Wall Dog Advertising: Hand-painted Advertising Makes a Comeback
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Wall Dog Advertising: Hand-painted Advertising Makes a Comeback

With a simple brush and stroke, most sign men back in the day were painters, and every vertical surface they came across held the promise of painting an advertisement about a product or sale to chase down. Reintroducing the painters, the Wall Dogs.

By Louis M. Brill

Those sign painters from yesteryear were known as Wall Dogs - commercial painters commissioned by businesses to paint large format advertisements.

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  • Outdoor advertising's world of visual displays is pretty well covered with billboards, building wraps, and mesh, all done through vinyl and digital displays. However with all the emphasis on getting the client's message in the customer's face, one tried and true format, in fact the original form of outdoor advertising that kept an informed public up-to-date on when the circus was coming town, what the best shaving cream or cereal was, or which automobile to own, was hand painted signs. With a simple brush and stroke, most sign men back in the day were painters, and every vertical surface they came across held the promise of painting an advertisement about a product or sale to chase down.

    Those sign painters from yesteryear were known as Wall Dogs - commercial painters commissioned by businesses to paint large format advertisements about each company's products and services on the sides of buildings- and paint they did! In the early days it was barns and billboards and later on building walls became an equally important canvas in a tradition that peaked around the 1960s. At that time the demise of hand painted advertising suffered from two powerful disruptions, one political, the other technological.

    Colossal Media-GTA IV Timelapse from Colossal Media.

    On the political front, in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law, The Highway Beatification Act (HBA), which called for control of outdoor advertising, including removal of certain types of signs, primarily billboards, along the nation's growing Interstate Highway System. Another factor in the demise of hand-painted signs was the introduction in the early 1970s of large format printing-on-vinyl. Not only was the volume of outdoor signs being significantly reduced by the HBA, but also, print-on-vinyl seemed the wave of the future of posting outdoor advertising, with little or no room left for any kind of hand painting.

    Wall Dogs Rise Again
    Despite the facts pointing to hand painting as a dying trade, it outlasted that prediction with a 'second life.' With the dedication of a few commercial outdoor painters, hand painted signs have begun a comeback going way beyond the occasional small sign shops and the once-in-a-while window or awning job they might get. That comeback culminated with one company that has cornered the advertising community with hand paint resurrected as a unique advertising medium.


    The legacy of hand paint extends back for over one-hundred years and for all the hand painted wall signs of the early 20th century, many of them were created because of the excellent advertising site lines that buildings provided. Over time as that next door empty lot begot its own construction and the newly built building went up, so went away that particular wall painting.

    In time, usually decades later, that next door building eventually came down and in its new empty space, brought back into the world the former hand painted advertisement of yesteryear.

    Signage from decades ago (some even one-hundred years ago) are marketing time capsules, and in the case of newly reveled older hand painted advertisements, a chance to be reminded of brands, and services and products no longer part of the present consumer marketplace. And in many cases, the reveled painted advertising has faded, its painted look peeled and weathered away. The ad faintly visible heralds a bygone era to a world that has moved on. The remaining wall painted ad may be hard to read, and is nothing but a ghost of its former glory, faded, but now newly remembered.

    That company, Colossal Media (Brooklyn, NY) has single-handedly revitalized commercial hand painting by offering the advertising community a dedicated service of providing murals, advertising and large format art - all hand painted on the sides of buildings throughout New York City and other major cities around the United States. Colossal Media was formed in 2004 by a few dedicated wall dogs determined to bring hand paint back into the 21st century as a successful media format - no digital or vinyl anything, just painted walls. All told, Colossal Media now offers its specialized service in at least 18 markets around the United States.

    Eight years later the company is now a team of at least 30 people who are one way or another specialized in producing commercial murals on the sides and fronts of buildings. Although hand paint has been around for decades, co-founder and vice president of Colossal Media, Paul Lindahl observed, "In 2004, hand paint advertising was all but dead. There wasn't much reason for it. Vinyl is much more dependable and its turn around is ten times quicker than whatever hand painting can do."

    Despite the unique features of vinyl as a printing format, hand paint continues to hang around as a value-added advertising medium. "In our early days as a specialized outdoor advertising company," Lindahl noted, "our big challenge was to get our potential clients interested in hand paint, to trust it again, and be able to benefit from it. We work on that motivation very hard, and now each year, we seem to grow by about 30 %, and as of 2012, we are doing about 300 hand-painted walls a year. Today it's become much more visible and is sought after by certain advertisers as a popular display format."

    "The big negative to outdoor painting which has been somewhat negated is the actual time it takes to paint these advertisements. As a commercial display process, we promote hand paint very heavily and promote the interest it brings from passersby. We make videos about what we're doing as we build on the public's expectations of having watched the painting's creative process and now want to see the final result. And at the end for our client, that's what it's all about, getting peoples eyes on their advertisements."

    Colossal Media as an outdoor advertising agency offers two services: they provide hand paint as an advertising medium and control the locations they paint on. In that fashion, the company has great outdoor display locations and works very hard to continuously secure new advertising locations for more engaging contact with the public. As Lindahl pointed out, "we have a scouting and acquisitions department that actively seeks out buildings as potential advertising locations. If a landlord accepts our presentation for using their building as a canvas, we take out a long lease for continual access to that building wall and it becomes immediately available to our clients."

    "When our customers buy hand paint," says Lindahl, "they're buying something completely different from vinyl or other media. About half our clients buy hand paint because it's a unique experience. The other half have more of a real estate perspective and just want their advertisements in that special location."

    "Because of the creative process in putting up hand-painted advertisements, clients have a vested interest in the entire process of getting their wall painted. When a vinyl goes up on a billboard or a building, it's usually attached pretty quickly. People don't always see the sign install, one day the board is empty, the next day the final vinyl is up."

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    Paintbrush Theatrics
    Hand paint on the other hand has a certain amount of 'theatrics' attached to it. Once a building is selected as an advertising location, its sudden preparations (scaffolding being erected, priming the wall) begins to telegraph to the passing public that something is about to happen.

    For the passing public with hand paint, there is always anticipation and expectation about what the final image will be. "With hand paint in progress, once it starts in the public space, it immediately becomes a people magnet as pedestrians continuously watch it as a work-in-progress. At the end of the day for our clients, that's what it's all about, getting the most eyes you can on your final advertisement."

    "As for our project workflow, we're up to 300 hand-painted walls a year with an average of at least seven building walls a week being painted," says Lindahl. "To get all these advertisements up we have an in-house painting crew of about twenty painters who are always working on client projects. Some painters have been with us for two years, some for at least thirty years. Collectively we have about five generations of professional painting experience which gives us a wealth of information on tips and techniques of wall painting. We work hard at passing this knowledge to our latest generation of sign painters who work with us."

    Wall Dogs in Training
    Working at Colossal Media means at some point you're going to be hanging off the side of a building 200-feet high, on a scaffold 28-inches wide, painting a 100-foot tall portrait. Getting to that point means there's a lot of learning along the way.

    New hires at Colossal Media go through a nine-month apprenticeship that's divided into two parts, says Lindahl. "For the first three months new employees are in the shop becoming familiar with the paints - how to match and mix them, and all the associated equipment, supplies and materials that we use. They also do a lot cleaning up and learning our policies and getting to know our already in-place team. Then for the next six months, they go out in the field as an extra set of hands, helping to get our existing projects done. We do about seven jobs a week, so there's a lot of coordinating as a lot of equipment is moved around from job to job during each week."

    "Safety is also a big concern for all our workers. We are after all, licensed riggers, which mean moving scaffolds around and hanging off of the sides of different buildings. We're also always lifting and lowering equipment and paint and it all has to be done in a safe way."

    In seeking new projects, a big part of our considering and quoting a new job is in forecasting its time to completion. How that's done says Lindahl, "depends on the complexity of the artwork, and who is going to paint the advertisement. We also have to consider its location, how big is the painting surface and what its rigging requirements might be. We also look to see if the building has certain restrictions for timing or access, and what other wall painting jobs are going on at the same time."

    In terms of materials, it is no surprise the company's biggest consumable is paint. "We spend a lot of money on paint, around $60,000 - $80,000 a year. We normally use oil-based enamels or pure oils - pretty much what any sign painter uses. All our paints are formulated for outdoor use and they all have the standard UV protection. But honestly, our advertisement paintings aren't usually up for more than a month, before we paint over them. So, for our short term work, UV is really not an issue for us."

    Nether Rain nor Snow...
    Another big concern for outdoor hand paint is the weather. "We're always hoping for the best weather, but good or bad, we can't slow down because of the weather. Our clients have expectations and deadlines on these jobs being completed as commissioned, on time. It's not unlikely that we might be creating large format hand-painted photo realistic mural in 110-degree weather and in winter even single digit temperatures, and we just have to slog through it. We paint in almost any weather conditions."

    "It's a rare weather event that would shut us down. Our big show stopper is rain. If the wall is wet enough, it's a no go, but at the same time we'll do everything we can to get past it. We'll put tenting around the scaffold to keep the rain away or tarps on a newly painter wall to help it dry properly."

    Two recent projects that showcased Colossal Media's client coverage were an assignment from Pantene and from Red Bull, each a complex multi-wall paint project in its own way. An interesting note in the creation of each assignment was that multiple painters each working on a different building rendered the identical images that each project required. Each building will always have a scaffold with a two-person paint crew, and it's usually one scaffold per wall. In certain instances because of a tight deadline or a very large painting there may be a second scaffold, but mostly it is one crew per wall.

    Pantene Olympic Promotion
    Pantene, a hair care product provider had offered up its creative energy as a close-up portrait of Olympic swimmer, Natalie Coughlin, with a picture of her filling the wall with all of her lush blond hair fanning out behind her head. The project was presented to Colossal calling for four separate walls to be painted, with a one-week turn around. The company absorbed the Pantene request into its already filled up production calendar and was able to complete the client's request presenting them with four photo-realistic, full color murals.

    Red Bull and Total Zero
    The Red Bull assignment poised several challenges for Colossal Media in completing this project. The client contacted them with a hand paint ad campaign that called for a product advertisement "poster" of their latest energy drink (each image to be 20-feet wide and 30 feet tall) on a black background, to be painted on 20 walls around New York City.

    When Your Paint Canvas Is One-Hundred Feet Tall

    As for getting a ten-story hand-painted image on the side of a building in today's design and production environment, it's the same tried and true system as it was one hundred years ago. The original client-supplied image is scaled up to its to-be painted size, and that image is then divided into smaller four-foot tiled segments. Each segment is then projected onto a four-foot sheet of paper through a 'scaled transfer system' that transforms the image onto a paper template. The image is then 'pounced' which is a device that punctures an outline of the image in the form of a pattern of slotted holes mimicking the image.

    Once the paper templates are done, they arrive at the job site and starting with the top corner of the to-be painted area, the templates are placed one at a time across the wall area. Once the paper template is properly positioned on the building wall, the painter will use colored chalk dust to "pounce" the scaled drawing segment, leaving an image outline in place on the wall. Once the first sheet is pounced, the next template is set up and treated in the same way, and so on until the entire image is transferred across the building wall. The final result, a full-scaled image reproduction is chalked up on the building as a guide for the Wall Dogs to begin painting on.

    The kicker for Colossal was not only the 20 images to be painted, but they also needed to be finished at the same time for their campaign opening. Complicating the assignment was the already in production other 30 wall paint projects. Working with their existing paint crews and some complicated scheduling (and no doubt some very long hours), Colossal produced a company record of completing 50 hand-painted walls during that production period, and making a lot of happy clients from the work.

    Wall Dog Realism: The Proof Is On the Wall
    For hand paint to exist as a sustainable outdoor advertising process says a lot about the perseverance of the Wall Dog community and their ability to provide hand paint as a contemporary competitive design/display medium. As Lindahl summed it up, "there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that go into the design and creation of these painted advertisements. With all that time and money spent, at the end of the day, it's all about us recreating an original advertising design into a gigantic photo-realistic replica that looks like the original design that was submitted to us." Not bad for a company started by three Wall Dogs in 2004.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications.
    He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or louismbrill@gmail.com

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