So I walk down this alley in Towson, between a parking garage and an office building, and I see something that looks like something I have never seen before, and things I have never seen before always catch my eye.
There’s a display of signage, more like an outdoor bazaar of signage, along the concrete wall of the parking garage: small rectangular signs, most of them printed on corrugated plastic, like the ones you frequently see along county roads and city streets.
Signs for a donut shop, a sub shop and a reptile show, a cleaning service and a house for sale. Signs for roofing and moving and hauling, landscaping and lawn mower repair. There are several “We Buy Houses” signs, some of them hand-drawn. There are signs for web design, security systems, math tutoring, flea markets and unused diabetic test strips. There’s even a sign for a sign shop. (“Enter thru the liquor store.”)
Parked nearby is a dented 2000 Chrysler Concorde sedan of faded gold. Its backseat is stuffed with even more signs: signs for haunted houses, open houses and house-flipping classes.
I probably have seen all these signs in travels throughout metropolitan Baltimore, but never in one place like this. The tableau of 50 or 60 of them gives me pause, and during said pause I see a guy with a mustache and a soul patch, and he appears to be the maker of this galerie plein air.
“What are you doing?” I ask. And so it begins.
Meet Richard “They call me Nasty” Nast, born on Halloween 72 years ago. He’s a part-time inspector for Baltimore County and the local government’s most prolific confiscator of signs that violate the county code.
“All of these are illegal,” Nasty explains, waving toward the signs along the parking garage. “I’m setting them up to take pictures of them and document them.” Many of the signs have phone numbers, and sometimes the county is able to trace, cite and fine the scofflaws who repeatedly placed these eyesores on median strips and other places where they are prohibited.
What’s the scale of this familiar nuisance? Hard to say exactly. Some citizens have become sign-pulling activists, and while their contributions are noted, they are not formally tallied. Meanwhile county inspectors remove about 2,200 signs per year, according to Adam Whitlock, who coordinates enforcement of the county code.
Based on what I’ve seen, and Nasty’s documented tallies, he appears to be responsible for most of the seizures. Indeed, Whitlock confirms that Nasty is the county’s leading remover of illegal signs. The guy is dedicated. He likes pulling signs and does so even when the person who paid for them gets in his face.
“Hey,” he says, “it’s my job, and it’s the code.”
Nasty came out of retirement five years ago — he used to own a surf shop down the ocean — to be an inspector on a seasonal basis. He was hired specifically to remove signs from what Nasty calls CROWS, or county right-of-ways.
Article 23 of the Baltimore County Code of Ordinances prohibits the placement of signs on county property, including parks and recreation areas, flagpoles, lampposts, trees, stop lights, stop signs, or on “a pole, building or property owned, leased or controlled by a public utility if the pole, building or property is located within or on a public street, alleyway or any other public property.”
If a violator can be identified, the county issues warnings about the signs. If the violations continue, the county fines the offenders, and the hit can be thousands of dollars.
Nasty says he frequently fills the Concorde with signs and twice a week sets them up to be photographed along the parking garage in Towson. He calls it “the wall of shame.” The signs then go into the county’s recycling stream.
Nasty keeps a running count: 75 or so one day, more than 100 the next. This year he collected 227 in a one-day roundup. He finds a lot of the signs on CROWS in Woodlawn and Catonsville, and along Route 40 and York Road. The man gets around. “I go from Essex to Lansdowne,” he says.
If the person who paid for the sign is nearby, Nasty sometimes gets a nasty reception. “If I’m not cussed out at least once a day by somebody, I’m not doing my job,” he says.
An angry guy from a trucking company spotted him pulling a sign in front of his business, got in his truck, chased Nasty through traffic on Rossville Boulevard, forced him to pull over, then hurled profane threats through the Concorde window.
Nasty remained calm, told the guy he was being live-streamed back to Towson (he wasn’t) and that his sign, advertising for truck drivers, was illegal because it had been placed on a CROW. The guy continued to argue, so Nasty decided to return his sign with a warning: “I said, ‘Look, dude, the only thing that’s supposed to be out here on the road are [traffic] signs, nothing to distract drivers. I’m not going to give you a citation. I’m just tellin’ ya: If I see your sign out here again, I’m going to write you up.”
The guy took the sign and went his way. Nasty’s been back to check several times. He hasn’t seen that sign since, and considers that mission accomplished.