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Wall Dog Advertising: Hand-painted Advertising Makes a Comeback
By Louis M. Brill
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.
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
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."
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
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...
"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
Red Bull and Total Zero
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
Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications.
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