Pick a day, any day, and you’ll find him dangling off the side of a building, over 100 feet in the air, paintbrush in hand. He’s Brooklyn artist Jason Coatney, and he creates exceptional pieces of art that rival the detail you’ll see in any photograph. Not on an eight-by-eight-foot canvas in a nondescript warehouse in Williamsburg, however; Coatney is of a new breed of artists–the resurrected “walldog”.
Despite the evolution in digital marketing and large-scale vinyl printing, the lost art of hand painted outdoor advertising is back, and Coatney is one of approximately 50 highly-skilled artists working with Brooklyn-based agency Colossal Media to make it happen across the United States. Their murals, painted on dozens of buildings across US cities, are easily capable of catching tens of millions of eyeballs each year.
So how can it be, in the age of touchscreen devices, augmented reality, and social media, that this age-old method of lo-fi advertising is making a sudden comeback? Why are brands clamoring for hand painted ads, when it would be faster and cheaper just to print them? The answer, as it turns out, goes far beyond the finished product itself.
A Colossal Dream
Colossal Media was born out of the desire to revive the “lost” art form of sign painting that peaked in the early 20th century, and declined after the introduction of graphic design and mass manufacturing. Portland-based graffiti artist Paul Lindahl and his friends Pat Elasik and Adrian Moeller, co-founders of the magazine Mass Appeal, founded the company together in 2004.
“I’ve always been drawn to artistic stuff for as long as I can remember,” says Lindahl from the company’s Williamsburg office. Sandwiched between the Wythe Hotel and Vice Magazine’s world headquarters, at the intersection of Wythe and 10th, the company is both culturally and geographically at the epicenter of what’s cool.
“I skated, played music and was a graffiti writer since the first day I could think for myself. I’ve spent most of my life with my middle fingers out—not from a destructive point of view—but from one that wasn’t interested in the typical route. I was raised in a house of immigrants and entrepreneurs, so I learned really early how important opportunity is. Art takes an amazing amount of energy, honesty, commitment, and focus and so I think those early experiences growing up put me in a unique spot.”
A rebel at heart, Lindahl developed an interest in street art as a young teen. He first came across large format advertising in the mid-1990s when he saw a painting of Portland Trailblazer basketball player Jerome Kersey in his hometown. That was his so-called “light bulb moment”, when he realized he could actually build a legitimate career out of his love for painting and telling stories.
“I chased paint work across the US for the next 10 years and found experience by working with some really good small businesses—and also some really bad ones,” he explains. “In 2004 I put those experiences together with those of my business partners Adrian Moeller and Pat Elasik and started the first outdoor advertising company in history that used hand paint as its sole execution method.”
With experience in the publishing business, Elasik and Moeller were well-poised to enter the business of selling space. They had spent nearly the entire past decade selling ad space in the pages of their magazine, which by then had become a prominent voice in the world of street art and counterculture. But wall space? Anybody who understands real estate in New York City knows that securing leases and locking down deals isn’t easy—especially when the deal involves regularly painting on the side of somebody’s building.
Starting with just a single wall in 2004, the company has successfully secured over 50 walls across New York City over the past ten years—each one a blank canvas with an opportunity to speak to a different demographic. What works in Bushwick might not hit the mark in SoHo—in the same way that advertising in one section of a magazine might not work in another.
Regardless of where company and client agree to throw up a mural, each project throws down its own unique challenges. Creating a photorealistic rendering, by hand, on a 100-foot high wall, is no mean feat—no matter how you look at it. Neither is finding the right people you can consistently depend on to do a great job.
“We rely on process and on-the-job training, which happens to be executed in an uncontrollable environment,” explains Lindahl. “We’re outside in the elements 365 days of the year, rain or shine, doing paintings from NY to LA. To make it more challenging, we’re constantly growing as a company, so communication, a pre-emptive strategy, hyper-fast responsive decision-making, coupled with really good people (and our process) are what makes us go. We don’t outsource anything; that way we can control more of those uncontrollable elements, which allows us to take responsibility for our own decisions, and have a better shot at winning.”
To ensure they have the best possible shot for each and every project, Colossal hires and retains some of the best walldogs in the painting business, like Jason Coatney. But to reach this level of dedication—where an artist can spend 14-hour days suspended on a rig in the blistering summer heat or in blasting snow—is a challenge all of its own.
Beyond the Wall
Artists who join Colossal Media as full-time employees undergo a vigorous apprenticeship program. As with most other apprenticeships, they start at the bottom of the chain—cleaning brushes, mixing paints, and learning the lay of the land. For most apprentices, it’s months before they ever set foot on a rig as an official painter. It’s not uncommon—and not surprising— for some to bottom out after a single month. But for the diehard walldogs who make it through the program, the chance to be a part of some of the industry’s most clever ad campaigns, and the opportunity to have their handiwork seen by millions, make it worth the wait.
Each campaign has its unique needs, but the process of planning and executing a hand painted advertisement at Colossal Media typically follows the same pattern.
It starts with artwork provided by the agency or client, which can range from vectorized graphics to a highly detailed photograph, or a combination of both. Colossal artists scale up the artwork into a gridded system, which is traced as a loose stencilled guideline for the on-site painters. Although not highly detailed, the grid system approach, coupled with an on-site reference image that rarely ever leaves the artist’s hand, provides a reliable framework for the artists to work with. In what is perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of the job, artists must accurately color match the original artwork, to create dozens of custom paint colors in various quantities, depending on the wall size. At the project site, there are the laborious tasks of suspending and testing the rig, and then preparing the wall itself, to prevent any artwork from the previous campaign showing through.
…all this before a single brushstroke touches the wall.
Painting Big Walls, Catching Eyeballs
The planning and execution of each campaign can cost upwards of $90,000 for a single property. It is more complex, and more expensive, than simply hitting “print” on a large-scale vinyl printer—a method that comes at less than half the price. But there’s a reason why so many companies are turning to Colossal Media for hand painted advertisements: they get the eyeballs.
In 2015, Colossal and ad agency BBDO New York created “The World’s Biggest Shave”. Their work appeared on a five-story building in the heart of SoHo, and captured the attention of New York City. The interactive piece, designed to demonstrate the performance of Gillette’s shaving products, was updated every three days for a month. It began with an image of an unshaven Derek Jeter, and continued with daily “shaves”, using a lather of white paint and a follow-up layer, gradually revealing the retired baseball player’s clean-shaven face. Not surprisingly, the live painting process drew the attention of the crowds below, who snapped and shared the updated images on various social media channels on a daily basis. Thanks to an accompanying time-lapse video that made its way into The New York Times and dozens of other media outlets, the resulting campaign generated a spectacular combined total of 23 million impressions.
Earlier in the year, as a teaser for Snickers’ Super Bowl Campaign, the company pulled a similar transformative stunt, by subtly ‘morphing’ Marcia Brady’s face into that of Mexican action star Danny Trejo over the course of two weeks. Anyone who had been paying attention to the mysterious hand painted portrait of Marcia from the beginning soon started to notice the daily changes—prompting the #WhatsUpWithMarcia hashtag to begin trending on social media. The accompanying time-lapse video received over 1.5 million views, and also generated plenty of attention for the chocolate bar—well before the big day when the “real” Super Bowl advertisement ran.
Later that year, Colossal helped online music streaming service Spotify go hyper-local in various New York City and Los Angeles neighborhoods. The company’s data provided insights into local listening habits, and Colossal used its expansive portfolio of properties in a campaign that turned neighborhood walls into a data discovery experience, highlighting the music artist that was most often listened to in that particular geographical area. The ads also gave listeners further insight into their own habits, directing them to their personalized Year in Music dashboard for specific data. By starting conversations with users about their neighbors, Spotify was able to gain data and perspectives on their habits, too.
“I don’t have a favorite campaign; over the years we’ve done thousands of jobs with an ever growing, perpetually better team,” says Lindahl. “Every one of those jobs meant something important, which allowed us to do a better job the next go-around, and ultimately become better versions of ourselves. I think what keeps us motivated and proud is that every day there’s a new reason to try harder to do the best work possible. Plus, we’d make shitty surgeons.”
Looking Back to Move Forward
Colossal has the remarkable ability to cater to the needs of nationwide ad campaigns, and also create engaging interactive experiences that spread like wildfire on social media. It should come as little surprise, then, that the company secures around 400 mural projects around the country every year.
But what does this resurgence of hand painted advertising—and perhaps more importantly, the level of engagement it receives—say about the ‘bigger picture’ in today’s advertising industry?
“We live in an age of instant gratification, and also of pre-packaged one-size-fits-all ideas,” explains Lindahl. “What we do is more important than that; it’s our life’s work, and so much more than clocking in for a paycheck. That level of dedication and care comes through in a way that will always be lost in the shit that gets sent down an assembly line. I think we’re at a place in time where everybody has the luxury of appreciation, curiosity and, of course, choice; so that makes it easy to expect more. Social media or not, handmade represents something that’s worth both your time and mine.”
If the massed crowds that gather in front of the murals to take photos are any indication, the social media-friendliness of it all certainly doesn’t hurt. After all, from a brand perspective, why bother investing in an uninspiring banner ad campaign, when influencers will organically create interesting conversations about you with their thousands of followers on Instagram? Would people stop and pay attention in the same way if each of these campaigns consisted of printed vinyl ads? Probably not. It’s one of those rare cases where freakish devotion to craft and doing things the hard way pays off.
“We have all gone totally crazy in this business; for us, it’s a part of what it takes to find success in our industry,” adds Lindahl. “I think that any artist would agree that if what you’re creating has real meaning, and inspires you to speak up when you might not otherwise, then being completely batshit crazy is totally worth it. In the end, I think we’re all thankful to be a little nuts.”
Nuts or not, for Lindahl and his ever-expanding crew of walldogs, the murals provide a sustainable way to do what they love: throw paint up and share it with as many people as possible.