For this week’s Bubbler Talk — our series where you ask, we investigate and together we unveil the answers — we’re waiting for a sign, or rather reading signs.
Question asker Emily Johnson wants to know:
Who writes the incredibly hilarious and cheesy asphalt and tar-related puns on the Poblocki Paving signs on I-94?
If you’re not sure what sign she’s referring to, just drive west on Interstate 94 toward Madison. On the right side of the freeway just before you climb the hill to Brookfield is a tall yellow and back Poblocki Paving sign.
Located just blocks away from Poblocki’s headquarters on 116th Street, the sign is far more than just advertising. It’s known for its puns and word play that can brighten many driver’s commutes to and from Milwaukee.
Phrases you may see include:
- We’re haulin’ asphalt
- Just cuz we rock does not mean we’re made of stone
- Poblocki offering a shoulder to pave on anytime
“I don’t drive typically back and forth on I-94, but when I do it’s always amusing and I always kind of face palm in my car a little bit,” notes Emily.
Just like Emily, I’ve always been a fan of the sign myself. So, to find out who’s behind the puns, I met the roads scholar himself: John Poblocki.
“I started Poblocki Paving in 1968 — believe it or not, that’s 51 years ago. I grew up in the outdoor sign company, Poblocki and Sons, which was on the south side of Milwaukee — now in West Allis. And I learned the value of signs at a very young age,” he says.
John Poblocki wanted to go into the family business, but with his dad and five uncles already involved, there wasn’t room for him. So, he started Poblocki Paving instead. “I didn’t know anything, and I learned the hard way," he admits, "but I really enjoyed it.”
One thing John did know was that he needed a sign. He installed his first sign that you see along the freeway in 1982 after buying a building from a painting company on Fairview Avenue in Wauwatosa.
“[The sign company was] taking signs down at the time, and this was an old firestone sign. It met the zoning, it fit, and I installed it in about eight weeks after I had the building," John recalls. "Hadn’t even started painting the building or anything, but I was anxious to get it up because changeable letter board, if you do it correctly, gets a lot of notoriety.”
He says the classic letter board sign is far more cost effective compared to bill boards that can cost up to $5,000 a month to rent. The company also owns an electric, computer operated sign outside of Madison in Cottage Grove that can be changed remotely from Milwaukee.
John started the tradition of witty signs simply because he likes to brighten people’s day – both the public and his workers.
“ 'These are the paves of our lives,' you know that kind of stuff. 'We pave the road less traveled' … Just things that make people smile. I mean, driving on the freeway there’s not many reasons to smile,” John explains.
The phrases and puns on the signs change every three days, and there are currently about 1,600 slogans stored. There’s even a few that John likes to run again because he enjoys them so much.
“I like to be tongue -in-cheek, I like to be intelligent, I like people asking questions, I like to be esoteric, I like to people to wonder what that said,” he notes. “We’ve made – I’m not exaggerating – hundreds of thousands of people know who we are, and that’s incalculable. You can’t gauge the value of that, so this is not just one-sided. It makes me smile.”
With thousands of different phrases, John says sometimes they get accused of laying it on thick.
“My favorite slogan is when Gorman Thomas got traded and then he came back for his last year into Milwaukee — and he's a Milwaukee guy, a two-fisted beer drinker — and I put on the sign: 'Welcome back Gordon, we never forgot you.' I must've gotten 300-400 calls because his name wasn't Gordon, it was Gorman, and we obviously forgot him," John laughs. "That just makes me laugh. ESPN called and neighbors of mine called!"
Many of the signs are created by John, his family, and employees. “People give us ideas, not as often as they used to, and you have to stay at it. But my wife and I, we’ll be on a plane or something and talk about the sign. Or we’ll be driving, and you get an idea.”
But that’s not the end of the road – John says he would love to get more submissions for his sign. You can send your suggestions to email@example.com and pave the way for new puns to be featured (with a maximum of 23 characters per line). And if your phrase is selected, he’ll treat you to dinner!
In the meantime, John is happy to keep the tradition rolling along.
“We want people to know us not just as a great paver, but an erudite one, as a brain, and make you talk about us," says John. "It just makes me smile all the way through. It’s hard to stifle the smile … and I do like to be cute cuz I’m a cocky guy.”
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