- Brooklyn-based Colossal Media creates photo-realistic murals as ads for major brands like Google, Nike, and Coca-Cola.
- Colossal’s in-house creative studio works with a brand to come up with the artwork.
- The ads tend to range from $35,000 to $150,000, depending on the size.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: This isn’t a photograph. And neither is this one. These are hand-painted billboards on the walls of New York City.
Nicole Greco-Lucchina: It looks like you can drink the beer off the wall, eat the sandwich off the wall.
Narrator: Brooklyn-based Colossal Media creates these photo-realistic murals as ads for major brands like Google, Nike, and Coca-Cola. And they can cost up to $150,000. We got a look inside Colossal’s colorful workshop to see how painters bring these once bygone masterpieces to life.
Large-scale billboards first popped up in the 1830s. The tough painters that hung from buildings through all kinds of weather were affectionately nicknamed wall dogs. Their heyday came in the 1920s, when hand-painted ads for everything from Coca-Cola to cold medicines dotted the walls of New York City. By the mid-1900s, the industry started drying up. First, electric signs took over in popularity.
Then, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 heavily regulated hand-painted billboards. Despite the artistry of the wall dogs’ work, their walls weren’t considered art; they were advertisements. And as such, the walls were subject to these new regulations. Around the same time, faster vinyl-printed billboards began replacing time-consuming hand-painted ones. Wall dogs and their walls were obsolete.
But a handful of niche artists quietly kept the craft alive. Until 2004, when best friends and street-sign artists Paul Lindahl and Adrian Moeller started Colossal Media. With a team of 31 artists, Colossal ushered in a mainstream comeback for hand-painted murals. And big brands took notice.
It all starts here, at this Brooklyn workshop, which is basically a work of art itself. First, Colossal’s in-house creative studio works with a brand to come up with the artwork. Graphic designers will drop that finalized artwork into Photoshop and break it down into layers based on color, form, and value changes.
Greco-Lucchina: When we’re done breaking that down, we drop it into a template, which scales it to the size of the wall. It’s gridded into 4-by-8-foot boxes for however big the wall is.
Narrator: A laminated version of the gridded image becomes the road map for the whole project. First, the road map heads downstairs. The color mixers blend a rainbow of paint shades to try and match the colors on the road map. Sometimes they get a match pretty quickly. Other times, it takes a lot of patience and a lot of paint. Nicole estimates the artists go through about 50,000 gallons of paint a year.
Greco-Lucchina: This is the mixing room. It has a green-roof ceiling, and that is so they’re mixing as true to daylight as possible.
Narrator: But even if they have the perfect paint, how do these artists transfer an image from a computer to a wall? The secret lies here, in the dark room. Artists unfurl a massive roll of paper and project a wall-sized version of the road map on it. In a process known as burning, artists transfer the projection onto the paper using an electro-pounce machine.
Greco-Lucchina: You’re essentially tracing, and as you’re tracing, it’s burning a bunch of tiny holes into the paper, which we call the patterns.
Narrator: They’re left with a giant outline of the image in tiny burned-in holes. This is the key to producing those photo-realistic murals.
Greco-Lucchina: When the guys get out to the wall, they unroll that paper in sequence, and in a process called pouncing, which essentially is like charcoal powder in a rag, they hit it in those places that we burned on the pattern, and the charcoal transfers through those tiny holes on the wall, and that’s how the image gets transferred to scale on the wall with the details that we broke down.
Narrator: The artists will draw over that powered tracing with a marker or pencil. They now have a detailed outline of the image on the wall.
Greco-Lucchina: From there, between the road map, what they have pounced on the wall, they’re ready to go.
Narrator: Where they start painting is up to the artists. Usually, newer artists take larger areas, while expert painters take on details, like hands and eyes. Painting usually takes four to five days, but bigger walls sometimes mean up to 12-hour days on 10-day assignments. And the painters work through any kind of weather: rain, heat waves, and even polar vortexes. It’s a tough spirit that finds its roots with wall dogs of the ’20s.
Ian Potter: To be a true wall dog, you need to be able to do all of that. So, the rigging, the construction side of it, the painting side, the breakdown, all of that physical labor, plus you gotta be a pretty d— good artist to paint all of that, as well.
Narrator: With how much planning and detail goes into each wall, it’s no surprise these ads can cost a lot. Colossal’s walls tend to range from $35,000 to $150,000, depending on the size. Even with a steep price tag and lengthy turnarounds, big brands don’t seem to mind waiting. Today, Colossal paints over 500 murals a year in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, LA, and, of course, New York City.
Rina Kim: It’s definitely becoming more of an experience rather than you just passing by a flat billboard. Our painters who are working on-site are catching the eyes of any passersby, people who drive by, and then they share it on social media and create a new level of interaction within advertising.
Narrator: But ever since the heavy regulation of wall dogs and their walls first came down, one question has circled the industry: Are these advertisements art?
Potter: The fact that it’s advertisements, I mean, yes, we’re trying to replicate what somebody else gave us, but we’re doing it in our own way. I, quite frankly, think you have to be a tradesman and a craftsman to do this correctly, but you also have to be an artist to do it.
Narrator: And a highly skilled one at that, considering just how realistic they look.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in November 2019.