Kickin' It Old School


Once out­dated relics in a dig­i­tal world, painted ad­ver­tise­ments are flour­ish­ing once again in New York, putting a dose of hip at­ti­tude into 21st cen­tury com­mer­cial art in the city that never sleeps.

Toil­ing un­der the blaz­ing sun of a heat wave, Justin Odaf­fer puts the fin­ish­ing touches to a Ray-Ban ad he has spent sev­eral days paint­ing on the fa­cade of an East Vil­lage build­ing in down­town Man­hat­tan.

For the past seven years, Odaf­fer—who has a de­gree in fine art—has painted ads on walls in New York, Los An­ge­les, and

Chicago for Colos­sal Me­dia, which has risen from nowhere to be­come the leader in painted ad­ver­tis­ing.

“Ba­si­cally, we cre­ated a re­vival,” says Odaf­fer. With­out the com­pany he works for, he be­lieves painted ads would be hang­ing “by a very thin thread.”

But set­ting up the com­pany in 2004 was a leap of faith, ad­mits Paul Lin­dahl, co-founder of Colos­sal, which is based in Brook­lyn’s hip­ster hub of Wil­liams­burg.

“Tech­nol­ogy was tak­ing over and there was re­ally no need for hand paint­ing at the time. No­body cared,” says Lin­dahl, who comes from a fam­ily of Hun­gar­ian im­mi­grants.

“It was ex­pen­sive. It was slow,” he con­cedes. “I didn’t know if there was a fu­ture in it at that point. I just knew that I loved it.”

Thir­teen years later, his com­pany has 70 em­ploy­ees, paints 450 to 500 mu­rals a year in ma­jor US cities, and is eye­ing sales of $24 mil­lion in 2017.

Even though painted ads take longer and cost more, they of­fer ad­ver­tis­ers a unique op­por­tu­nity to set them­selves apart. See­ing painters in ac­tion can gen­er­ate buzz on street cor­ners. “Peo­ple are as­ton­ished,” says Odaf­fer. “That’s why this com­pany has done so well. It’s be­cause peo­ple can ac­tu­ally watch the process.”

But is it art?

That buzz car­ries over onto so­cial me­dia, fu­eled by pho­to­graphs and videos that en­hance brand vis­i­bil­ity and ad­ver­tis­ing, says Lin­dahl.

“That brings value to what we do. What we re­al­ized along the way is yes, this thing takes longer than a dig­i­tal ad or print ad, but that’s part of the ben­e­fit. It’s per­for­mance art. Peo­ple stop and they won­der and they’re in­trigued.”

Chris Cock­er­ill, gen­eral man­ager of the New York of­fice for La­mar Ad­ver­tis­ing, one of the largest out­door ad­ver­tis­ing com­pa­nies in the world, agrees—even if the growth still ac­counts for a frac­tion of the over­all mar­ket.

“We’re see­ing more around the city. It’s a unique prod­uct that ad­ver­tis­ers are ask­ing for now. In the past, it’s been some­thing a lit­tle more dif­fi­cult to sell,” he says; La­mar does not work with Colos­sal.

Lin­dahl at­tributes the growth to mul­ti­ple fac­tors: luck, tim­ing, the “doit-your­self ” trend, and the en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of street art.

Colos­sal se­cures its own walls and real es­tate, which means it can sell a pack­age to ad­ver­tis­ers with space and the painted ad with­out hav­ing to de­pend on an­other ad­ver­tis­ing com­pany. But are com­mer­cial ads re­ally art? Odaf­fer says def­i­nitely. “It’s still the same process as other street art,” he said, adding that many of the painters started out in some form of street art.

“I see noth­ing wrong with it,” says graf­fiti artist BG 183, a mem­ber of the old­est New York graf­fiti col­lec­tive that is still ac­tive, Tats Cru.

“The qual­ity of the paint­ing has im­proved a lot,” says Cock­er­ill. “It stands out bet­ter than it has in the past. It makes [ad­ver­tis­ers] feel like it’s more of a hip-look­ing kind of ad.” •

Colos­sal Me­dia spe­cial­izes in hand-painted ads in New York, bring­ing a relic back to life in the City That Never Sleeps

Ex­pert painter Liam Wil­liams paints an ad on the side of Colos­sal Me­dia’s of­fice build­ing.

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