A Forgotten Form of Street Art

Studio 360
The World

Advertisements are a nuisance. The giant ones plastered on billboards and buildings all over major cities – those are eyesores. However, in the new short documentary “Up There,” director Michael Murray may have just articulated a compelling reason for their existence.

“Up There” follows a group of commercial painters as they work on an ad campaign for Stella Artois. Their livelihood — hand-painting giant pictures on the sides of buildings — has been decimated by the ubiquity of hanging vinyl ads, which are cheaper, quicker, and less dangerous to put up. Factoring in competition from electronic signage, it’s easy to understand why these guys are a dying breed.

If you’re like me and thought it’s been decades since advertisements were painted on buildings, you’ll need to start reexamining the advertising that towers over you. Look at the glass of beer against a brick faade. If you didn’t know, Would you ever guess that someone painted that? That it isn’t just a massive photograph hung up there? The idea of a couple of guys suspended high above New York City on ropes, painting only a few square feet at a time, is like pointillism a la Gulliver’s Travels, with Lilliputians on platforms gradually completing a work of art that will ultimately dwarf them. As one of the painters in “Up There” observes, it’s actually like what Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel.

It’s already a bit surreal that we treat our buildings as if they were rock formations to carve messages into, or naked landscapes begging to be clothed. Seeing it happen is even weirder, and the film evokes a startling amount of sympathy for these painters and their impressive, totally-ignored craft. The story is almost heartbreaking and the work is amazing. Sure, it’s just advertising; but for all the gaudiness of huge commercial images, somehow these don’t make my eyes sore.

– Stephen Reader

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