Billboard Hits Remastered

by by Mimi Dwyer

The hamburger is ten feet tall—or it will be, once Johan Bjurman finishes with it. “The meat’s gonna be the hard part,” he says, brushing his hands together, chalk clouding around his face. “Making it juicy and real—that’s the kind of thing that either looks really good or really bad. But I think this one’s gonna be a classic. What could be more American than a burger?”
Bjurman traces the outline of the Whopper onto a billboard on the left side of the Pawtucket Red Sox’s McCoy Stadium. It’s his fifth board of the year, one of eight or nine he’ll have to redo completely before the team’s season opener on April 7. According to the tiny computer printout Bjurman holds in his hand, he board will show a giant burger, the Burger King logo, and the words FLAME-FRESH WHOPPER, with fire raging in the background. Using a one-inch paintbrush and colors mixed in his home studio, Bjurman will paint the burger tomorrow into the lines he’s stenciling today. “Look at all this,” he says, gesturing around the stadium, at the Budweiser and Stop & Shop and Amica Insurance boards. “I feel like a dinosaur saying so, but this is my life’s work… Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel the same way.” Bjurman is an artist by nature and a billboard painter by trade. His craft is dying, and its death illuminates how technology is changing our relationship to both art and industry.

Hoisting and lowering himself on a bed ladder strung up by yellow rope, Bjurman, 63, doesn’t seem fazed by the time crunch before the opener—he knows the routine. He’s been at this for almost forty years. He got the PawSox job twelve years ago when the team’s managers decided to expand the stadium’s capacity and close off the outfield from the parking lot and the highway. They wanted more customers, but they “liked the idea of a traditional baseball park with a family atmosphere,” Bjurman says. They “want[ed] people to be able to afford to be here and get a hot dog for their kids and not spend two hundred bucks.” So they made the stadium bigger—and at the same time held ticket prices around six dollars and tried to keep as many old-timey details in the place as possible. Bjurman’s hand-painted billboards are perhaps the most iconic of these details.

Bjurman is the lone painter in one of the last stadiums in the US to still use painted billboards. Save for a handful of minor league ballparks and the Texas Rangers stadium in Dallas, the vast majority of fields have switched to vinyl printouts for billboards. “Vinyls,” as Bjurman calls them, can be mass-produced quickly and cheaply, and so the few places that still use hand-painted billboards do so for sentimental reasons.

Bjurman’s process from picture to billboard is elaborate. He projects the advertiser’s image onto paper in the studio, then uses that “cartoon” image to perforate outlines on a piece of paper the size of the billboard. He hangs that paper on the real billboard and traces the perforations in charcoal onto the whitewashed board. This creates the image’s shell and Bjurman paints the rest in by hand. This systems “makes sense for a local business,” Bjurman says. “Somebody from a car dealership could tell me to change the shape of the convertible a little, could stand there as I did it, [tell me to] make the driver’s hair a little longer or blonder. For small businesses, skipping the up-front cost of photographer or professional layout agency is a big plus. But the big guys want the continuity of their image across the nation.” While a design agency can take tens of thousands in initial investment, a painted billboard at McCoy costs just $3000 to $5000 a month to run, making it a more affordable option for small companies. But a painted billboard can also mean an imperfect Verizon logo, a slightly lopsided Lexus. Advertisers have embraced digital billboard design for its standardization, its circumvention of artists’ subjectivity. Digitalization means a logo that is perfect every time, on every billboard, on every highway in every state. Familiarity—that’s what we expect.

Bjurman’s job at McCoy Stadium, which runs from January to March of every year, is his last gig painting billboards. In his heyday, he painted boards all around Providence and the east coast, including the boards at Fenway Park, which have long since gone vinyl. He grew up painting landscapes and portraits as a hobby in a family that encouraged the arts. When he graduated high school, he found himself faced with a dilemma: he’d been accepted to art school in Boston, but he “had a nice girlfriend and a nice car,” he laughs, and he didn’t know if college was what he wanted. So he stuck around Providence. “You can see where my priorities lay,” he says.
He eventually fell into a job with the billboard company Standish Johnson—billboards were a relatively new form of advertising and painters who could work on a large scale were hard to come by. “It was ideal,” he says. “You could be outside all day, not be confined. There wasn’t anybody watching you. You just had to get your work done.” He liked billboard work because of the skill set it gave him—practical tools he could use in his self-directed painting, like how to use gold-leaf or how to mix paint in a precise gradient. Eventually, Bjurman found an apprenticeship through the painters’ union and began to see his billboard work as a form of art. “I happened to work with a guy with a sense of artwork, who was always elevating his skill level,” he says. “That was inspiring.”

Bjurman watched as his field grew into an industry. “There was a community after a few years,” he says. “You’d go market-to-market, city-to-city, and you could see differences in quality and in talent. There were always fifteen or so people painting, too, so you’d see someone’s work on a section and say, ‘Oh, Tony’s never gonna get it.’ ” As the community got established, people got reputations for certain kinds of work. “There was a guy in Boston who was the best with cars,” he says. “My specialty was portraits. Local weatherpeople, suntan girls, models for Jordan Marsh.” His favorite billboard was a woman wearing transitional lenses when they were new and trendy a few years ago. “I got to paint the four stages of her sunglasses along four of the same face,” he says. “It was fun.”

The problem with billboards is that Bjurman can’t choose what he gets to paint. “It’s a different sense of craftsmanship,” he says. “Some of the artistic integrity gets lost.” As he got into his twenties, the part of him that had always aspired to do “fine” art grew restless. He gave up billboards, traveled to Europe to go for the big leagues.

When he eventually returned home he got his own studio, tried to support himself through his own work alone. By the time he was thirty, though, he began to reconsider. “You get to thinking, ‘Well, maybe famous people aren’t gonna call,’ ” he says. “So I went back to billboards. It was a job—twenty bucks an hour with benefits. And this was thirty years ago.”

Bjurman found that the industry had changed when he returned. “By that time it was companies owned by individual people, like a guy in Fall River who had six or seven boards. You’d sign up with them and it paid well,” he says. So he began to balance billboard commissions with his own art; he got to keep his studio and became a Providence icon along the way-- he’s best known for large-scale works like his 1983 peeling-building mural above The Red Fez or his 2010 layout and painting of Shepard Fairey’s Providence Industrial mural at AS220. He paints fine art and movie sets as well.

His most recent commission with Fairey provides a powerful example of the way our conceptions of art have changed since Bjurman’s youth. We consider Fairey the artist, we plaster his mass-produced stickers on telephone poles and stop signs, but in the case of the mural the person actually executing the art was Bjurman. Ever modest, Bjurman says the work was “not a whole lot different than a regular lettered sign, because it’s just flat.”

“You have to understand,” he says, “This was a forty-by-eighty-foot wall. That takes a whole different skill set.”

“I learned the skills I use through working with them,” Bjurman adds. “Going to art school to make artwork changes things. You have to be flexible when you’re working for people. You have to lose the ego. You look at things differently if you’re an ‘artist’ than if you’re ‘the billboard guy.’” He alludes to a general devaluing of craft and handiwork in American education and industry, the same devaluing that certain pop-academics are devoting their lives to reversing (see: “philosopher/motorcyclist” Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft). “Intellectual processes are fine,” Bjurman says. “But when it comes to hey, do this, it’s totally different. When you have to make your hand do what your brain knows, it changes the whole ball game.”
In some ways, painting billboards was liberating for Bjurman. He was doing a “job” rather than “making a masterwork.” So they had fun with it. “At 55mph from 500 yards, we could do anything!” he says. “I used to turn the griffins on scotch bottles to dogs with little dog bones. Or add little things to coins… I remember some guys painted a cruise ship with all the people naked on it once.” Bjurman and his coworkers expressed their artistic sentiments in the tiny details no one would notice, more for themselves than for their audience. They used their art as skill, as a tool, rather than primarily as self-expression. The result, at least in Bjurman’s case, is an artist with a refreshing lack of ego.

“Nowadays, people want their billboards to look like photographs,” Bjurman says. “They used to want them like paintings.” This works for Bjurman at McCoy stadium—he’s skilled with portraits and photorealism. But it’s also evidence of a desire for the transfer of a pre-designed image rather than the interpretation of the artist. In some ways, moreover, the painted quality and subjectivity of handmade billboard advertising reflects the dreamlike and false quality of advertising itself. An airbrushed vinyl photograph of a Banana Boat girl does not—advertisers get to display their idealized product as reality.

Bjurman’s billboards are earnest in their commercial imperfection, the historical predecessor to Warhol’s ironic Campbell Soup cans and the perfect-duplication-as-art that’s followed them andpervaded advertising. Above third base, a billboard for a liquor store stands with the Facebook and Twitter logos painted endearingly askew. It makes me smile because it catches me off guard, it imposes the human on the technological rather than the other way around. But how long can this cute dissonance last? Hand-painted billboards have a certain nostalgic cultural appeal right now—Stella Artois commissioned a documentary on New York billboard painters last year, for example—but when that romanticism fades, the industry simply isn’t viable.

Some of the billboards at McCoy stadium have already switched to vinyl. The ones on the lower field have been changed, Bjurman says, because players like to “practice their ohm” on the boards and crank baseballs directly into spots like the AAA logo. Vinyl takes the beating much better than paint does.
The type of art Bjurman represents is largely already obsolete, kept on life support only by our idealization, our uninformed wishes that we could make a living with our hands, too. Accordingly, Bjurman himself sometimes feels like a relic. “I was painting a mural once, and a guy pointed up at me and said, ‘Look! A wall dog!’ ” he says. “It was like he was seeing some obscure, exotic bird.”

Bjurman doesn’t have an apprentice to train or an assistant to help him out with the billboards. When he quits the PawSox gig, McCoy stadium will likely shift to vinyl completely, and with that shift lose yet another form of art as craft in an increasingly standardized cultural environment. “Hopefully, I’ll only be doing this for a couple more years,” he says. “I’m getting old, and I gotta retire sometime.”

MIMI DWYER B’13 feels like a dinosaur, but for different reasons.