Painting in the skyline above New York's streets

Colossal Media's Paul Lindahl explains how they create their billboard art

The ghosts of hand-painted advertisements - victims of the great rush to refresh and renew - punctuate with flavour and authenticity the continuum of consumerism in the city that never sleeps.

Although they fell out of favour with the advertising world decades ago, their simple, upbeat slogans provide a counterpoint to the spray-painted scrawl below.

But these juxtaposed art forms separated by time are now merging, and a hybrid is popping up all over New York City's streets.

In 1965 the hand-painted billboard industry was served with a death warrant. The Highway Beautification Act called for the control of outdoor advertising, including removal of certain types of signs, primarily billboards, along the nation's growing interstate highway system.

The law put generations of commercial painters out of work, and technological advances in large-scale printing ushered the last of the paintbrushes into their box.

In the past six years, however, hundreds of new hand-painted signs have begun appearing throughout the city, among them 19 consecutive frames showcasing the nine steps of the Stella Artois "perfect pour".

Start Quote

It's hard to think that this could be a disappearing job”

End Quote Jason Jarosz billboard artist
Unique perspective

These ads, and others like them, are the handiwork of Colossal Media, a Brooklyn-based company trying to revive the labour-intensive and near-obsolete craft of hand-painted signs.

The company is run by graffiti artist and painter Paul Lindahl and his friend Adrian Moeller, a former media man who handles the business end.

Before moving to New York, Lindahl worked as an itinerant sign painter in cities around the country, picking up trade secrets from "wall dogs" - old men who had spent much of their life suspended above the city, painting larger-than-life images on building walls.

"Before this company, the only people who still knew how to do this were in their 60s," he says.

Painting on building Sign painting requires a good eye and a steady hand...
Lost art form sign well as a head for heights

The office is a warehouse space wedged between a construction site, a brewery and the Hudson river. Neat coils of rope and stacks of ladders adorn the walls. Any surface is considered fair game for the apprentices to perfect their art.

The peak years of hand-painted signs in New York ran from the 1920s to the 1940s, but the technology of applying them has remained the same.

Lindahl works alongside a crew of men using a block-and-tackle rigging system of manual pulleys to manoeuvre scaffolding and the painter around on the wall.

Start Quote

It's very important to pitch and sell locations that are appropriate”

End Quote Paul Lindahl Colossal Media

The platforms on which they work are just 28in (71cm) wide and can sometimes be 300ft (90m) off the ground.

Their latest project is a 24ft wide black-and-white photo for the footwear retailer Converse.

'It's a privilege'

Fine artist Jason Jarosz specialises in portraiture. He considers the city as a practice canvas for his private work.

"It's a different challenge every week. This mural here is taking about five or six days and then right on to the next one - different client, different artwork and you've just got to hit the ground running," he says.

The work is hard-going, more akin to construction work than fine art. Jarosz wears two coats and steel toe-capped boots.

He holds his brushes and palette through thick, paint-spattered wool gloves. The only skin exposed to the elements is the third of his face left unobscured by a balaclava and hat.

Despite its physical challenges, he says, the work offers a unique perspective on the urban life taking place below.

'Real-estate game'

"I've seen fights. I've seen car crashes. And there's nothing you can do from up there. But there have been good moments too.

"I once watched two falcons circling around me in the rigging on a really high job. I was pretty worried.

"Then I realised they weren't after me but a pigeon on the scaffold. It all happened right in front of me. No-one else gets to see these things. It's a privilege."

coils of rope and signs in storage Despite technological changes elsewhere, billboards are still hand painted as they were in the 1940s...
Paint pots ...and painters still need to mix their own paints

Colossal Media is not just engaged in painting. The company has a scouting and acquisitions department that actively seeks out buildings as potential advertising locations.

If a landlord agrees to using their building as a blank canvas, Colossal Media takes out a long lease for continual access to that building wall. It then becomes immediately available to prospective clients to adorn with advertising as they see fit.

"It's a real-estate game, really," says Lindahl. "Typically there aren't content control issues with landlords."

'Here to stay'

Like any property developer, Colossal Media has to be mindful of city zoning regulations as well as historical preservation orders.

These restrictions can extend to the type of products that can be advertised in certain neighbourhoods.

"It's very important to pitch and sell locations that are appropriate," says Lindahl.

Securing a slice of New York's prime real estate is as challenging as persuading clients to use hand-painted methods over the more common vinyl, which can cost half as much and reproduce images with pin-sharp clarity.

Half-finished sign with ladder This is one profession that is not ready to fade away

Yet an increasing number of companies will pay a premium to showcase human endeavour in building their brand," says Lindahl.

"All advertising is expensive. What makes us stand out is that our work is almost like a performance art.

"The people below get to see the painting unfold over the days that we are out there. They appreciate the creative element in the execution."

Outside in the New York winter, Mr Jarosz agrees.

"When I'm working at ground level, I have so many people coming up to me to pat me on the back telling me what a great job I'm doing," he says.

"When you get that five days a week it's hard to think that this could be a disappearing job. No, I think its here to stay."

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