An original Walldog recalls foundation of group

Author to sell and sign books Saturday

If you’re attending the Walldogs event in Streator this week, keep an eye out for Jay Robert Allen, of Belvidere.

It’ll be easy, he’ll likely be the one in pink shorts.

He’s one of the original Walldogs members and he’ll be available for a signing of his book “The Walldogs — A Different Breed of Public Art Muralists” from 2 to 4 p.m. at Silver Fox, 122 N Park St.

The book details the history and passion of the traveling mural group, which is visiting Streator this week and yes, that includes his pink shorts.

The striking shorts, which Allen emphasizes were bought in the post-"Miami Vice" '90s, have become part of his regular Walldogs attire.

“I only wear them when I Walldog, and the point is if you’re going to wear anything of quality or color you’re going to get paint on them,” Allen said. “And if it’s pink shorts then who gives a damn, you can only improve them.”

Allen said he’s been chastised by fellow Walldogs for selection, but he takes it in stride as it’s hard to stay mad at family. And that’s how they see themselves, as one large family or “tribe” that hosts reunions at cities across the globe.

How did the Walldogs first meet?

Allen recalls that Nancy Bennett, otherwise known as “Queen Dog,” was always intrigued by the romanticism of the “wall dog” lifestyle. Sign painters in the early 1900s were known for living “like dogs” and would move from town to town and billboard to billboard, sometimes sleeping under their trucks.

Bennett’s first community mural was set up in the summer of 1985 in her hometown of Allerton, Iowa, when a large, unattractive wall was revealed after a group of buildings was removed.

Elements from the town’s history were incorporated into the mural and around 30 Iowa Letterhead members attended the one-day mural painting that was then called “Wall Doggin’.”

The mural aged and Bennett was asked if she could gather her mural league once more to touch it up. The number of attendees grew, to around 75, and so did the number of mural projects in Allerton for what would become the first official Walldogs meeting in 1993.

The artists were given a letter of thanks from the city.

“So you get a bunch of artists who usually work in total anonymity and then they look at that letter and think, ‘Hang on, what do we have here?' ” Allen said.

He recalls being addicted to the community-driven event early.

“At the end of it, we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, that’ll never happen again. That was amazing.’ ”

But the event continued and has only grown since with the group celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Allen's book details the history of the group and has photos from every event from the group's inception to 2016.

What do the Walldogs mean to a community?

Allen said the Walldogs have spent that time not only perfecting their craft and ensuring the murals remain as vibrant for as long as they can, but also how the cities themselves can maximize their return on the murals.

He said it’s common for a city to see a drastic increase in tourism after a visit and cites public art as a growing “economic development weapon.” The murals can make a community a draw to those outside of the area as well as instill pride amongst the residents themselves through painting its history along the walls.

“The story already exists in the community. We’re just representing it in an artistic way,” Allen said.

He also hopes the cities will continue to add to the murals as time goes on.

“It’s yours to build on. The catalyst is still the people in the community,” Allen said. “They’re carrying the load and making things happen.”

The Walldogs will be around Streator in full force this week with 260 artists expected to attend. Allen said this is the second largest gathering since 1997 when 375 visited Belvidere.

Allen emphasizes that, at its core, this event isn’t about pink shorts or the Walldogs themselves.

“This weekend is about Streator’s history,” Allen said. “That’s how we see it.”

Allen’s book is one of the many souvenirs visitors can pick up at the Silver Fox Walldog Welcoming Center.