Hanging on the Wall
"This is the best wall we have, my favorite place to climb out."
t’s a typical Manhattan roof scene. Old weber grills. Patio furniture. Forgotten tomato plants. The harness I’m putting on is a full body type, with holes for the legs and the arms and it’s splattered in paint. There’s a single lanyard on the back that clips into the traveler on a safety rope. “This is the best wall we have,” Gary says. “My favorite place to climb out.”
I look down over the ledge. There’s a giant half-painted advertisement for some kind of beer right below us. From here, it just looks yellow and green and massive, but by the end of the day, Gary, who works for Colossal Media painting these giant murals and advertisements, will pretty much have it finished.
Eight floors down, just below the piece he’s working on, is the corner of Broadway and Grand in SoHo. It’s early morning and delivery trucks and construction workers dominate the streets. It’s a far cry from what the place will look in a few hours, when models and tourists will be filling up the sidewalks and cafes. From up here, right now, it feels a lot like a SoHo that vanished a long time ago.
For my blog, I regularly shoot people in their work situations, usually in shops making things with their hands. My core belief as a photographer is that the subject is the most important thing. Perfect exposure, focus and composition can’t compensate for a boring subject. And I rarely get to shoot anything like this. Today, my subject is a tatted-up mural painter with a full grill in his mouth and a big smile, climbing off a roof in SoHo. His painting name is just “Gary.”
Gary shows me how we’re going to climb over the ledge onto the “rig” that’s dangling below so I can take some photos.
It’s about eight feet from the roof to the platform on the rig. So not a hard move for a climber or any other Colossal painter, but for a guy who hasn’t been on belay in over 15 years, and who has a lingering fear of heights, it’s a fierce obstacle.
We go over each move I need to execute to get down to the rig below.
First, Gary says, clip into the traveler. Hang onto the rope with one hand and the chimney with the other. Keep the rope tight and slowly throw your leg over the edge of the roof. Lower your foot down until you feel a steel cable under it, and walk your way down until you can put your foot - backwards - onto the railing of the rig. Then step down onto the rig.
After he explains the moves, I watch Gary do this traverse and a knot of vertigo tightens in my stomach. “Holy shit,” I say, uncontrollably.
I hesitate for a second, but my excitement for getting a good photo overpowers my fear of heights. Plus, it took weeks of coordination with the team at Colossal to make this moment happen, and I don’t want to squander this chance.
I clip in and go for it. I hand Gary my camera and make the moves like he described. Facing the building, I hold the chimney and the rope and fling my leg over the parapet. I slide my foot down the brick wall until it finally lands on the steel cable.
I realize at this moment that in seven years of living in NYC, this is easily the burliest thing I’ve done here. I’m climbing the city.
I drop down into the rig and crouch down low. Gary shows me the ropes, literally, and we drive the rig down to the bottom of the painting.
The team uses a series of large paper printouts to draw the image onto the wall with permanent markers, then they proudly hand paint each brush stroke.
Gary shows me the shading, and the brushstrokes. It’s intense. He’s been doing this for six years and he says it takes someone five to ten to get good at it.
There’s detail in the work you would never be aware of seeing the image from the ground. It’s really impressive. But that’s why it takes so long for a painter to learn the trade. You can’t just take a few steps back and see what your work looks like.
After a few minutes we decide to head up. We drive the rig to the top of the wall. It sways less and less the higher we go. Then I see the ledge I just crawled over. I realize it may have been a lot easier going down then over but I don’t stop. We run through the sequence of steps in reverse order.
Back foot up on the railing. Other foot onto the steel cable. Grab the ledge. Pull up on the rope and the chimney. Throw a leg over the ledge and you’re up.
I hand Gary the camera and do it. My adrenaline is pumping again. It’s not smooth, but I make it up pretty easily. I look down over the ledge at Gary, grab my camera and take some photos as he climbs up.
I grab one last glance over the wall and suddenly wonder if Colossal is hiring. [H]