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Wall Graphics: A Many-Splendored Thing

Murals, supergraphics, signs? Yes, yes and yes

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Several thousand words and dozens of pretty pictures depicting wall graphics have recently adorned magazine and website pages, but to working signmakers, one question always surfaces when a customer – or machine- or materials-selling enterprise – discusses wall graphics: What, exactly, is a wall graphic?
A mural? Yes. A barricade graphic? Yes again. A window-display back-drop? Sure, that works. A wall-mounted sign? The world is full of them. A projected image? The new latest thing.
In the past, signmakers and artists painted wall images on designated walls, and many muralists and graphic designers still do. Today, however, most wall graphics are digitally printed images applied to a wall. However, a digital print is just that – “a digital print” – until it is installed or applied. If the destination is a wall, then you have created a wall graphic. However, apply the same image on a truck or bus side and the working title becomes a “vehicle graphic.” So, you must ask what exactly is a wall graphic, because the term more accurately describes the end product, meaning the type of image, where it will be applied and the media type.

Handpainted wall graphics
Another clarification: Murals are not supergraphics. Murals are pictorial images that sometimes have commercial messages. Supergraphics, according to wallpaper.com, are “graphics on a big scale.”
The site says supergraphics were “… cooked up by some of the most radical post-modern architects of the 1960’s. The idea? To apply paint and graphics to both the interior and exterior of buildings in a defiant act that would ‘remove solidity, gravity, even history’ – and certainly cause some alarm to those more reverential modernists.”
I’m not convinced it’s all that heavy because I often paid my tuition at the Rocky Mountain School of Art (Denver) by painting supergraphics in offices, church hallways and schoolrooms. I don’t remember anyone calling the work defiant. Most thought it was “really cool.” I applied large, hand-drawn designs with pounce patterns and would brush the graphic edges (using a quill or fitch brush) and roller-paint the centers. It’s the same method signpainters use to finish large letters on building sides.
“Supergraphics” comprise bold colors and created interesting graphic-type patterns and letterforms. Think tilted logos and type – fire-truck red on refrigerator white – reaching from floor to ceiling. And yes, lots of Helvetica.
Murals are art. Michelangelo and da Vinci were muralists that used pounce patterns, so their techniques remain today, although the paint types – plaster-based frescos – have faded from common use. Today, muralists use a combination of high-quality paints, including 1Shot. On his website, muralist Doug Myerscough (Denison, TX) posts excellent instructions for applying handpainted murals and, at the end of the instruction, makes a statement that applies to almost everything in life: “Everything else you’ll figure out along the way.”
Many muralists are also philosophers.

Projected-light wall graphics
Wallpaper.com says supergraphics also take the form of special effects via embedded LED lamps or high-fidelity projection systems. Archdaily.com, in a story titled “Light Matters: 3-D Video Mapping, Making Architecture the Screen for our Urban Stories,” says such systems present a new art form. It says “…powerful video projectors have opened the path for this young (a relative term), impressive art form. Three-D video mapping (projection) uses the architecture itself as the screen.” Such projected wall graphics offer entertainment and commercial messages; the process integrates software and high-power projectors that permanently or temporarily project images or videos on a building façade. Marketing agencies, by the way, quickly grabbed this art form for branding and product-launch campaigns.

Digitally printed wall graphics
Today, most wall graphics appear on specialized wall-graphic media that is treated with adhesive-backed vinyl. Truth is, numerous and terrific media products exist for this type of work, many of which will install on brick walls and, once done, look as if they were born there. Almost every large-format, digital-print machine manufacturer offers a wall-graphic print system; and, almost every media manufacturer offers suitable media. Recent improvement in both systems allow you to produce (or order) vinyl-based, printed wall graphics that are almost effortless to install, indoors or out.
The differing machine advantages reside in ink type, because numerous safety rules exist for school and medical applications. The media differences reside in media safety, outdoor lifespan, adhesion and flexibility. Think of a second grader finger- nailing the ink; think of peeling media and bored passersby; think of installing printed vinyl on bricks.

Wallpaper wall graphics
Other commercial, indoor wall-graphics (remember, a wall graphic can be a sign) and murals are printed on wallpaper-type media and applied with wallpaper adhesive. You’ll see this type in retail establishments and shopping malls. My California friend Bob Foster and his wife, Connie, with 27 years as professional wallpaper installers, specialize in commercial wallpaper installation and chemical-free removal.

They recently installed the wall graphics at the Walt Disney Museum at the San Francisco Presidio. Their client list includes Applebee’s, Pasta Pomodoro’s, Pep Boys, Popeyes, Subway and more. Regarding media, Bob said they prefer printed canvas, because it’s easy to install and looks good once installed. “Never use glossy media for a wall mural,” he said, “because it shows every mistake.” I have included Foster Wallpaper (Newark, CA) here because, should you not want to install mural-type prints, subcontracting with such experienced specialists will allow you to produce a complete bid – design, print and install.

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Truth is, you could oversee and profit from a complete wall-graphic job without doing any of the hands-on work: Select an image from an appropriate image supplier, subcontract the printing to a reliable print-service provider and contract with a professional installer to have the job installed.
You can eat lunch while you run the business.

Tools for Mural Installations

PLS3 Laser Measuring Tool – $200
The PLS3 self-leveling laser generates  three perfectly square beams: up, down, and out, with three bright reference points for visual positioning and layout reference points. It’s much faster than traditional methods, the company says, and accurate to ¼ in. at 100 ft. It’s made in the US and powered by three AA batteries. It also features a ¼ in. x 20- thread mount that adapts to all camera tripods and comes with a canvas carrying pouch, a magnetic wall bracket, a floor stand and an operating manual.

Stabila Digital Level
The Stabila 48 in IP65 Tech
Digital Level 36548, with case, listing at $280, features illuminated, two-screen visibility; audible tone when plumb or level (or at preset angles); one-button calibration; washable electronics; five-mode reading (points, degrees, decimal and feet and inches). The digital displays flip to read correctly when positioned upside down and the level comprises protective, shock-absorbing endcaps. It ships with a protective soft case.

Advice on installing digitally printed murals

The Intl. Sign Assn. (ISA), in conjunction with LexJet  (Sarasota, FL), has published “Tips for creating photo wall murals,” which is free to ISA members on signs.org (select “Education & Events” and then “Industry Research”). For a list of media and equipment manufacturers, see buyersguide.signweb.com; to find an installer or supplier, try the Wallcoverings Assocation at wallcoverings.org.
In addition, muralsyourway.com, a mural print-service provider, offers these online tips:

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Prepress
• Beware of client-provided photos that won’t enlarge to a suitable dpi or have flaws that become critical when magnified.
• Consider specialty- and stock-photo providers for high-resolution images.
• Consider the dpi necessary for the image to be effective.
• Discuss image, subject matter and the desired effect with your client.
• Ask, what is the purpose of the image – motivate, relax, something else?
• Consider the characteristics of the entire space. Does the image work here?

Site survey
• Try to see the site in person.
• To measure, record each edge: top, sides and bottom. Non-square walls may require design, print and installation adjustments.
• Note and measure significant architectural features.
• Plan for traffic flow in and out of the area.
• Note viewing distance and possible obstructions.
• Is there anything in the area that will affect the print – chemical use, excess moisture or heat?

The print
• Print a flush-to-edge graphic or mural slightly oversize, to allow trimming the border to fit.
• Determine suitable dpi – 200 dpi is recommended (faces, logos and small subjects appear better at high resolution).
• Determine the mural’s light source, and if it will affect the print.
• Use the same batch of media and ink for the entire job.

Wall preparation
• Remove old wallcovering.
• Patch and smooth the wall.
• If necessary, primer-coat the wall, and then paint with semi-gloss, silicone-free paint (allow five days’ dry time to prevent outgassing).
• Once a freshly painted wall is dry, clean it with a dry cloth.
• For non-painted wall, wash wall with synthetic detergent (1 oz. soap to 1 gal. water) and allow to dry.

Adhesives
• Muralsyourway.com recommends contacting Roman Decorating and Zinsser for wallpaper adhesives and instructions for use.

Installation
• If you’re installing a shipped-in mural, check it for size, flaws and panel accuracy before leaving your shop.
• Consider hiring professional installers.
• Partial-wall murals require special attention to the adjacent walls. A non-square wall or ceiling can cause a properly leveled print to appear uneven.
• Test and know your positioning strategy ahead of time.
• Line up the panels in position on the floor, to envision the installation and check for flaws.
• Establish a single reference point and work from it. Use levels and squares to position the panel and mark guidelines on the wall. Mark alignment points on the media and wall and, if needed, use a level snap (chalk) line for the bottom edge.
• Successive panel installation must relate to any patterns. Mark vertical guidelines (use a plumb bob and snap line) and check the panel against these lines as you position them.
• Ensure that no seam gaps exist. Muralsyourway.com prints with a 2-in. overlap, and recommends you cut through both once both panels are in place.
• Don’t trim the edges until the job is complete.
• If possible, complete the job in one day. Moderate temperatures are best.

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