CLEVELAND, OH — I follow the local political movement for Ron Paul intensely, so when I saw that our very first billboard for Ron Paul was going up in Cleveland, I was pretty excited. I went out one Wednesday morning in January to take a photo of the sign to simply share around the web (and gloat oh behalf of Cleveland, obviously). When I returned home to examine the pictures though, I did the logical thing when presented with a sign like this and Googled the name Harry X. Sysack.
At first, I was shocked and horrified. What came back from a Flickr result page were some of the most over-the-top political billboard paintings one could imagine. They are lectures to a vehicular audience at the busy intersection of State Road and Pearl Road; offering of “affirmative action pricing” for sign making, Obama being lectured by a spanking, a swastika on a green blackboard while a teacher how Hitler was the first green president. They elicit a shocking response, and that’s clearly their intent.
Digging through my contacts within the ranks of rabble-rousing libertarians, I was able to ascertain the chain of events in the ownership of the sign. A Columbus Ohio PAC had done the payment processing, but a local Ron Paul meetup member had actually suggested the location. I spoke with him and he seemed to not know as much about the company’s history as as provocative placement pimp.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Nancy Sysack for an exclusive interview and get her side of the story on these billboards. Miss Sysack is a small grandmotherly figure in her late 50s, the remaining family owner of Harry X. Sysack. She’s sharp though, and was quick to flip the interview script and start asking me questions. She still hand paints every commercial sign (every other month or so will put up a new political sign). With the help of a small army of local artists she employs, she is still making a successful living of it. She and her brother have been running the family business since her father passed away in the 1980s, but sadly her brother followed just a few years ago.
I asked her a few questions about Ron Paul and the political campaign to date and she had very few kind words to the other candidates but was extremely please with Ron Paul’s constitutional stance (my tape recording device went bust, this interview is from memory). Barack Obama has been a frequent critic of the family, as has surprisingly Newt Gingrich (their billboards often have a national focus for the automobile audience patiently waiting for the light at the intersection of State and Pearl).
Thumbing through a photo album of “billboard blogging” that dates back to 1972-3, I was amazed that this treasure trove of Cleveland’s rich history had never been turned into a large-format coffee table book. Pick any political subject (or pop culture, Michael Jackson has made the cut for scathing satire) in the past four decades and they’ve without a doubt nailed it at some point with a clever cartoon and carefully hand-lettered text, often with newly minted fonts.
My fears of this being a potential scandal were put at rest by the couple of hours I spent in Miss Sysack’s cat and dog filled art studio. There were long rows of beat up wooden boards covered in thick layers of paint, and a tall stack of drying racks, themselves covered in years of art byproducts. She showed me the billboard prints which she hoped to one day sell to art collectors (I was not permitted to take photographs of the studio, Sysack seems to be publicity shy after several negative run-ins with the local press and seemed to not want sensitive equipment knowledge falling in a competitor’s hands). I’m sure a freshly incarcerated Jimmy Dimora caricature, or Dennis Kucinich’s familiar face would fetch a modest sum if sold through the right auction.
As for her photos of forty years of family billboard blogging (neatly tucked into thick albums, a whole row on a long shelf), they’ve been self-documenting their billboard company’s rich Cleveland history and are ready to share it with the masses, in one form or another.
Harry “X” Sysack Sign Company is a local libertarian legend that’s never been fully told. I myself am telling it badly and without proper quotes since my recording device was not working as expected that day. Oh well, take one.
From my brief time spent listening to the family tale, I’d say it’s a local story book rich with pictures just waiting to be unleashed onto coffee tables everywhere (yes, old and young people still buy books made out of paper with pretty pictures, that works without electricity). If any smart paper publishers are interested, Miss Sysack would have a word with you.
More reading: NEO’s first real blogger – billboard logger, that is