The sign master: For 34 years, one man has painted the ads on Avista Stadium’s outfield wall
Sun., March 26, 2023
With a swift and steady hand, Ruben Marcilla is painting a 3-foot-tall “T.”
The “T” is white, and Marcilla is cutting crisp lines around it in teal. When he’s done he moves on to “H,” then “E” and an hour later he’s all the way through “THE UPS STORE.”
Marcilla is standing on the warning track of Avista Stadium, painting signs on the right-field wall. He’s returned to the outfield every year for more than three decades, painting new advertisements over the old ones again and again . No one else has painted this fence since it went up in 1990, and unless something happens to Marcilla, no one else will.
Nearly every baseball stadium abandoned sign painting long ago in favor of printed vinyl, a cheaper and faster alternative. Marcilla, who started painting signs in the mid-1970s, is one of the last masters of a dying craft. He said the outfield wall at Avista Stadium, an ever-changing ode to the art of sign painting, is the job that defines his career.
“I’ve taken care of this fence, I’ve loved it,” he said. “I’m the only guy who’s touched this fence. It’s literally my fence. Somebody else paid for it, but it’s mine.”
Otto Klein, the Spokane Indians’ senior vice president, said Marcilla’s work is part of what makes Avista Stadium unique. He guessed that fewer than 5% of ballparks still have hand-painted signs.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s none,” Spokane Indians owner Bobby Brett said.
Marcilla, a wisecracking 65-year-old with a thick mustache and flattop haircut, is good at what he does. He’s so good that most Indians fans will never realize the outfield ads are hand-painted. And yet, Marcilla is quick to acknowledge that his skill alone isn’t why the Indians keep bringing him back.
“The only reason that this is done by hand is because I’m doing it,” he said. “I give them a good price and they like me.”
Brett said the team hired Marcilla 34 years ago when he knocked on the door looking for a job. If he’d left, Brett said, the Indians would have switched to vinyl years earlier.
“When you get someone who’s good at what they do, you’re loyal to them,” Brett said. “He’s been loyal to us, and we’ve been loyal to him.”
‘What do you like about breathing?’
Marcilla, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and New York City, started sign painting young.
“I got out of high school and wandered into a sign shop, started sweeping floors,” he said. “I never left.”
He remembers being in awe watching experienced sign painters – he refers to them as “lords” and “old-timers” – paint immaculate O’s. Many of the lords snubbed him, fearful of competition, but others taught him the tricks of the trade. Sign painting in New York was a “glamorous” profession at the time, he said.
Marcilla was always artistic. He preferred museums over Yankees or Mets games. But other than a love of art, he has a hard time explaining what drew him to sign painting.
“It’s what I’ve been doing all my life,” he said. “What do you like about walking? What do you like about breathing?”
Marcilla eventually left New York to live with his brother, who was stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base in southern Idaho. He met his wife in Mountain Home and followed her to San Antonio and Little Rock, Arkansas. He moved to Spokane with his family in 1990.
Within the world of signs, Marcilla is versatile.
He paints logos and ads onto the ice for the Spokane Chiefs hockey team. He’s painted dozens of Spokane storefronts, done lettering on countless New York trucks and worked on an Arkansas riverboat. He remembers doing a Southwest Airlines sign so many times in a row he memorized how to paint their planes. He’s put Rush Limbaugh’s face on a billboard.
“I was anxious because everybody knew him,” Marcilla said. “It had to be right on, it had to be sharp.”
At one point, he worked with a man who did lettering in gold leaf.
“He was the best gold leaf guy in Manhattan – in other words, the world,” Marcilla said. “And he’d been doing it since the dawn of man.”
Gold leaf is so thin that even breathing on it can cause it to ripple. Instead of touching it with their fingers, gold leaf experts work with sable brushes. They run the bristles through their hair and lift the leaf with static electricity.
“This guy was bald, so I was his hair,” Marcilla said. “He’d say, ‘Come over here,’ and take static off my hair.”
Marcilla’s kept the same methods over the decades.
When he’s doing a sign on the outfield wall, he starts the same way a house painter would, scraping off loose paint chips and laying on a white coat of primer.
Next, he comes to the ballpark at night and uses an old school projector to shine the outline of the ad on the wall. He “blocks” the outline, then returns after the sun’s risen to paint the edges with a brush. When the finesse work’s done, he fills in the easy parts with a small roller. A typical sign takes a couple of days, and he spends weeks every spring getting the wall ready for opening day.
Marcilla doesn’t get attached to his signs and doesn’t mind painting over them.
“I get paid,” he said. “I want them to change every year.”
Some signs are more fun than others. This year he’s looking forward to Bulldog Rooter, a local plumbing company whose mascot is a bipedal dog holding a pipe wrench.
While he doesn’t have true favorites, Marcilla is especially proud of the Pizza Factory sign in left field.
Unlike the majority of the wall signs, Pizza Factory was a midseason gig. Marcilla had to finish it in less than 24 hours during an Indians’ homestand.
He started after a night game, around 9 p.m. Once he’d rolled on primer and drawn the outline he rested in his truck for a few hours. When the sun rose, he “banged it out.”
“By 2 o’clock it was done,” he said.
‘End of the line’
Marcilla’s wall won’t be around much longer.
The Indians have to make a host of changes to Avista Stadium before the start of the 2025 season, thanks to new Major League Baseball requirements.
The hard, plywood fence will be replaced with a soft, padded one for player safety.
Marcilla isn’t especially sad about it.
“I’m going to be 66 and I was going to wait until I’m 67 to retire,” he said. “Next year would have been my last year anyway.”
Even when he began his career, Marcilla knew the glory days of sign painting had passed.
In the early 1990s, Spokane had a dozen or so sign painters. Now Marcilla knows two or three. The special sign paints he needs, packed with extra pigment, have become hard to find and outlandishly expensive.
“I’m like 30 or 40 years behind the times,” he said.
Marcilla doesn’t sound wistful when he talks about sign painting’s decline. He’s just happy Avista Stadium’s wall allowed him to last this long.
“Ten years ago, I didn’t know if I would be able to make it to the finish line before signs ended,” he said, before turning back to his wall, bucket and brush in hand.
“I made it to the end of the line as a sign painter.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.