Red Butterfly
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Tait and Sunny's Handiwork
Photos by Marly Kurtzer

The Vanishing Art of Advertising Murals

For six days this November, Tait Bertrand Roelofs and Sunny Ellerton took the elevator up to the 20th floor of 315 Park Avenue South, walked up a flight of stairs to the roof, strapped on body harnesses and hooked them to safety lanyards and then climbed over the parapet to a scaffold suspended 230 feet above the ground. This is their commute when they're in New York City and if you walk to the corner of 23rd and Park Avenue South you can see their work: a 200 by 89 foot ad for the movie Ocean's 12.

They are members of a waning industry who practice a dying craft: they hand-paint large-scale commercial and artistic murals for the Portland-based company ArtFX Murals.

"It's really safe but it takes getting used to," said Sunny Ellerton. Sunny is medium height, with short sandy hair and wide blue eyes. His wholesome and cheerful manner makes him look younger than 25. "Like up there, the wind whips around the building and hits you so the stage is always wobbly. It's like being on a ship. And also when you lower the stage sometimes it rattles on things that are sticking out the side of the building."

"Like air conditioners," said Bertrand Roelofs, who prefers to go by Tait.

Tait is tall and lanky. During the course of a conversation, his weathered Dutch-boy looks can make him appear alternatively older and younger than 33. He speaks deliberately and without gesturing but he peppers his explanations with slang words and ends his sentence with a slight upward lilt, as if he were asking a question.

Each waited for the pauses in the other's sentences before slipping in a detail. It's the pace of familiarity born from working long hours braving the elements. They defy vertigo and the laws of gravity on a regular basis as they work side by side on a narrow scaffold known as a stage.

Motorized Stage

Getting ready to climb into "the stage"

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates certain safety guidelines such as the use of body harnesses that must be tied to a lanyard. The lanyard rope must have a resistance of 5,000 pounds and is tied to a stationary part of the building structure such as a fire escape. Their work often involves traveling to Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York and then they're not only co-workers but sole after-hours companions.

The New York stage is motorized but when the men work in Oregon, the stage is a block and tackle manual pulley system. On a block and tackle, the men must raise and lower themselves through physical means. After positioning themselves, they tie a knot to keep the stage from sliding down from under them. They move with grace on the narrow stage, at times even setting it at an angle instead of parallel, one man higher than the other, each one keeping his balance and sang-froid as they collaborate on different parts of the image.

Tait will often add his tag on the murals that he's painting: a figure 8 tucked under the long overhang of a large T. That's also how he signs his own paintings.

"I figure it's my artistic piece and it's my wall at the time. I sign all my paintings so why shouldn't I sign this, I guess?"

For the past six years, Tait has been painting large-scale murals as a source of income while he pursues his own career as a painter.

"I was working at a dead-end job before, making bongs and just cheesy biker paraphernalia. It paid the bills but it was monotonous."

So he called all the mural companies in the Portland phone book and hit upon ArtFX. He showed his portfolio to the owner, Mark Bennett, and even though Tait had never done paintings that large, Bennett hired him.

Tait had the skills to create the kind of realism that the advertising industry requires but rendering it unto such a grand scale was new to him. He went through an apprenticeship with the old hands in the field who had been painting ads for 20 years.

There are several challenges in rendering a poster onto a wall. The most obvious one is size. The client, usually the advertising agency, designs the poster. Then the mural company is responsible for magnifying it so it will fit on the wall. The painters work from a grid that helps determine the scale, the dimensions, and the reference points. They then use thick magic markers to transfer the magnified drawing unto the wall.

Disorientation is another hurdle.

"At first it's really hard to find your bearings, find out where you are in the picture I mean," Tait explained. "I've stood in Kobe Bryant's nostril before, in a painting so big that you could get lost in his eye. And then you look at the poster and it's the size of a postage stamp. And you need to learn how to translate that to the wall. And then through patterns we use as well to help give us key landmarks: you know where letters start, where the face and hair and shoulders or whatever. Just reference points that here's this and that."

"You have to make something look exact but it doesn't look right from where you're standing. It's like there are two paintings—the one you're painting up close and then the one you see once you're on the ground," Sunny added.

The view from the stage

The view from the stage

There is also the problematic issue of rendering colors so that they don't lose their brilliance when seen from a distance. Due to the amount of water in the atmosphere, from a distance the human eye perceives colors as grey. This effect varies according to the color: yellow retains its intensity from farthest away, red is in the middle of the spectrum and blue tends to look grey at a relatively close range. This effect also interferes in creating the optical illusion of three-dimensionality. The problem is solved by the technique of atmospheric perspective.

"If you go up and you're painting a face and say you're painting a light area into a shadow on the face, you can't just paint a shadow color and a light color and have them side by side cause when you get down, it won't look real. You have to blend," Taid said. "You have to take those two colors and just mash them together. I've used a lot of that in my own work…"

In spite of the fact that mural painting has taught him techniques that he can use in his own art, Tait feels that he is "a human Xerox machine."

Nevertheless, the people who live and work in the buildings overlooking this wall delight in observing the gradual emergence of a painting—a reaction that a Xerox copier never inspires. "How do they do it?" they marvel. They note the painters' progress each day. Amid the constant demand for speedy results and the drudgery of office life, they all participate vicariously in the slow tempo of creation.

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