Wall Dogs: The Midair Muralists Who Paint New York
It’s 8am in Soho, the thermometer reads just above freezing, and the sky is bleak. Taxis splash down the streets; New Yorkers stride with their heads down, leaping over puddles, carelessly bumping into each other. Everyone wants to get out of the cold, out of the rain, into the warmth.
Ten stories above — on a long, skinny platform hanging from the facade of a building at Canal and Mercer in downtown Manhattan — it’s a different story. Climbers’ ropes secured around their torsos, Jason Coatney and Armando Balmaceda stand in a melange of open paint cans and brushes. These two muralists of Colossal Media, the largest hand-painted advertising company in America, are heavily layered in sweatshirts and raincoats. But in this industry, c’est la vie. Paintbrushes in their fingerless-gloved hands, earbuds in their ears — “I like to start out with Miles Davis in the morning,” Coatney smiles, his breath visible in the frigid air — they begin yet another workday in the sky.
It’s the third morning at this location, and the duo are on track, despite the rain, to complete a 30x18-foot mural — commissioned by Etsy to advertise a holiday pop-up shop — by the next evening’s deadline. Coatney carefully bends down, dipping the tip of his brush into a ruddy orange. “It’s a really weird mix of things that makes an artist like a wall dog,” he says.
Some say the origins of the term is derogatory. “Wall dogs” were the unofficial names of the men who were, almost literally, chained to outdoor facades to hand paint the enormous signs still decorating the faded exteriors of today’s landmarked buildings. But these days, the name is a sign of professional pride.
Before vinyl posters printed and hung by a couple guys and a crane became the norm, this was the way big-city advertising was done. Common practice in the decades before the Great Depression, painting these signs took days, perhaps weeks, of hard labor and skills that took years to hone.
Despite a couple updates (they now use motorized pulley systems to raise the building rigs, instead of pulling them up themselves), Colossal is carrying on the tradition, just as their predecessors did more than a century before. Paul Lindahl and Adrian Moeller cofounded the company nine years ago (a third cofounder tragically passed away in a subway accident) by pooling together their savings, a few thousand dollars, and leasing a large wall on 14th Street and 6th Avenue. “Hanging banners is faster; there are less variables. Everyone just told us to take a hike,” recalls Lindahl. Finally, months later, someone bit –- Rockstar Games, of Grand Theft Auto fame -– and they were so taken with the medium that they commissioned Colossal to paint 30 walls.
Moeller chuckles proudly as he talks about the past. “For the first few jobs, we couldn’t even afford a pounce machine,” the little contraption that burns holes into the life-size sketch they make for each job. They’ll spread this out and rub it with charcoal dust to get a faint outline when they’re on the rig, to help get the proportions right. “So Paul used a thumbtack. You can imagine, that’s a lot of holes to make for a 20x30 foot wall.”
No more thumbtacks. Today, Colossal is a $10 million company, with over 150 walls around the country and 30 wall dogs to fill them. “It takes years and years of practice,” emphasizes Coatney, still on the Etsy rig, who’s been doing this for 15 years. The rain has abated, and he’s added the finishing touches to the “always handpaint” lettering of the Colossal insignia. He pauses, his brush hovering in midair. “There are a lot of talented people waiting to get up here, you know? A lot of talented people.”
— Sky Dylan-Robbins