“Up There” Reveals The Dying Art Of Large-scale Hand Painted Advertising

Although this blog is mostly about digital type and its use in various media, we do have a soft spot for letterpress printing, wood type, hand lettering and calligraphy, sign painting, and other types of hand-crafted art. If you liked our FontCast with sign painter Damon Styer you’ll love this. Shot high above the streets of New York City, Up There reveals the dying craft of large-scale hand painted advertising and the untold story of the painters struggling to keep it alive. Capturing a trade that is equal parts artistic tradition and gruelling labour, the film presents a painting tradition pre-dating modern advertising. A craft that today finds itself dangling precariously on the brink of extinction.

This short documentary directed by Malcolm Murray pictures the painters of Colossal Media/Sky High Murals. Up There was captured during the making of The Ritual Project, the extraordinary 20 x 50 foot stop-frame animation of the Belgian Pouring Ritual seen at the end of the film. Over more than three weeks of painting, these craftsmen revealed their incredible artistry, their sacrifice, and their enduring passion for the wall painting tradition. Additionally, the documentary profiles retired artist Bob Middleton, owner of the prominent Mack Sign Company, who discusses his long career as a wall painter in New York City.


UP THERE – trailer from Jon on Vimeo.

The same way Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel, he made patterns and used charcoal and mixed his own paint – I mean, there’s no easy way to do it. It’s just that’s the way it is.

This quote by one of the Sky High Murals painters made me reflect on the function of marketing by brands. For centuries the Catholic Church – organised religion, the opium of the people as Karl Marx saw it – played a crucial role through their patronage, enabling artists like Michelangelo to create phenomenal works of art. While some of us may agree with Lenny Bruce‘s opinion on marketing people, global brands – through advertising, the new opium of the people – have taken over the mantle of patron for the arts. By commissioning the creation of conten, they often are in a position to support obscure or dying forms of art and craft. And this is one of the positive effects advertising can have on society. Sure, the Stella Artois brand is present throughout the whole documentary. But it is so in a rather subdued way, organically integrated into the narrative and the poetic, moving images.


UP THERE from Jon on Vimeo.

This collaborative project was based on an original concept from Mother New York, produced by San Francisco creative production studio Mekanism, and directed, filmed and edited by Mekanism’s Malcolm Murray. It features beguiling music by The Album Leaf, Jimmy LaValle post-rock project.

Read more about Up There in the New York Times feature.

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2 Comments:

  1. This is a great film, see our own efforts in the UK to preserve the dwindling craft of the signwriter: Ghost Signs.

    Posted by Sam Roberts on May. 2, 2010
  2. A beautiful piece of work. I still think there are things to be said for the traditional way of doing things.

    Posted by Gerald Sherman on Jul. 26, 2010

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