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Painting New York's Skyline

Painter Thomas Hemmerick is slathering a coat of black paint on a segment of a four-story Adidas advertisement in SoHo. He's standing on scaffolding 150 feet above the ground. "I've seen amazing sunsets from up here," he says. "It's like working in the mountains or something."

Hemmerick is one of the few New Yorkers who makes his living from hand-painting giant outdoor ads on the faces of the city's building walls. Once upon a time, painted ads were the dominant form of outdoor advertising as the ghostly, fading ads from yesteryear on old buildings around the city can attest. Nowadays,painting ads by hand has become rare, and today's wall painters are a small elite of tough-guy artists who brave soaring heights and bitter winds to make some of the world's biggest paintings, day in and day out.

The outdoor advertising industry, which encompasses everything from highway billboards to the sides of city buses, is massive. It grossed over $6 billion last year and included over 150,000 advertising billboards and 1,633 building faces around the country.

Of that number, only a tiny percentage were painted by hand.

"The misconception is that it's too expensive and too time consuming," says Paul Lindahl. Lindhal is a former wall painter and one of the founders of Colossal Media, a Brooklyn-based company that specializes in hand-painted ads. According to Lindahl, his is the only company in the country that does hand-painted work on a large scale—projects known as "spectaculars" in advertising jargon. "Most people nowadays just print banners. There's nothing to that, and it really doesn't grab people's attention," he says.

For Colossal Media, producing a hand-painted ad involves rigging scaffolding, sketching a drawing on the fall, and then painstakingly filling it in with a highly-rendered, photorealistic painting. The whole process generally takes five days and costs advertisers an average of $25,000 per facade. The company currently has some 60 walls painted in the city's five boroughs.

For the sixteen artists Colossal employs, wall painting is an opportunity to put their fine-arts degrees to the test.

"This is one of the longest living traditions where you can actually make a living as an artist," says Justin Odaffer, a painter at Colossal. "It's consistent work, and it's hard work, so there's some honor and pride you feel at the end of the day. Plus, I don't mind walking about the city and seeing my work up on the walls."

To see the sky painters at work, click on the slideshow below.