Do Wall Murals Benefit Small Towns?

The Walldog Festival movement began more than two decades ago when more than 100 signpainters descended upon Allerton, IA, on July 30- August 1, 1993. In addition to restoring an eight-year-old painted wall mural, they created seven other hand-painted murals. Currently, the vast majority of non-electric signs are created with computer-cut vinyl or digitally printed material.

More recently, on June 24-28, 2015, the Walldogs traveled to Delavan, WI, a wintertime circus town, for a festival entitled The Greatest Walls on Earth. There, two colorful murals commemorated Delavan’s history. Over the past 22 years, the Walldog Movement has produced 520 murals in 28 towns via the efforts of 257 signpainters.

So what difference has this made for any of the towns?

Pontiac, IL was the site of the 2009 Walldog Festival (June 25-28), which resulted in 18 murals for a town with a late 19th Century courthouse. In the aftermath, Mayor Bob Russell wrote:  “When I walked around on that Sunday evening at the end of the event, and looked at all the murals, I still couldn’t believe what I had just seen happen.  The many buildings that just a few months before were looking old and tired, now looked new and alive.  A long-time city resident came up to me and said, ‘This city hasn’t looked this good in 40 years’.  I agreed with him.  Since that weekend, thousands of local residents, and untold numbers of visitors from around the world, have been able to enjoy the beauty of the murals, as well as learn more about the history of Pontiac.  It is a pleasure to be downtown and see people strolling along the streets, taking pictures, or just enjoying everything that the murals have brought to our city.”

Dr. Robert Roarty, who works with the Pontiac Tourism Dept., wrote, in 2012, “Pontiac, like most small Midwestern towns, has continually struggled to maintain economic viability in its central business district.  The competition from regional malls, large discounters and internet commerce, combined with aging buildings that were built in the late 1800s, has resulted in the decline of the downtown Pontiac business district.  This ongoing situation was further exasperated in 2008, when, in January, the City of Pontiac experienced a major flood, which put additional economic stress on small businesses.  Shortly after the flood, Governor Blagojevich announced his intention to close the Pontiac Correctional Center, the city’s largest employer.  The prospect of losing 800 jobs, and the economic uncertainty the Governor’s plan engendered, froze the local economy.  Then, in September of 2008, the national [and international] economy suffered a major setback.  All of these events, in a short period of time, had a devastating effect on the small businesses which comprise Pontiac’s ‘Main Street’.

“The impact of the Murals on Main Street event was both immediate and long-lasting.  For the four days of the extended June weekend, the downtown business district was more alive than it had been in years.  Thousands of local citizens were joined by hundreds of out-of-town visitors as they watched and commented on the creation of the 18 new murals, the displays of the Art Dogs, and the events associated with the Hang Loose Car Show and Pontiac Heritage Days.

“Many of the older buildings in the downtown business district were spruced up prior to the event with new paint, brickwork and other improvements.  The net effect of this renovation is a marvelous and lasting change in the appearance of the city center area.

“The new murals have given the city’s tourism bureau an entirely new asset to promote. Visitors continue to come to Pontiac to marvel at the beauty of the new murals.  These 18 new murals not only add beauty to the city, but serve as highly visible reminders of Pontiac’s social, commercial and political history.  Senior citizens, school groups, clubs and organizations from around the state have made our murals a popular attraction.  Route 66 heritage travelers, who come to visit the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, find so much more to see and do in the city that they frequently stay far longer than they originally anticipated.  These longer stays have resulted in increased economic activity for the entire Pontiac business community.

“Since the close of the 2009 Murals on Main Street event, the city has planned, organized and opened a new museum dedicated to both the history of outdoor wall signpainting and the modern Walldogs.  The International Walldog Mural and Sign Art Museum preserves the legacy of the early advertising wall signpainters and provides a much needed context for the thorough appreciation of Pontiac’s new wall murals.

“Pontiac’s impressive collection of murals is also directly responsible for the city gaining two new attractions.  In 2010, Tim Dye, an avid collector of Pontiac and Oakland automobiles, came to Pontiac to see our murals.  While exploring the city, he stuck up a conversation with the manager of the Walldog Museum about the town, the murals and the city’s prospects for the future.  The result of that conversation, and many subsequent conversations, was Mr. Dye’s decision to open the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum in Pontiac last year.  In a similar case, the International Society of Gilders learned about Pontiac through the internet and was impressed by our city’s collection of murals and the Walldog Museum.  Earlier this year, the Society decided to base its organization’s national museum here.

“In 2010, 2011, and so far in 2012, the number of tourists who visit Pontiac has increased dramatically.  The average annual increase hovers around 40% for each of the last three years.  The impact of the 2009 festival will continue to be felt by the citizens of Pontiac, and the many visitors who come here, for many years. ”

Jay Allen, a very active Walldog, observed, “Kewanee [Illinois, 2013] entered the Rand McNally ‘best town in America’ contest weeks after its mural project and won ‘Friendliest Community in America’. The murals were obviously a huge part of the swelling pride in the town . . . Belvidere [Ilinois, 1997] won the Illinois Arts Council’s ‘Governor’s Award for the Arts – Community’  and a Tourism Award for Creative Projects the same year.” Allen wrote a book that documents the Walldog movement. You can find it at or

To read more about the Walldog Festival and the Walldog Movement, go to 

Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is the former Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry and the former Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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