The Real Hampdenfest Billboard


The billboard towering over Hickory and Roland Avenues, with its mermaid, hot pink dolphin and sea monster declaring the start of the 13th annual Hampdenfest this weekend is simple, trippy and fun. It’s evident through the vibrant social media buzz (a Facebook post here, an Instagram post there), the board is doing its job. But, for one pair of eyes, the board evokes something different. When senior designer at Exit10 Sara Tomko gazes on that billboard she feels a mix of emotions. That billboard design, her design, isn’t the original. It’s instead a quick replacement idea that she arrived at after receiving swift rejection of her original iteration. Hampdenfest, a festival that celebrates the best of Hampden/Baltimore’s art and culture scene—with fantastic food and drink, toilet bowl races and American Idol-style sing-offs—is an extra quirky good time. With that vibe in mind Tomko, who grew up in Hamilton, originally created a more, well, psychedelically distracting design inspired by 1970s black light posters.

“The [original] poster is kind of like this trippy fire hydrant,” Tomko says. “When you think of a fire hydrant you think of kids in the summer and how they’ll undo it and play with the water. I was thinking along the lines of an optical illusion–I just wanted to do something that was really eye-catching to get people to come to the festival. But the owners [Clear Channel] of the billboard were just like, ‘no way!’”

After Clear Channel deemed the board a safety hazard and too eye-catching, Tomko, a graduate of the University of Baltimore, had to make haste in creating another design. (As much as we love the optical-illusion version, we have to admit it might make us pop a curb or get a migraine.)

“I based the new one strictly on the original poster,” says Tomko.

Rejection of any kind can be a hard pill to swallow—but artists have to be prepared for this kind of big gulp.

“You have to own it. When I first got the email it said the billboard was a safety hazard and too eye-catching and you know, I had to laugh,” says Tomko adding, “That’s the best compliment I had ever gotten on my work. It’s a bummer that it’s not going to be produced and to have to come up with something last minute that wasn’t as eye-catching to me. As heart breaking as it can be, though, you can always file the original design away for something later, something better.”

Despite her original poster’s snubbing, Tomko plans to attend the festival this year.

“I’ve pretty much gone every year. A lot of friends are performers, and it’s a lot of local businesses selling things and I know a lot of them too so I like to support them. It’s a really fun festival.”

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