clams on a half shell.

Sometimes he and his colleagues had inside jokes. One billboard they produced showed a silhouette of people in a restaurant, and only close up could viewers notice the Mickey Mouse shadow.

Childhood Interest

It seemed to be a promising career when Toth began painting billboards in 1969. He always liked to draw, and exasperated his teachers when he spent entire classes doodling often macabre pictures instead of paying attention.

By 1969, his classroom was 80 feet high—the height he would climb to paint some billboard signs.

Down below, there were two kinds of drivers on the road. Some shouted "Jump!" when they saw Toth; others shouted "Don't jump!" Each driver would smile at what he thought of as his own cleverness in coming up with such a line, said Toth.

Continued on Next Page >>



NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.