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Walldogs: Building Murals Spruce Up Towns

Walldogs mural
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Former U.S. House Speaker ‘Uncle’ Joe Cannon, actor Dick Van Dyke and Chuckles candy all have something in common: They once called Danville home and recently had a mural painted of them. 

This August, the Walldogs, a group of sign and mural artists from around the world, descended on downtown Danville. Over the course of four days, a total of 16 murals were painted, bringing to life the town’s history and heritage. 

Painted advertisements on buildings were once common. Throughout many towns, fading “ghost signs” from the past can be found. The people who originally painted those signs were called walldogs. 

Today’s freshly painted murals “capture that sense of nostalgia and historic significance,” according to the Walldogs’ website. The murals bring several benefits to communities.

“The Walldogs have renewed a sense of pride and purpose in our community,” says Jeanie Cooke, executive director of the Danville Area Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. 

Hundreds of Danville residents helped with the event, she says. Anyone who lent a hand earned the Walldog title. Even children, “wallpups,” were allowed to participate. They painted near a mural honoring Woodbury’s, an office supply store where Abraham Lincoln once shopped, says Cooke.

Walldogs mural
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
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WUIS/Illinois Issues
Walldogs mural

“Part of what we wanted to do is not only build memories, but to grow our memories into the future, and that’s what the wallpups’ mural allowed us to do,” she says. 

Danville is only one of the towns in Illinois where the Walldogs have painted since their founding in 1993. Other towns include Aledo, Belvidere, Jacksonville, Lincoln and Pontiac.

In June 2009, the Walldogs visited Pontiac, which is along old Route 66. The community came together for the event.

“Everyone was helpful. It was wonderful to watch. The city couldn’t have been more outgoing and accepting,” says Jane Diaz, Walldog artist and co-owner of Diaz Sign Art in Pontiac. 

An increase in tourism has been a welcome benefit in those towns. 

“Everyday since the first night, we have had people coming to downtown Danville to see our Walldog murals. ... As the old saying goes, if you build it they will come, and they are coming,” says Danville’s Cooke. 

In May, the International Walldog Mural & Sign Art Museum opened in Pontiac. The museum honors those in the sign art and mural trade, says Kristen Mehlberg, the facility’s manager. 

Since opening, the museum has had more than 2,000 visitors from 40 different countries, including Portugal, China, Australia, France, Sweden and Switzerland, Mehlberg says. 

Walldogs mural
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
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WUIS/Illinois Issues
Walldogs mural

The murals also serve as an educational tool. For visitors who don’t speak English, it is a way for them to visualize, understand and learn about the community’s culture and history, she says. 

Judy Tighe, executive director at Jacksonville Mainstreet, agrees that the murals have an educational purpose. The Walldogs were in Jacksonville in 2006.

“They have increased awareness in a lot of aspects of our history and our heritage that local residents — and especially kids —never heard about.” 

The murals also give towns a facelift. “Beautification was the main catalyst for doing it,” says Tighe. 

Diaz adds: “It really made a world of difference in Pontiac to this old building that had been crumbling and chipping and nasty. Now, it has a brand-new coat of paint and is beautiful.” 

Nancy Bennett started the Walldog movement in Allerton, Iowa, after she was asked on a radio show to restore a painted advertisement on the side of a local hotel, the Inn of the Six-Toed Cat.

Walldogs mural
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
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WUIS/Illinois Issues
Walldogs mural

Uncertain how she would restore the sign, and knowing the community’s desire for other murals, she purchased a mailing list from Letterheads, another sign painting group, and asked people to come and paint. She devised a plan to see how many murals would be painted, how much they would cost and how many people she would need to tackle the project. 

People came, and the event was a success. Seventeen years later, the group continues to travel throughout the country painting murals. In June 2011, members will be in Plymouth, Wis. 

“Everybody had so much fun and enjoyed it so much. … It just grew and grew and grew. It wasn’t really on purpose,” she says.

Illinois Issues, December 2010

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