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"Up There" Shines New Light On Old New York (VIDEO)

Huffington Post   First Posted: 06/21/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:15 PM ET

Up There

Much has been made of street artists like Shepard Fairey (who's once again in the headlines), Banksy, Mr. Brainwash, Neckface, and so on. Their popularity is ever-growing and respect for their craft is no longer found just on the fringes of society.

Instead, these "artists," once considered vandals and a scourge, are celebrated. They have gallery shows. They do advertising campaigns. They have movies made about them.

Yet there's another group of street artists among us who aren't celebrated. Who don't have gallery shows. Who don't have movies made about them.

Well, until now.

We call them sign painters. Or billboard artists. Or, if you're a little spiteful, advertising agents.

Whatever you want to call them, be happy that they even still exist to be called anything. And be happy that a new short film called Up There by Mekanism's Malcolm Murray (in conjunction with Stella Artois and Mother), will ensure that, in some way, they'll exist forever.

The film documents a group of advertisement artists as they hand-paint a rendition of each stage of the "nine-step" Belgian pouring ritual. The men of Sky High Murals spend 21 days painting and repainting a 20x50 wall on the side of a building -- as soon as they finish painting one step, they begin going over it with the next.

Let's get one thing out of the way right now: yes, Stella Artois paid for this film and yes it's definitely part of an advertising scheme. In fact, it's such a slick advertising scheme that it could be considered genius or frightening or both. But ultimately, that doesn't really matter. Not now, anyway. Because in the end the product is beautiful and deserves to have a place in the world without caveats.

The film captures a bunch of guys who aren't used to being noticed, let alone recognized for their work. And thanks to Murray's luscious camera work, we're able to get up close and personal with them without feeling like intruders in their space high in the sky.

Scaling brownstones, tenement buildings and skyscrapers across New York City (and sometimes beyond), these men are from a bygone era. Relics left over from a different time and, for all intents and purposes, a different world.

But nobody told them that.

In an age when everything that can be done on computers, is, and things that can't be done on computers are often tried anyway, these men show up to work each day with their paints and their brushes and wheel themselves into the air to create art not for any accolades or fame or place in history, but because it's what they're paid to do.

They say New Yorkers never look up. So that being the case, very few people have probably ever actually stopped to watch these men at work.

It's not pretty stuff. The end products often is, of course, but the process looks grueling. They spend hours with their arms outstretched, backs arched, necks craning. And when it rains, they either sit in it or just keep working.

But in "Up There", it all seems worth it. Murray captures these rough and tough artists of the purest kind going about their business, defying death with each step and stroke of the brush.

"There's no easy way to do it," one says, and unlike a lot of today's art that often seems careless and without thought, the viewer can see that.

Murray documents the toil behind the sleek ad campaigns with tight shots of the men's cracked hands and weathered faces. Like the ads themselves, when viewed up close the men lose a bit of their allure. Yet just as the ads are even more impressive when one considers the abstract parts they are made up of, the work these men produce seems even greater when one considers the broken body parts that created it.

Judging from the plethora of hand-painted advertisement remnants that still exist around New York (called "ghost signs" or "brickads"), in the business' heyday there must have been hundreds, if not thousands of these artists swinging from pulley systems, sliding up and down the sides of buildings.

But now there are only about 75 of them across the country, mainly here and in Los Angeles.

This film, no matter what the pretense or who paid for it, pays homage to a dying art form. Up There documents what could be the last days of a great American institution, and one of the last remnants of the old New York.

Watch the full film below:

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