Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Sam Alive
Produced by: Dan Hwang
Colossal Media is the largest outdoor mural painting company in the world. Their slogan, “Always Hand Paint,” adorns their scaffoldings and many of the finished products. In an era of 3d printers and all-digital everything, it’s remarkable that a company devoted to using 1920s methods for production has been so successful. But standing a block away from a 300 foot tall photorealistic mural with eye-popping colors reminds you that sometimes doing things the long way, with painstaking attention to detail and clarity, can yield breathtaking results.
The documentary film Sign Painters opens with a montage of hand painted signs--in a valley, on the side of a building, in front of a grocery store--in various states of degradation. These unique signs survived blazing heat and frigid winters. Quickly, the opening sequence shifts to present day “wall dogs” up on rigs a dozen stories in the air. A Colossal Media painter with a Sky High Crew shirt on tells the camera as he sweeps his hand across the bustling street below, “This is what I love, this part. I look over the city… this is my city.”
Colossal Media painters can be seen on rigs across America, and their work evokes an era when signs on a building were the strongest form of advertisement. Today, the shop cranks out upwards of 300 pieces per year, ranging from projects for mega-corporations like Nike, Disney, GM, and Chevy to smaller, street-level satirical pieces that mock housing developers and hipsters. The cost of a hand-painted wall is around 5 times that of a vinyl sign, yet the results aren’t nearly as visually alluring and romantic. With giant LCD screens, tickers, and scrolling news flooding the NYC commuter with visual information, a well-executed large-scale painting demands attention for it’s authentic, slow approach to a medium that doesn’t move or shift. These works are designed to stay right in front of the viewer, fixed in time, etched in memory.
Before a Colossal painter ever takes a brush to the bricks, dedicated workers prepare the rigs to scaffold the walls, and then the gritty process of removing old paint and surface prep begins. While describing the process, co-founder and Vice-President Paul Lindahl told us that when the Colossal crew is up on a wall, there is a “real truth in process being witnessed in real time every time that draws people in.” Click through to read our interview with a man at the helm of a company who’s responsible for art you may have passed by hundreds of times. It’s art that demands to be seen and appreciated painted by workers dedicated to their job. It’s art that stands the test of time because it borrows from a time when craft mattered and pieces that adorned buildings lasted for decades.
FRESHNESS: One of the things we love about Colossal Media is the fact that the art is crafted by hand. We discovered your work while watching Sign Painters, and now when I drive around in New York and see commercial work on buildings, I have images of the rigs and the artists who are suspended mid-air. Can you describe for our readers what sets your work apart from large scale printed work?
COLOSSAL: Thanks a bunch. We really appreciate people who give a shit. We love the idea of making something from nothing, and for us it’s all about doing the impossible every day. We’re built from people who are passionate about making their own way and not letting anything stand in the way. That’s timeless and something that even technology can’t replace.
Another exciting element of the work is the interaction the artists have with the members of the public as they pass by the painters while they work. Do you have any interesting encounters or stories of dealing with the people who pass by while the work is being done?
The performance is a great byproduct that you can’t get any place else; although to be completely honest, none of us thrives off the attention. We’re not exactly the red carpet types. There’s a real truth in process being witnessed in real time every time that draws people in. You can’t make that up, and it’s cheesy and not believable when it’s staged. Every year we do more than 300 paintings coast to coast and we put everything we’ve got into every painting we do. We like to say that you’re only as good as your last painting, so expectation is forever high. To me, it’s not the final product that’s impressive. I guarantee when the painting’s done it will be better than some printed banner. The real story is in all the shit we go through to get these paintings done. I can say there’s always someone who wants to know how much it is to paint their bedroom and also without fail there’s some dummy who thinks they’re the first one to tell us that we missed a spot.
Can you walk our readers through a project from the initial interaction with the company to setting up the rigs to the actual painting?
Every painting needs to have each individual color of paint made from scratch to match the artwork, next a scaled up line drawing is made that we use as a guide which we call a pattern. Next, we install whatever type of scaffolding the building requires, and the old painting comes down and the new one is drawn using the patterns. It’s at this point that the painting process begins. This gets done every time under a million different circumstances on really shitty surfaces.
We work 365 days of the year in every type of weather painting anything that isn’t your house. Painting is obviously an important part of the process, but it’s actually only a small part of it. We do tons of climbing, rigging, prepping, modifying, learning, teaching and problem-solving every day for long hours starting early in the morning and going late into the night. It takes a special type of person to do this day in day out. It actually doesn’t take a long time to teach someone to do this, maybe a few years, but it takes a long time to find the people who want to do this forever. What’s special about us is we’ve got a shop full of those people and that really comes through in the paint work we do. We’re all from different backgrounds with different professional and personal experiences, but what’s true of all of us is we are versatile and passionate about anything. Be persistent and don’t need to prove it; we can teach you everything else.
In a recent discussion with Alife founder Rob Cristofaro, he mentioned the irony of seeing walls that were once dominated by temporary graffiti pieces that are now highly desired by some of America’s largest companies. Does Colossal have any roots in graffiti?
Most of us here have all been In some type of trouble, so going against the grain and doing what you want is super helpful around here. Although, I would like to point out that telling us you’re a graffiti writer in your resume isn’t the kind of helpful I am talking about.
Can you discuss what changed through the years and led to companies desiring the spaces graf writers once dominated?
A lot of graf is getting the best spot that the most people will see and make them say “holy shit.” It’s the same thing here, except you gotta pay a shit loads of money to get those spots.
We particularly enjoy your satirical work like the “Missed Connection” series, especially the phallic-shaped building meant to satirize huge developers. Can you talk about the humor your company employs as part of its social message?
Life’s too short and there’s a bunch of real serious shit going on all around us all the time. People typically have to be stressed out at work and do stuff they don’t want to all the time. Believe it or not, we did these because they’re fun - plain and simple. Fun goes a long way when you work as hard as we do, plus we get to watch people as they realize what they are looking at isn’t a new development but a giant cock and balls, yolo.
Your Instagram account cracks us up. You have a particularly non-safe, non-corporate approach to your company on social media. Your message is often caustic and sarcastic. How do you curate your company’s image through social media?
Consistency and no food photos.
On your site for Sky High, in the Public Art Painting page, it says “We are the only company that can paint on a massive scale, while maintaining the integrity of the original artwork.” What are some ways that you are able to render the image so well on a huge wall?
There’s nothing more valuable than experience. We have six generations of direct billboard painting lineage that dates back to the 1960s in our shop. We take a lot of pride in making our own way. We didn’t pick up a paintbrush because it was trendy or because we saw someone else doing it. This is who we are, this is our life’s work unfolding on the streets every day. We get better with every painting and we’re driven by the unknown. If you’ve ever heard a cover band suck the soul out of your favorite song, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Some of the most intriguing projects you’ve done are those done for the mysterious artist, Banksy. What can you say about those paintings and how you were able to collaborate with him?
Yeah Bansky is dope. I’m not sure if we ever met him or if that stuff was just Canal street rip-offs.
Can you highlight and name a few colossal media veteran painters?
Jason Coatney, Patrick Mcgregor, Dan Harrington, Gary Baxter, Tom Hemmerick, Jason Jerosz, Justin Odaffer, Tait Roeloffs--these guys don’t fuck around, and they can do anything, anywhere, any time.
What are a few of your favorite projects and collaborations?
We did 56 paintings in 30 days with 20 guys in 5 states recently. That’s kinda my favorite thing: the undertaking. One that I always refer back to was replicating 30 large canvases for Dennis Hopper. We did it in our dirty ass shop, which drove the gallery curator crazy. When we closed the door to go to work, summer was starting, and when we came out it was fall. We pulled tons of 30-plus hour shifts together. You really get to know someone when you see them more than you see yourself.
We saw that you had Ghostface at your 10 year anniversary party at your warehouse/office. Can we look forward to more live sessions?
That was such a trip to think back on 10 years at the shop that night. We started this company with 3 guys and my grandfather’s Ford truck. We worked out of a stranger’s laundry room. We did the same work we’ve always done that day before Ghostface came through and that same work 10 years ago, so I’d say it’s safe to say you can bet on more of the same.