Some punk kids have no dreams at all. Paul Lindahl was a skater and a drummer in a band when he found himself dreaming of painting advertisements. “There was a paint production company in Portland, Oregon,” he said. “I was like, oh my God, that’s amazing. Big-format murals, I want to do that.”
Before the advent of low-cost vinyl plotters, large-format hand-painted murals were the norm for advertisements in cities across America. Mural painting was a trade passed on through a system of informal apprenticeship, much like plumbing or tattooing. By the mid-1990s, when Mr. Lindahl started dreaming, opportunities for new painters were few and far between. Hand-painted ads had become a niche product, an expensive last resort in landmark districts with strict signage laws.
Mr. Lindahl got a job and worked his way up at a local paint production company, sometimes making stencils in 30-hour-long shifts. “I eventually got canned from there because I was out doing graffiti, got arrested, couldn’t come to work or whatever,” he said. He moved around, repeating this pattern at the last remaining hand-paint companies in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “I thought, let me just try out all these different cities, chase the tail of the dragon of this thing that’s dying,” he said.
Like many others who are chronically unemployable, Mr. Lindahl eventually went into business for himself. He founded Colossal in 2004, from a one-car garage in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, with his friends Adrian Moeller and Patrick Elasik, the founders of the graffiti magazine Mass Appeal. (Mr. Elasik died in 2005.) The slogan was “Always Handpaint.” By then, even vinyl plotters had been replaced by affordable digital printing.
“As we got into it, we realized nobody wanted it. It was archaic. It was untrustworthy,” Mr. Lindahl said. “Up until that point, the quality had just nose-dived because people were trying to get to the dollar.”
Some of Colossal’s earliest murals were for video games and alcoholic drinks — products that profit from a grittier aesthetic. It took a few years for Colossal’s hand-painting to re-earn the trust of more conservative brands. Mr. Lindahl attributes his eventual success to meticulous quality but also coincidence. The nascent hipster culture of the mid-2000s favored D.I.Y. and “homegrown stuff.” Its consumers associated obsolescence with authenticity, reviving bygone trades like butchering, woodworking and, yes, hand-painting.
On newly influential social media platforms, corporate brands increasingly sought to associate their products with meaningful experiences. Colossal’s murals fostered on-the-street engagement, which often spilled over to the Instagram page. Today, the brand is no longer tied to that Bushwick warehouse aesthetic. Recent clients include Adidas, Coca-Cola and the Gagosian Gallery.
“We’re doing work with Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent — fashion brands that I can’t even say, because they’re French companies, or whatever,” Mr. Lindahl said. “They get the value. It’s more than just this flashing ad, forcing information down your face. People that like what we do stop and choose to enjoy it.”
Colossal Media may be the world’s largest hand-paint-only advertisement company, leasing 120 walls across America. Twenty of those are in Manhattan, and 68 are in Brooklyn. Many of these walls are at sidewalk level. Others, like the wall at 305 Canal Street, are several stories above the street.
On a recent Tuesday, around dawn, Colossal’s team of “wall dogs” rode out to SoHo to prep the Canal Street space for a Spotify mural that would feature an image of Kendrick Lamar. Six stories up, on a 28-inch-wide plank, they transferred the outline of his 12-foot face, using handmade stencils and bags of charcoal dust. The mural would take five days to complete, and require 13 different shades of paint. It cost Spotify twice as much as a vinyl billboard.
“Hanging off the side of a building and painting somebody’s advertisements just doesn’t add up,” said Jason Coatney, one of Colossal’s 27 wall dogs. “It’s more expensive. It’s more dangerous. It’s time-consuming.”
Like other novelties of the post-hipster age, the source of the value is not just the finished work, but also the tedious and rarefied conditions of its production. The spectacle of painters hanging from a wall is as much Colossal’s product as the murals themselves. Colossal offers time-lapse footage and photos for clients to share on social channels.
In a way this makes wall dogs part of a live show. While studio painters can step back and check their work, wall dogs paint close up at a large scale. A few wrong strokes can quickly send a mural off into the realm of the uncanny valley. “Kendrick Lamar’s face isn’t like anybody else’s face, but it’s similar,” said Mr. Coatney, painting high above Canal Street. “You start with the big similarities, and then you make it him.”
Mr. Coatney helps run Colossal’s training program, a formalized version of the apprenticeships that preserved hand-paint knowledge for the last hundred years. His apprentice on the Spotify mural was Will Krieg, 24, whose father also works as a sign painter, in Colorado.
“Half our crew has an art history background,” Mr. Coatney said. “You know, they went to art school and have a degree. And then the other half has no traditional art experience, and they came in really raw with a lot of drive.”
Mr. Lindahl describes his staff as mostly “punk kids” and “misfits.” They range in age from 21 to 67 and are almost exclusively male. This gender imbalance reflects a broader imbalance in physical, hands-on trades in general.
“If you’ve got the heart, if you’ve got the persistence, if you’ve got the desire — and you’ve got some life experience that supports that — we can make a wall dog out of you,” Mr. Lindahl said.
Mr. Lindahl recognizes the sellout-ish nature of a bunch of punks painting advertisements, but he’s proud to offer a conventional path for artists who may otherwise contend with instability. He says the average wall dog makes $80,000 per year, with health insurance and a 401(k).
To him, these are better terms than working in the studio of a contemporary artist like Jeff Koons. “They’ll get 60 artists because there’s a show coming up. Then the show passes, and everybody’s fired,” he said. “Here, if you come in the door, we’re not a steppingstone. The hope is that you spend your entire career with us.”
Five days later, from down on the street, the face of Kendrick Lamar looked so precise that nobody would have guessed it was painted by hand. Then one person stopped to take a photo, and others began to look skyward and do the same. The mural was scheduled to stay up for a month. By the end of January, it was all painted over with white.
“Some of the really old walls, if you took a big chip off, there would be, like, a quarter-inch of years and years of corporations trying to sell you stuff,” Mr. Coatney said.
This cycle may seem bleak, but for Mr. Coatney ephemerality is another day at work. “I don’t feel sad, because when I see that happening I know that it’s putting food on a bunch of people’s tables,” he said. “If they’re just sitting there dormant, it means we’re not doing something right. They’re not meant to last forever. It’s just paint.”