In the age of social media, when brands are searching for ever more meaningful ways to reach their audiences, the hand-painted mural has proven (once again) to be both transformative and a captivating social media magnet.
Brand Strategy / 11.14.2017

The resurgence of hand-painted mural advertising

I love large-format wall advertising. I love towns and cities that allow them, building owners that want them, and brands that create them. But the hand-painted variety, above all, is king! Since the early 2000s, there has been a resurgence of hand-painted advertising murals in cities across the nation. New York and LA are leading the push among a dozen major metropolitan areas, but we’re seeing them pop up in smaller towns, too. In the age of social media, when brands are searching for more meaningful ways to reach their audiences, the hand-painted mural has proven (once again) to be both transformative and a captivating social media magnet.

A Quick History

Painted wall advertising can trace its lineage back to the 1830s with the advent of large-format outdoor billboards peddling everything from the traveling circus to rheumatism pills. Bringing those billboards into cities and towns wasn’t always easy or possible, so the next available space was an open wall—any open wall. A farmer’s barn, grain silos, warehouses, and city high-rises alike became canvases.

Hitting its golden age in the 1920s through the 1940s, murals remained a popular and inexpensive form of advertising until the 1950s when electric signs began to replace them. Then, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act which limited (and removed) the use of certain billboards and other forms of outdoor advertisements. On its heels a few years later, large-format printing on vinyl was introduced, giving way to faster, more economical forms of reproduction and installation. Although the sign painters and their art form faded from view, we can still see the haunting, neglected remnants of the painted age through faded “ghost signs” often found on hidden corners and walls.

Faded ghost sign hand painted mural in Dallas Texas
A faded mural on the wall of a building in Dallas, Texas, advertising the Texas and Pacific Railroad’s passenger service to Saint Louis in what at the time was apparently the expeditious time of 23 hours.
Courtesy of The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Ghost murals of hand-painted ad in Manhattan
The faded ghost signs of Magid Handbags and Coblentz Bag Co. on 30 East 33rd St., Manhattan

Don’t Call it a Comeback

Painted wall advertisements and the “wall dogs” (the painters who brave the heights and elements) that made them never went away completely. A small number of painters, artists, and adventurous commercial businesses managed to keep the niche craft alive. Today, cities and towns have realized that these remnants of the past are woven into their cultural tapestry; revitalization programs have sprung up to repaint old murals and create new ones. Astute brands also understand that the creation of new, hand-painted wall murals have the power to command attention in the increasingly commoditized social media space; ironically, one of the oldest forms of communication stands out in new media.

In 2004, a Brooklyn-based team of three wall dogs launched Colossal Media. Today, they are credited as the pivotal force behind a reenergized industry and are the largest provider of hand-painted campaigns in the US. Within a few short years, they’ve been joined by several competitors serving, collectively, more than 20 major metropolitan areas. These modern wall dogs are savvy, too, offering services from location scouting to full video and photographic documentation of a mural’s creation.

Transformative Theatrics

Unlike large printed or digital signs, handmade murals are rooted in their craft. Brands have recognized that allowing the artistry of the painting to come forward is transformative for the ad itself, its relationship with the viewer, and the environment in which it resides. In doing so, they connect on a meaningful, human level. What was once cold brick along a grey street is suddenly alive with color, whimsy, surprise, and artistic storytelling. They influence mindsets and moods, and their iconic nature becomes a part of an area’s culture.

Transforming a wall can take several days or more than a week, depending on size, and often involves scaffolding and painting crews working through harsh elements to get the job done. The theatrics alone are enough to stop people in their tracks to watch the show. The act of creation, and its interactive nature, is performance art for storytelling and sharing—an opportunity that print media and digital campaigns cannot so easily claim. Global brands, from Adidas, Apple, and Netflix, to small town coffee shops and grocers have seen their murals become Instagram sensations, backdrops for fashion shoots, magazine covers, and primetime news stories, reaching online impressions in the double-digit millions.

Nintendo teamed up with Colossal to hand-paint the cover art for their newest release, Zelda: Breath of the Wild. With a little paint and light, they dazzled viewers and transformed a building corner into a place of magic and wonder.

Crowd watches as hand painted mural is constructed
Hand painted mural blind idealism along New York's High Line
Two walls of Colossal Media’s work along New York’s famous High Line. The production always draws a crowd, and together they are among the most photographed locations along the raised public park.

Freeform's wall mural to promote The Bold Type
Freeform’s wall mural was so successful they extended the campaign for two weeks, reaching over 8.5 million through social media. Image courtesy of Colossal Media.

Tinder and Delta teamed up for a hand painted mural
Delta and Tinder teamed up for the #DeltaDatingWall. Not only did it launch a successful campaign across social media and dating apps, lucky Brooklynites actually landed dates. Image courtesy of Colossal Media and www.instagram.com/lofficiel.oc.

Steven Paul's Brooklyn Landmark mural
The photographic talent of Steven Paul, winner of 2014’s Scholastic’s Arts & Writing Awards, was celebrated with a larger-than-life mural overlooking Broadway. The wall immediately became an iconic Williamsburg, Brooklyn landmark, with press coverage bringing its story to a national audience. Painting and Image courtesy of Colossal Media.

The Big Picture

In a society of instant gratification, with so many of us face-down, glued to our devices, hand-painted murals have the inspiring ability to ground us in our environment even while connecting with us online. Our desire to share unique experiences makes this a perfect and beautiful approach for brands to both embed themselves into the fabric of a community and engage their audiences on a grand scale. The resurgence of this hand-crafted media has shown that advertising can transcend its own message, that brands can have impact beyond a mere wall, and that we’re hungry to connect with those brands on a more human level.

Greg Spraker

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