Urban Omnibus’ ongoing mission to explore how the urban environment of New York City gets made has focused in large part on conversations with practitioners, academics, and policy-makers. But there are, of course, many other individuals working behind the scenes, under the ground, and high in the sky whose crucial contributions to the city are often taken for granted or overlooked. When architect and writer Yen Ha approached us about interviewing these workers, we were keen to carry on, in our own small way, a long tradition of listening to and learning from the day-to-day duties and personal experiences of individuals who keep the city running and make New York as we know it. Today we are pleased to launch a new series of interviews — Citymakers — that in the coming months will feature the New Yorkers who take care of our e-waste, manage the byproducts of our landfills, inspect our bridges, and install the windows through which we gaze at this metropolis.
For the first installment in the series, Ben Pardee spoke with Jason Coatney, the lead ad painter for Colossal Media, an outdoor advertising and public art company that adorns New York’s buildings with an ever-changing portfolio of brilliantly detailed murals. As Coatney notes, the outdoor advertising trade stretches back through the centuries and maintains its mark on the city through new ads as much as in the fading brushstrokes of businesses and products past. With a grueling schedule out on the scaffolds and a remarkable eye for detail required by his craft, Coatney brings the same passion he has for painting big to his observations of the city. Read on to hear more about the drama and nitty-gritty of outdoor ad painting from one of its best. –J.T.
How did you get started and how long have you been working as an ad painter?
Outdoor advertising is an old craft. It’s been handed down from generation to generation for over 150 years. I didn’t go to art school; I went directly into work as an apprentice 17 years ago. But apprenticing never really ends — we’re always learning something, constantly trying to solve a puzzle or further master efficiency. For us the work is about the sheer joy of challenging ourselves as artists and people. We’re team players, and I wouldn’t be here without all the different teams I’ve worked with.
Walk me through the whole process of getting an ad up on the wall.
We receive artwork from an ad agency, formatted to the dimensions of a specific location, then two things happen. It goes to the darkroom where our pattern guru, Mica, draws the artwork and projects it onto an aluminum screen covered with butcher paper. We use a machine called an electro pounce, which is basically a pen with electricity running through it, to make the drawing. It burns little holes in the butcher paper by conducting with the aluminum screen to create a basic outline of all the information we need.
Then one or two people start hand mixing the colors, some 30 to 40 just for one project, and organize it for the artist, the painter. We do it all by eye. We figure out how much paint we need for that location, based on the square footage, painting method (spraying, rolling, or brushwork), and type of surface. I spend one or two days of my week doing this, and I’ve probably mixed 90 percent of our work for the last five years. It’s an honor, but it also takes a ton of thinking and math. That’s a lot of color and a huge responsibility. A 600-square-foot wall takes about three gallons of paint, but some of our projects are closer to 5,000 square feet. Half of my job is to train intermediate, and even some advanced, guys to be better mixers. It takes a lot of experience to build a palette that’s functional enough for any artist to plug-in and paint.
Then we send a team out to build a scaffold. For a large ad, like the wall on Prince and Lafayette, it usually takes two scaffolds, which will carry two painters each. Then there’s a ground guy who serves as our eyes and ears and communicates with the public — there are usually lots of questions. People always ask, “How do you take the paint off before you paint the next one?” That’s such a strange question to me — you just paint right over it. Over time, walls take less paint and you get to know how much each requires.
After the scaffold is built, we use a bag of charcoal and rub it across the paper drawing, thereby transferring it to the wall through the little holes. Then we pencil in the rest of the illustration and start painting. I spend a lot of time on the wall. My job is to paint the most technically difficult art that we get, like the magazine ads that have tons of detail. They look great up there, but I think some of the simpler, old-fashioned ads can have more impact.
I never really know what’s cued up. I just worry about what’s in front of me, get my job done, and move on to the next one. The turnover for production is four or five days. And that’s fast, you know? It shouldn’t be faster than that, or we’re not giving it enough time. That’s the cool part of what we do: it’s a human process; it takes time. Ad agencies don’t always understand that, so we spend a lot of time educating them. We’re not going to lie; it’s going to take longer than putting up a big sticker, but the spectacle is an advantage. A company gets more for their money when we’re out working on the wall and people stop and notice. If we do it too fast, people don’t see the process, and it’s just another ad. But it’s not just another ad; it’s our craft.
Painters like me are out there before you wake up and after you come back from work — sun up to sun down. There’s not Monday through Friday here, no weekends off. We never know what day of the week it is. We try to get everybody at least one day off per week, but there are stretches where we’ve easily worked a month and a half straight. I’m from Alaska, and I was always taught that when the fish are biting you keep fishing because eventually it’s going to slow down. We work through all kinds of weather, except super high winds when the Department of Buildings shuts down all scaffolds. It’s good to have someone using common sense because we’re pretty aggressive.
Who owns the wall space?
All of Colossal’s inventory is legal — there are no renegade walls. When I first started out in Oregon, the company I worked for would fly into cities like pirates, paint a wall, and run. It depends on how badly the client wants the space and how much money is involved, but that method can be pretty counterproductive; there are fines that start to add up.
So building owners offer us their walls, and we lease the space from them. It’s a commodity — in New York, it’s always going to be about real estate. We try to buy long-term loan agreements so we can then offer premium locations to ad agencies that want to advertise there.
How does having a hands-on connection with buildings and their walls affect your relationship to and experience of the city?
I feel like buildings are these living, moving things. They’ve got great history, and the people that care for them — that know the boiler, the electrical system, the roof, and all the things that make that building successful — are really cool. Not all buildings are going to be the same: we have to be very careful with some older ones; new buildings are easier to work on but don’t have the same character.
We have walls all over the city, and most guys know the places close by where they can eat or use the bathroom, whether they’re in the sun or the shade, and what’s going on around them. If we’re working around Canal Street there’s going to be a ton of noise as opposed to, say, Tribeca, where it’s a bit quieter.
I paint walls for a reason — I get to know that neighborhood, that wall, and the residents that walk by every day on a personal basis. This one sweet old lady calls me Picasso, she says, “Good morning, Picasso.” That kind of connection is really important for what we do.
Even though we hang off the sides of buildings all day like birds on a wire, a lot of people don’t even notice us. People keep their eyes down when walking in New York. There’s a lot going on, or there’s the whole cell phone thing. But we’re up there painting, and we see the way the city moves and how it wakes up. On a Sunday morning, first there’s nobody out. Then the brunchers come, you watch them get wasted and get louder, and then all the tourists come through. We’re just quiet observers.
What do you find most challenging about your work?
Staying focused. I have to be at one with the work that I’m doing, but also at one with the building, the street, and everything around me, because one bad move and you could really hurt somebody. We build all our own scaffolding, and we’re constantly playing with gravity and working to avoid any accidents. Honestly, it’s a still a good day even if the painting sucked — which it does sometimes — as long as nobody got hurt.
There’s a real blue-collar feel to what we do. It’s physical, you’re outside all day, and there’s this part of you that wants to be able to paint anything, any size, anywhere. I’ve tried other jobs, but there’s nothing as exciting. It’s a ton of drama, a ton of pressure to perform all the time. And it calls me back, every time. I’ll never be as good as I can be; that challenge alone just keeps driving me. I love my job.