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Spin City! Denver's sign spinners want you to give them a twirl

Justin Loseke twirls on South Colorado.
Anthony Camera

This is not going to be good. A yellow school bus is plowing down Colorado Boulevard, spraying snow in its wake, its windows revealing the tiny, messy faces of children. The combination of slush and students is enough to strike fear in the heart of any sign spinner, but Justin Loseke focuses on the kids. The smaller they are, the more likely they are to launch litter: In the two and a half months he's worked for Golden Nugget Gold Buyers, he's spent roughly forty hours a week in constant fear that he will be pegged by a Big Gulp.

It's happened to his peers outside of Golden Nugget's Centennial location. A rogue water-bottle attack, foiled by a sign, was recently recorded on camera — but that didn't stop the punks, and the owners haven't decided whether to report the harassment to police. During his time on the job, Loseke has developed a point system for street-side responses: Honks are one point, air kisses the jackpot, and children absolute zero. On his best day yet, Loseke earned sixty honks, two flip-offs, one kiss and one "Woo!," though he's not sure how to rank that.

Now, standing on a snowy street corner and grimacing inside his hundred-dollar-bill costume, Loseke stares at the bus, evaluating his chances of being pelted by either Slurpee or slush — and gives in. He steps back.

The workaday world of Denver's hundreds of sign spinners can come with rigorous rules, but street smarts are the most critical requirement. Smile. Be friendly. Don't smoke in your costume. Don't just stand there. Don't drop the sign — but if you do, smile bigger. And above all, watch your back.

A few blocks down the street, Liberty Tax has given its human billboard the day off. AArrow Advertising usually sends twirlers home on snowy days, because clients think they just look pathetic. Not even cars want to be out in this weather. Loseke and another Golden Nugget sign twirler stand cold and largely alone by the side of Colorado Boulevard.

The store they front is one of Denver's six Golden Nugget locations, this one located between a head shop named Daddy Dank and a small pastry cafe in a nondescript shopping center. It would be easy to miss if not for the twirlers, both of whom are spinning directly in front of a sign reading "WE BUY GOLD" in letters larger than their faces. According to Crystal Omara, one of the store's gold buyers and Loseke's supervisor today, sign twirlers account for more than 50 percent of her walk-in business. When customers enter the store, they are always asked what attracted them in the first place. Overwhelmingly, the answer is something like "That guy outside."

As far as this guy goes, Loseke is a quiet, friendly and overtly mediocre example of a sign twirler. He is okay with this, though, and so is his employer. He doesn't know any sign-spinning tricks — in large part because he was never taught any — and his go-to move is simply to cradle his sign and rock it back and forth like a very tall, thin baby. He is efficient, if introverted, but his fear of Big Gulps, combined with a fondness for listening to New Order through his earbuds, guarantee that he won't win an international sign-spinning championship anytime soon. (Yes, those actually exist.)

Instead, he just does what he was hired to do. And in the process, he satisfies a personal goal: He makes some gold of his own. When Loseke was laid off from Lowe's in November, he applied for around fifteen jobs on Craigslist; Golden Nugget — whose ad just asked for his name, number and availability, which, as a psychology major at Metro, he has a lot of — was the only business that returned his call. After two brief interviews, during which he donned a Santa costume and basically proved he could hold a sign, Loseke earned the spot.

Loseke's first hour on the job was his worst. So many chunks of the Santa outfit sloughed off that one pedestrian stopped to take a photo, and the belt that came with it couldn't make up for the worn-out elastic inside the pants that kept sliding from his skinny waist. "I try not to get too down about it, but people drive by and it seems like you're the butt of every single person's joke," Loseke says. "And that's because you are. They just look at you like they hate you, and they don't even know you."

Standing on Colorado, one hand on his pants and the other on his sign, Loseke wondered what to tell his parents about his new gig. "I don't think I ever completely stopped being embarrassed of what I do, but at least it became a job," Loseke says. A job where, when he pulls up at Golden Nugget at 10 a.m. five days a week, he is given coffee, a costume and a bottle of Febreze, should he require it. "It's not a tough job, even if my mom isn't super-excited about it. I get paid $10 an hour to basically do nothing."

Last month, the Liberty Tax spinner rudely pointed this out, approaching Loseke and telling him that his tricks were insufficient, that he was just a sign holder, not a sign twirler. This was a heavy accusation, indeed. Later in the day, when Loseke passed Liberty Tax, he noticed that her sign was stationary, too, but he didn't repeat the insult. He witnessed her poor performance from inside a car, but his honking might actually have been misinterpreted as a reward.

Class and turf wars, both internal and external, come with the territory. Sign twirlers have issues with each other, and city governments have beef with the profession. And then there's the "weed guy."

The weed guy, whose employers wish him to remain nameless, has worked this block for eighteen months, three years or six years; one account even traces his claim on Colorado Boulevard to a time before medical marijuana was legal. He is defensive and disagreeable, and he drinks Steel Reserve out of tall cans. In January, the weed guy single-handedly declared war on the Golden Nugget sign twirlers, yelling at one of Loseke's future co-workers for having the gall to spin his gold sign too close to the weed guy's weed sign.

"There was a lot of 'You don't own this!' and 'I was here first!'" Loseke says. "Honestly, I really don't care, but there are people out there who would probably hurt you if you started to take attention away from them. Whatever you do, do not step on another sign twirler's turf."

Loseke learned this lesson himself a month later, when he confronted the weed guy. "I know we kind of have a turf thing going on between our stores," he remembers saying as he introduced himself, "so where do you want me to stand? I don't want to step on your territory." After the weed guy detailed his history in the area (he "built it") and proof of superiority (he "shovels it"), he directed Loseke to a spot a couple of blocks south. Loseke felt safe. For about fifteen minutes.

"Then he came up to me and said, 'Dude, come on. Would you mind not throwing this up?'" Loseke forms a peace sign with his fingers. "'It's kind of my thing.'"

Ever since, Loseke has made peace signs his thing, too.

*****

Even the most cursory research on the history of sign spinning shows that more people claim to have invented it than should reasonably want the title. Human directionals, as sign twirlers are officially known in the industry, appear to have emerged from nineteenth-century England, where shops set out chalk-scribbled sandwich boards and underage children shouted "Get ya papes!" A century later, the trend picked up speed in this country, with signage migrating from billboards to handbills to street advertisements. Naturally, corporate America soon got in the game. EyeShot, one of the early companies to hire out sign twirlers, claims responsibility for creating the updated, arrow-shaped signs that have dominated the field for years.

But AArrow Advertising, which two friends founded in Ocean Beach, California, in 2002, really ramped up the business. Today the international chain employs more than 1,000 young people. Two years ago Therese Dombrowski and two silent partners paid $30,000 to open an AArrow franchise in Colorado, where it's represented such companies as McDonald's, Go Wireless, Planet Fitness and the Colorado Apartment Association; the company's national gigs include a job promoting the MTV Movie Awards in 2010.

AArrow has applied for patents on many of its more than 500 signature sign-twirling moves, which it teaches to new hires at mandatory boot camps. And every year, it holds the World Sign Spinning Championship, which is open to AArrow employees — and only AArrow employees — from forty cities in the United States as well as Australia, South Korea, Canada, France, Mexico and Puerto Rico. At present, the planet's top sign twirler is Kadeem Johnson, a Washington, D.C., spinner who won the 2012 title and $1,000 grand prize in Las Vegas last month. The AArrow franchises also hold regional competitions, and Colorado's will be open to the general public this summer. The goal, Dombrowski says, is to prove once and for all that AArrow's spinners are the best.

It is a claim the company has made many times. AArrow staffers have appeared on Conan, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Tonight Show and Today, among others, brandishing the company's trademark eight-pound, six-foot-tall signs. Their size and weight are two reasons that all twenty of Dombrowski's current employees are males who make a point of staying aggressively fit; although women have tried out, none have joined the team. Every Wednesday, Dombrowski and head spinstructor Ryan O'Dea meet for three hours with the franchise's entire slate of staffers to practice moves including the helicopter, the blender, the floater and the Bruce Lee. Moves that are all considered part of sign spinning — not sign twirling, and definitely not sign holding.

There is a difference, Dombrowski insists. While sign holding is precisely what it sounds like — "and really lazy," she says — sign spinning is "a street-performing art based on extreme sports. You've got to be physically fit and strong, as opposed to sign holders who aren't smiling or pointing or making eye contact. We don't just take somebody out of the kitchen and say 'Go hold a sign.'"

What AArrow does do, Dombrowski explains, is "create memories" (as well as a few new vocabulary words). AArrow requires that its employees demonstrate and maintain serious "spinergy" while creating "spinthusiasm" in potential customers. Dombrowski signs her e-mails "Spincerely, Therese." A new employee must memorize a minimum of twenty tricks before he ever hits a street corner in his uniform of black pants and a red polo. The AArrow starting salary is $10 an hour, but spinners can earn raises of up to fifty cents every three months if they successfully meet twenty criteria during surprise drive-by audits, including smile quality, uniform neatness, flow between tricks, timeliness, customer interaction, whether they drop a sign, how they recover.

During the mandatory practices, O'Dea — who says he's gained 35 pounds of muscle since starting the job — walks spinners through whole-body stretches, strength exercises and push-ups before leading them in a variety of tricks he taught himself at home through YouTube videos of the international championships. The company's back catalogue of stunts includes a handful specifically intended for wind and other adverse weather conditions, while others are purely for showing off. The goal is never to repeat a trick in any sequence of ten.

But the first lesson is how to hurt yourself, followed immediately by how not to hurt yourself. On season three of 1,000 Ways to Die, a reality show O'Dea watches regularly that is devoted to bizarre deaths, episode sixteen focused on the story of a spinner named Mickey who cut his jugular open during a botched attempt at the helicopter.

"His sign didn't have the correct edging," O'Dea says. AArrow's signs, which cost a minimum of $150 each, are built from plastic and vinyl, with patented edging materials that neither O'Dea nor his boss will divulge. Regardless, being smacked in the face with one during a windstorm hurts "like a mother," O'Dea says, and practices have resulted in broken noses and fingers, although no deaths like Mickey's. "But he could have avoided that if he had paid attention and practiced more. Like we do."

*****

When Brian Galyon saw his first spinner, in 2004, "I thought it was the dumbest idea ever," he remembers. "And the spinner was more like a holder, really. And a scary one at that." The then-regional manager for Move.com was on a trip to Los Angeles when he spotted this "professional" twirler — the way Galyon over-enunciates the recollection, the description is in air quotes — who was lethargic, dirty and decidedly uncompelling.

But a few years later, after Galyon saw statistics on the effect that twirlers could have when used properly, he decided to enter the human-directional business himself. In February 2011 he launched Colorado-based Motion Advertising, with a goal of revolutionizing the industry by putting an end to the stereotype of a sign spinner as a lazy, confused and unwashed degenerate. "Before I started, I legitimately thought all sign twirlers were homeless," Justin Loseke admits. His mom still does.

Galyon makes the Motion Advertising mission clear from the start, in ads that he peppers around the Internet and local college campuses, laying out his requirements with emphatic capital letters:

"**Please note — WE ARE STREET PERFORMERS AND WILL NOT TOLERATE EMPLOYEES WHO JUST 'STAND THERE' WITH A SIGN. WE ARE DIFFERENT FROM ALL THE OTHER SIGN-SPINNING COMPANIES. WE WILL TRAIN YOU ON HOW TO SPIN THE SIGN AND ATTRACT ATTENTION. YOU NEED TO BE IN GOOD PHYSICAL CONDITION TO DO THIS JOB. ALL OF OUR EMPLOYEES GET MULTIPLE COMPLIMENTS THROUGHOUT THEIR SHIFTS FROM THE GENERAL PUBLIC. COME BE A PART OF THIS EXCITING WORK ENVIRONMENT!" From there, the requirements are simple (and lowercased): To earn their own multiple compliments, employees must be cell-phone-using adults, eighteen or older, with the legal ability to work in the U.S. Interviews are brief and include questions standard to the industry: Are you nice? Can you hold a sign and move it around? Will you just stand there?

But Galyon also asks other, more pointed questions: Do you have a criminal record? Tattoos? Piercings? Are you physically fit? Do you actually want to do this?

As a result, his employees are clean, unpierced, professionally dressed and fresh-faced, all students either in high school or college who work only on the weekends, when they are paid $10 an hour to twirl signs touting one of the thirty or so Front Range real-estate locations represented by Motion. All of his employees have passed extensive background checks; because most of Galyon's current business comes from ventures advertising secluded model homes, the last thing he wants to do is hire someone who will case the joint. That's in direct contrast to some of the other sign bosses, he says, who troll the streets in the morning, pick up day laborers, hand them signs and then drop them off at a business after just a few instructions.

In accordance with a requirement from his clients, Galyon also took out a hefty liability insurance policy that covers his twirlers. That's another way he's changing the direction of the human-directional field: While Galyon maintains a $5 million policy, George Borrell, owner of the Liberty Tax on Leetsdale Drive, simply warns his employees not to get hit by a car. This was also the first warning that Loseke heard at Golden Nugget.

Although Borrell estimates that 60 percent of his business comes from sign twirlers, he knows that the job is not a long-term or emotionally rewarding one. In the six years his store has been open, Borrell has hired more than sixty twirlers, and he has already rotated through three in 2012. "Obviously we tell them not to go out in the middle of the road, but there are no rules," Borrell says. "The training process is to grab the sign, move it up and down and point at the store. All twirlers are mostly the same."

Galyon disagrees. Last summer, irritated by the poor performance of dispensary spinners, he created a flier advertising his standards and sent it to hundreds of local medical marijuana centers. The message was mildly preachy, something to the effect of "If you're going to do this, do it right. (With me.)" Those dispensaries who bothered to contact Galyon told him they would stick with their current spinners — in part, he suggests, because they could pay them in trade.

"Why would you want the lowest common denominator representing your business?" Galyon asks. "If you've got a guy on the corner who looks like he just buys a gram here and there, that's what you'll get inside."

*****

While a few sign-spinning entrepreneurs would like to legitimize the business, a handful of local governments would like it to go away altogether, citing reasons that range from the distraction factor to safety concerns to annoyance, plain and simple.

Galyon debated the issue last year at city council meetings in both Parker and Thornton. To some extent, he played devil's advocate, arguing that typical spinners — such as Loseke, the weed guy who plagues Golden Nugget, and everyone working for Liberty Tax or hired by any other individual shop — should be regulated to conform to stricter models, like those of Motion and AArrow. "My sole goal is to clean up the sign-spinning industry here in Colorado," Galyon says. "Denver deserves a better brand of sign spinner, and I plan on giving it to them."

But no spinner — good or bad — is allowed to do business in Parker anymore. Last year, the municipal code was revised to specifically prohibit sign twirlers — already banned from private property — on public property, too. "The primary intent of this section is to protect the safety of the advertising individual and our traveling citizens who may be distracted," says Steven Greer, the town's development review manager.

AArrow franchise holder Dombrowski, a Parker resident, laments that ban, arguing that sign-twirling benefits kids by giving them jobs. "It keeps kids off of drugs, out of jail, full of energy," she says. "Honestly, there's not a lot to do in Parker, so why take away one more thing?"

Greenwood Village ordinances also prohibit sign twirlers by name — and in extensive detail, starting with "The following are specifically prohibited: (1) Spinners." In one of the area's longest-running bans, Greenwood Village outlawed "animated, flashing or moving signs" in December 1990 in a move designed to improve the town's aesthetics. "The main intention is to eliminate ad clutter," says neighborhood-services officer Sheryl Jaramillo.

Other towns have put limits on the practice. Thornton's city council adopted a new sign code in June that requires twirlers to physically hold their signs, which can't be inflatable or block traffic or any previously scheduled event. Twirlers also can't sell anything or collect money for any reason. And even if they wanted to, they can't stand in the middle of a street. If a human directional is found in violation of the code, he or she can be fined up to $1,000. "The issue was that they weren't called out in the city code whatsoever, and they weren't regulated at all," says Thornton code-compliance supervisor Robin Brown. "We had historically allowed them, but we had to put some limits on what was acceptable. The business community was demanding accountability." Although she continues to receive calls complaining about twirlers, they usually come from people who didn't realize the city still allows the practice, albeit with limitations. And in the eight months since the rules were changed, she notes, Thornton has recorded no violations of its new sign code.

In Denver, spinners must stay off streets and medians, but they face no other restrictions. Unlike the city's ubiquitous sign fliers, who panhandle for personal gain, this city's professional (or at least paid) sign twirlers draw attention first and funds later. The differences between the two might not be immediately obvious to passersby, who are equally annoyed by both. But while sign spinners and the average sign holder — an Occupy Denver protester, for example — face no direct regulations outside of traffic laws, the city's standards regarding panhandlers and others who hold signs to solicit money are more carefully enumerated.

Although panhandling is protected in part by the First Amendment, Denver municipal code prohibits "aggressive" cases that feature violence, profanity or unwanted physical contact, according to city attorney Kerry Buckey. Unlike sign spinners, who must only steer clear of natural threats to public safety, panhandlers cannot come within a certain distance of ATMs, community toilets, buses, outdoor patios and other public spaces. And the practice of panhandling is completely prohibited after dark.

"A lot of people assume spinners are beggars, and the fact that that's even possible is alarming," Galyon says. "The image of them right now is kind of a joke."

*****

Two weeks into the job, Loseke watched, sign hanging limp, as a stranger's van broke down on Colorado. When it became clear that neither he nor the vehicle would be leaving the area anytime soon, Loseke and his twirling partner helped push the van into the parking lot next to Golden Nugget. There it stayed.

When he walked up to work a week later, a police car was parked behind the van. An officer came over and asked Loseke a couple of questions, at which point he learned that the stranger had died inside the van, probably the same day that Loseke had helped push it into the lot. A few minutes later Loseke, dressed in his hundred-dollar-bill costume, watched authorities wheel the stranger's corpse down the block, past his spinning corner and into an ambulance.

"It was that really nice week...so I'd imagine his body was probably soup," Loseke remarks. "It was gnarly."

It made a good story for the Golden Nugget's semi-regular sign twirlers' meeting, however. When he and the company's other spinners met that month, first-timer Loseke entertained everyone with his corpse account before the group got down to sharing grievances. One of Loseke's co-workers has argued repeatedly and adamantly in favor of the company purchasing grip tape so that he can hold his sign more firmly and perform a larger array of tricks. Without the special tape, the signs snag his gloves and cut his hands, he says, comparing the effect to that of a saw blade. The same spinner once asked for his own personal hundred-dollar-bill costume, and when no one else evinced the same interest, he got it. He did not get the tape, though; some of Golden Nugget's higher-ups warn their human directionals to pace themselves. They've heard reports of spinners spraining their ankles and arms while attempting tricks behind their backs and necks, and they don't provide insurance.

But Golden Nugget provides other benefits, including the vague possibility of one day moving up the chain to become a gold buyer. This has happened only once in Denver history, and the man who accomplished this feat is married to another gold buyer; still, this is one of the company's few incentives to improve performance. The other is a ninety-day review, but even though Loseke is approaching the three-month mark, neither he nor Omara, his supervisor, know if he's going to have a review.

"Twirlers must have a personality and a car," Omara says. "That's it. It would probably be better if we taught everyone all the tricks that some of our spinners learned from other companies, but that's expensive." She points out the window to where she has been watching Loseke's fellow twirler awkwardly waddle back and forth most of the morning. Loseke has wisely selected the more distant position, away from store windows and the supervisor's eyes.

"See, I don't know what on earth he's doing," Omara says. "It looks like he's trying to cover his face from the wind using the sign, but he looks kind of crazy. And he should really have a ski mask on if that's what he's trying to do."

After Loseke joined the company, Golden Nugget launched a plan to double the number of sign twirlers in hopes that the rate of walk-ins will rise somewhat proportionately. The program is still in its infancy; if it doesn't increase business enough to cover the cost of the eight new hires, it will be eliminated. And so will they.

That's just the nature of the human-directional business. Most spinners can't count on collecting anything more than some bizarre anecdotes, extra cash on the weekends, maybe a little pot. Spinning does not win a Nobel Prize, Galyon points out, or really any awards at all, unless you're one of AArrow's stars.

Galyon is hoping to change that. At the very least, he can promote his most dedicated employees, giving them professional titles, such as operations manager, that will create more substantial lines on their resumés — or maybe tempt them to stay with the company as it grows. That's what 21-year-old Nico Lujan plans to do when he graduates from the University of Northern Colorado with a degree in business studies next year.

And Galyon is sure that Motion Advertising will have work for him. Earlier this year, he contracted with an advertising firm in Laguna Beach, California, to snag exclusive rights to a new system of LED signage in Colorado and Tennessee. The plan is hush-hush for now, Galyon says, but later this year, he'll use the technology to branch into the concert-promotions and wine-and-spirits industries in those states. Both Galyon's signs and his expectations are growing.

"When I drive around and look at the people other companies put out, I am horrified," he says. "Their signs are ratty, their spinners are lazy, and the entire effect is embarrassing. This is not a novel concept, so why would we continue to think that's okay?"

After a long pause, he apologizes for talking negatively about the industry, reconfirms his wish to be positive and then sighs heavily. "No wonder cities are stopping us," Galyon says. "It's not rocket science, but it should be an art."


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