GR US

Greek Industrial Painters of North America

Εθνικός Κήρυξ

Williamsburg Bridge N.Y.C. (Photo: Public Domain)

Generations of Greeks have painted bridges, towers, other metal industrial structures all across North America and Canada. While the Greek-American press has never ignored this coterie of daredevil painters Greek-American Studies, such as it exists, speaks little of them. Fortunately, the American news services have always been intrigued with these men and so recent news reports, with accompanying video footage, has once again vividly brought this industrial craft to the public's notice.

The difference this time – besides detailed interviews with individual career painters – is the film footage.

Not all industrial painters work outdoors. But those that do work in teams frequently at dizzying heights, to which these craft people must return to every day until the assigned job is completed. The painting of individual bridges, nuclear power plants, and major telecommunication antennas can literally take years. Rather than just being a question of getting new paint on to the surface of whatever is painted – say the coating of metal and pipes in industrial settings –most often the old paint and rust must first be sandblasted off the metal surfaces that are then to be painted anew.

Given the exposure to the elements that is common for the majority of these huge structures and commercial settings, the painters must not just apply industrial-grade paint, polyurethane, and zinc silicate paints, varnishes, and other coatings to this wide variety of materials and surfaces but the application of these paints must be at a specific mill, that is thickness – to prevent corrosion, or to be fireproof. When all is said and done this industrial craft is absolutely crucial for the maintenance of America's infrastructure.

And, yes, since the very early 1900s, at the very least, Greeks have been and continue to be noticeable figures in the realm of industrial painting in North America. We know this because Greek involvement in this profession has been the subject of documented fact and community conversation for decades. Even the most mundane sources report upon these Greek workers. As we hear in this Help-Wanted advertisement: “100 LABORERS in city, $1.75; carpenters, painters, machinists, blacksmiths, drivers, farm and dairy hands, at once; 6 Greek bridge painters, out of town; free fare. Arnold Emp. Bureau 720 Penn ave 17WP).” (Pittsburgh Press October 17, 1907).

Or again with, “The Greek Bridge Painters under John Cronis Nestopoulos are applying the second coat of paint to the river bridge. The first coat was black, the second venetian red. The commissioners are now advertising for bids for putting on a third coat,” (Tunkhannock New Age June 20, 1912 (Tunkhannock, PA).

Be advised that this profession was and remains prone to danger. Falling from great heights has never been the only workplace possibility these intrepid Greek painters face and continue to be wary of in their daily work. Under the headline “Explosion Kills Bridge Painter,” we find, “an explosion claimed the life of a Greek-born bridge painter Wednesday and critically injured a fellow countryman when an electrical short ignited vapors while they were spraying an enclosed area of a ramp girder. Firemen identified the victim as George Elenis, 30, of Cincinnati. Hospitalized with second and third degree burns was James Katakos, 42, of Newport, KY. Acting Fire Chief Ed theorized that vapors from the paint and an electrical short circuit ignited the blast. The ramp is one of the approaches to the Brent Spence bridge over the Ohio River,” (Advocate-Messenger (Danville (KY) July 22, 1976). Admittedly these fragmented announcements are often strangely written koans offering nothing more than a momentary glimpse into this unique profession.

Let me offer a quick review of two large companies and information on how to locate both YouTube and on-line articles about individual families of Greek industrial painters.

John L. Manta (1888-1988) who originally came to the United States in 1903 from Icara, Greece, founded the J. L. Manta Painting and Decorating firm at 1821 Loomis Street in Chicago. Manta's company was soon painting all manner of industrial works not only throughout Illinois but in time the entire country as well. As with other Greek-American enterprises, industrial painting has frequently been and remains family based. In 1914, George L. Manta (1898-1987) came to the United States. “In 1920, he joined his brother John, who had formed the J. L. Manta Co. In time George Manta became past president and chairman of both the J. L. Manta Company, industrial painters, and Manta Vincor Steel Corporation, fabricators of architectural paneling. The J. L. Manta Co., which did work at Cape Canaveral, also has painted all the steel, inside and out, of nuclear and fossil fuel power plants, bridges, steel buildings, and industrial and commercial structures, including steel mills,” (Chicago Tribune October 9, 1987).

Such was the long-term role of the Manta family in American industrial painting that various and sundry regional managers were appointed for what was to become annual accounts. Christ M. Aivaliotis, was a “general manager of the Pittsburgh division of J. L. Manta Inc.” (Pittsburgh-Globe Gazette September 19, 1972; Tampa Times January 25, 1964). John P. Economos was yet another of these regional and at times roaming superintendents (Pittsburgh Press January 13, 1976). While the Manta company is no longer in operation other Greek-owned and family operated companies still are.

Campbell, OH is said to have the largest concentration of Greeks in the United States second only to Tarpon Springs, FL. How, why, and when Greeks began to be a leading presence in industrial painting has several explanations. When the sponge trade in Tarpon Springs began failing after World War II many Greek fishermen joined the industrial painters, it is said, because they were already used to working in the heights of the masts aboard the wave-tossed sponge ships. Another popular account asserts that Greeks were initially drawn to the Campbell area to work in the local steel mills. Then, in 1978, when the Campbell steel industry collapsed the unemployed Greeks joined the industrial painting crews.

The original cause/s of large numbers of local Campbell Greeks becoming industrial painters may be – for the moment – lost in time. We do know that a recent news report by Stan Boney aired on Campbell, Ohio's WKBN September 14, 2017 program stated, in part that, “Campbell has long been known as a city of industrial painters, all of them Greek. Even today, at least 12 painting companies operate out of the area.”

Boney continues, “one of those companies produced a documentary on bridge painting, what it takes to hang above the water and keep our bridges safe. The film is called Bridge Brothers.

Corcon, Inc. sits back off McCartney Road in Coitsville Township, right across the border from the city of Campbell and its heritage of Greek industrial painters. CEO Lou Lyras is a second generation Greek-American. He was born, raised, and still lives in Campbell. His company has become one of the nation’s leading painters of bridges, which led him to produce the Bridge Brothers documentary.

Lyras observes the average driver going over a bridge has “no idea what...it takes” (i.e. to maintain the bridge by regular painting). “That is why I wanted to do the documentary. That it is far and above the hardest painting that our painters anywhere in the union do – is industrial painting and bridges.”

Bridge Brothers runs an hour and forty minutes and was shot during the painting of two Philadelphia bridges – the Walt Whitman and Commodore Barry. It details the laborious set up of decking, tarping, and recycling equipment that creates an enclosed area where the deleading, sand blasting, and painting takes place...the setup alone for the tower on the Walt Whitman Bridge took months."

“Bridge Brothers presents the daily lives of the men and women who paint the bridges. The work is dangerous and takes a special kind of person to do it. The extreme physical issues necessary for painting these bridges are no laughing matter. Curiously it is the danger that seems to help cement the group's spirit of cooperation and while numerous statements throughout this documentary focus on each painter's awareness of those dangers humor seems to relieve the clear-eyed dread. As heard from various painters, anyone who works on a bridge has to be a little bit crazy. Yet as the painters admit, the long work days, six solid day work weeks, and that on average it takes two years to complete just one bridge, results in the end with the common spirit that: 'They may not be related by blood but they are brothers nonetheless Bridge Brothers.'”

There are quite a number of news accounts on these Greek industrial bridge painters. You can watch the full Bridge Brothers documentary on Youtube (or buy a copy from Amazon.com). For a Greek viewing audience, I suggest you first see the news report Campbell, the Greeks and Bridge Painting by The Business Journal-Youngstown Publishing Co. You will see on the single frame image for this newscast the words: Most Watched 2019. This news report offers first person reports by different generations of Greek industrial painters as well as why Campbell Greeks wanted this documentary to be made.

It says a lot about the current state of Greek-America that local Greeks have to reach out to the wider society to have the story of their daily lives recorded for not just the general public but for posterity.