If you’re walking the streets of Los Angeles, New York, or a major city somewhere in between, and your attention is drawn to a surprising image painted on a building, there’s a pretty good chance the artists at Colossal put it there. Vinyl billboards and digital displays are far more common in today’s cityscapes, which makes Colossal undeniably “old-school.” Or so you’d think. Although their workers still dip paint brushes into plastic buckets to get the work done, Colossal’s innovative projects consistently generate millions of hits on social media.
Colossal teamed up with BBDO and Gillette to take over one side of a five-story SoHo building with hand-painted images of former Yankees star Derek Jeter sporting a five-o’clock shadow on day one, slathered with shaving cream on day two, and clean-shaven on day three. The cycle repeated for an entire month, drawing crowds of puzzled New Yorkers who shared photos on social networks, ultimately tallying 23 million impressions from sports outlets catering to Gillette’s target demographic: men. For Snickers, Colossal gradually turned a smiling Marcia Brady into a snarling Danny Trejo over the course of two weeks, playing on the candy bar’s “You’re not you when you’re hungry” theme. The campaign earned an Obie Award for best OOH campaign while racking up 1.5 million YouTube views and 50,000 organic likes on Instagram.
We spoke with Colossal co-founder Paul Lindahl to find out how the company gets so many people to point their smartphones to the scaffolding.
Tell us about Colossal’s beginnings. When did you open? And what was the initial thinking behind the company?
We started Colossal in 2004. I had already been painting murals at other companies for around 10 years, and at that point digital advertising had taken over and the industry couldn’t wait to kill paint. Colossal has never been about joining anything; it’s actually the opposite, I’ve always done things I like regardless of popular opinion. I don’t need the majority for confidence or direction. Colossal is a part of who I am, it’s not my livelihood; it’s my life.
How do you get most of your work? Do agencies come to you with a client who might be right or do clients come straight to you?
We have a full-time mega-talented sales staff who work with advertising agencies, creative agencies, and with brands directly. Our aim is to impress: We’re painting more than 400 murals a year at this point, and 100% percent of those murals need to be perfect. We get the work because we do good work.
You’ve been amazingly innovative in terms of social media, to the point where you’re clearly partners in the ideas, not just following a client’s lead. What was the first project that went beyond just painting a sign and calling it a day?
Back in 2008, we painted every single step of the Stella Artois “perfect pour” ritual on one of our SoHo walls. Stella Artois created an online journal that took consumers along on the journey with daily updates on the production, then produced a documentary film solely focused on our story, the craft, and the history of hand paint. Each day there were events at the bar across the street from the wall, and they even installed old-fashioned viewfinders on the corner so passersby could see our guys up close and personal. The best thing about it? They celebrated our art, not beer, and that really made people pay attention.
Can you take us through a recent brainstorming process for one of your favorite recent projects?
We created a proper in-house creative department more than a year ago. The team, along with the entire office of passionate thinkers, has been delivering some incredible concepts for our clients. One recent idea involved painting original art on a majority of our Bushwick locations. Each wall has been custom designed by local, emerging artists, many of whom were hand-selected from Colossal’s network of creatives. The brand, Adidas, is foregoing traditional advertising in favor of bringing this art into the community. The campaign just launched on May 15, so New Yorkers should get out to Bushwick to check out the Colossal-curated outdoor gallery of art.
What makes a great client?
A great client is one who’s curious, excited, and has a budget. We’re definitely not the typical Times Square media company. If you want your ad on one of the thousands of signs flashing in people’s faces or a real-life company mascot forcing value-meal coupons on tourists, then you’re probably better off working with someone else.
Sign painting is a classic art form, and in many cities, you can still see “ghost signs” that live on for decades. But you’re often painting images that last no longer than 24 hours before you replace them entirely (see Snickers, Gillette). Does it ever feel painful to “erase” something you’ve just created?
It’s a shitload of work but for us it’s more about the journey than the destination. Going to work when it’s dark and coming home when it’s dark, day-in and day-out, pushing through countless obstacles to make something that’s next to impossible is the fuel for our fire. A ghost sign is beautiful, but it’s also a tombstone.
How do you create the work itself, at such a huge scale?
The artwork is formatted at one inch to one foot and scaled up to the size of the wall it’ll be painted on. We draw contour lines that break down the image inside a grid pattern that’s placed on top of the art work and then projected onto templates which are applied onto the wall. (See some of the process in this video featuring murals for High Line Park.) From there, it’s all about doing our best to keep the paint on the wall and not on your car.
Can you give us some idea of how much paint you go through?
Last year, we spent $50,000 on the color red.
Colossal works in a lot of different cities, but there’s something about New York City that seems like a real fit for your work. Do you agree?
New Yorkers are hustlers, always have been. I’m not originally from New York, and almost nobody is—that’s what makes it rad, that you come here to do your thing with the best. The city is in a constant state of change and it’s never the same thing for that long and so you gotta stay on your game, that’s why Colossal fits here.