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Colossal Media and The Commercial Artist: Are Big Advertising Firms Helping or Hurting Street Art?

The difference between art and advertising is often a lot blurrier than people think. Especially as the world gets more transparent, we have better glimpses into the background lives of artists, the influence of producers on movies, songwriting collectives on music, and much more. We sometimes favour the people who haven’t “sold out,” the ones who can now live off their own artistic pursuits without relying on a day job, but this is no longer the type of world we live in. The fact is many artists come out of school eager for work but find very few opportunities, clutching to the romantic ideal of the starving artist is not only silly, it gives you stomach pains.

When we turn this romantic gaze to street art, worrying about the relationship between public art and private business, things get very complicated. Graffiti has an underground feel to it, like the rebellious cousin of art gallery paintings, and graffiti is in turn persecuted for its existence. Governments wash graf off buildings, set increased limits on where and when artists can write, and sponsor professional street artists for beautification pieces around town. This all contributes to an underdog feel of street artists, a persecuted underground community just waiting for their chance in the spotlight. What people forget is modern street art started as advertisements, not tagging, and that street art is literally everywhere, and that is something to celebrate.

You’ve seen evidence of the old street art all around town, on old brick buildings pointing to the local pharmacy and old glass windows with Coca-Cola ads. Street art was a prominent way to advertise. Before massive printed billboards, hand-painted ads on buildings were the easiest way to use some wall space to drum up business. And while many artists are wary of the commercialization of street art, eager to “legitimize” their trade with tags, gallery showings, and by bringing their graf sensibilities to other art forms, the relationship between ads and graffiti has always been around.

So it’s hardly a surprise that companies like Colossal Media exist, advertising companies that specialize in hand-painted ads, and they’re a great place for young artists to get practical experience while getting paid, something difficult for anyone with an Arts degree, especially a Fine Arts degree. As North America’s largest hand-painted advertising company, Colossal is at once a sign of the times and a harkening back to graffiti’s beginnings, skipping the romantic idealism in between to help painters get some practical experience and explore their art in a new way. Sure, they’re told what to paint, but the in-between space between expectation and result is a fun playground for any artist willing to learn and explore.

In a way, Colossal Media is a paragon of the debate on whether constraints encourage art or discourage it. On the one side, we have genre artists, people who find inspiration in re-packaging familiar tropes rather than starting fresh. On the other side, there’s the ideal artist: someone with a unique vision who is recognized for their obvious talent and free to create when and how they want. They push the world forward, exposing new ways of looking at our surroundings for a change. And while it’s easy to put artistic people on opposite ends of a spectrum, rarely are they mutually exclusive.