Once upon a time, dogs’ main purpose was to guard our homes. Today, grateful for all the other wonderful ways they’ve enhanced our lives, we act as our dogs’ faithful, watchful guardians. One sign of the times is the evolution of the “Beware of Dog” sign.
In the ancient city of Pompeii, the “Beware of Dog” message – “Cave Canem” in Latin – appears on a mosaic that survived the awesome destruction wreaked by Mount Vesuvius’s eruption. In the Looney Tunes, the same warning shows up on every doghouse that houses a menacing Bulldog.
In Nepal, however, one gets the distinct and very comforting impression that the “Beware of Dog” sign aims to protect dogs from harm rather than project a threat of menace. There, each sign is one-of-a-kind, hand-painted with charming images of dogs and hand-lettered with the phrase “Beware of Dog” – or a variant, “Danger Dog” – in both English and the decorative Devanagari script written by the Nepali people.
On her first visit to Kathmandu more than two decades ago, Californian Michelle Page first noticed these colorful, one-foot-square metal signboards, fell in love, and doggedly began buying as many as she could. She amassed an impressive collection, which she put on prominent display in her Los Angeles home (where, alas, there’s no actual dog in residence).
Years later, Page noticed that the signs started to become an endangered species: they were disappearing fast, replaced by boring, mass-produced versions that featured computer-generated images printed on vinyl. Pretty soon, the rare breed of metal sign that had so captivated her – and filled her home with quirky conversation-starters – was almost completely extinct. So Page did what any serious collector would do when faced with a similar obstacle: she appointed herself the conservator of this fun folk art form.
She started searching for and befriending the artists who’d made the signs she loved. And when she found them, she made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Today, her business, Danger Dogs, singlehandedly ensures the survival of hand-painted metal dog signs by employing Nepali artists to make the signs; Page calls her enterprise “Fair Trade Folk Art” and “Micro-Finance through Art Patronage.”
About 55 different artists paint signs from photographs supplied by Page’s clients; the results are charming works of functional art that double as commissioned pet portraits. Three different artists paint each dog, and signs that aren’t selected by the canine models’ guardians are sold at such prestigious places as Los Angeles’ Craft and Folk Art Museum Shop and the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
“The ‘Danger Dog’ project is about keeping the Nepali artists’ dignity and giving work to these artists – keeping art as a viable profession in this digital age,” explains Page, who also has a fun blog. “It’s saving the livelihoods of these artists, one ‘Danger Dog’ at a time.”
And in becoming part of the creative process, as art patrons inevitably do, Page and her clients have helped expand the vocabulary of the dog signs. “Be Aware!” and “Be Careful!” some of the signs say, as if to admonish wayward cars or bikes, or anything else that could bring harm to a dog. Other signs bear the very Zen legend “Enlightened Dog” – and really, who could be afraid of a dog like that? Especially when he’s depicted as an extremely cuddly beast.
You might say this new breed of dog sign honors dogs by depicting them as gurus, and courteously informing visitors of their four-footed presence – not to make people afraid, but to inspire them to stop and appreciate how cute the canines are. Aw!
One fan of Danger Dogs is John Walsh, director Emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum, who bought six for his own collection. “Michelle has found a whole subculture of self-taught artists living in dodgy circumstances in Kathmandu and brought their delightful work to the West,” Walsh says. “All of the signs have fluent Nepalese warnings and delicious, almost-correct English subtitles. There is a lot of sophistication here.”
To order a custom Danger Dog sign painted in your best friend’s image, go here. Prices range fron $250-$400.