Sometimes the best business ideas come from a crazy dream, a whole lotta self-belief and the stamina to put up with eating baked beans and toasties until someone gives you a break.
Tyson Hunter and his mates Tristan Minter and Hamish McBride had a dream -- to celebrate Melbourne’s street art cred by using that style to create beautiful pieces of art that advertise big commercial brands, movies and video games on city walls.
Hunter hatched the idea after seeing a poster of The Dark Knight on the side of an old milk bar one day.
“The artwork was grim, dark, dirty, Gothic and I was like ‘that’s really effective’,” he told The Huffington Post Australia. “Then I said, ‘Imagine if that was handpainted -- imagine how effective it would be’.”
And so Apparition Media was born. His housemate and bestie, Minter, was on board from the get-go, and the pair roped in their artist pal McBride, who, at the time was living in what Hunter describes as a “hippy commune” in New Zealand’s south island painting pictures for tourists.
The three had very different skillsets: McBride has the artistic skill and a talent for photo-realism, Minter is an archaeologist and small business owner, and Hunter was a former journalist who worked in retail advertising.
“We really knew nothing about the advertising industry on this scale,” Hunter said. “I’d never dealt with a media-buying agency before, we really didn’t know anything. We kind of went in there blind with a whole lot of self-belief and not much knowledge.”
They rented a warehouse in trendy Fitzroy which had half a roof, demolished walls and weeds growing up through the concrete. It was in bad shape but was the only place the trio could afford -- with landlords who would agree to take them on with no trading experience.
McBride painted test murals on the walls that showcased the industries they wanted to target.
“For fashion we painted a 3x3m Converse shoe, for movie industry we painted an Avatar poster,” Hunter said. “We chose the gaming industry and we did a 6mx3m Grand Theft Auto 5 mural and we did a 4x3m Corona mural, White Rabbit and a Coopers one.”
They taught themselves Photoshop, set up a press kit and started getting clients.
But it wasn’t their lack of specific industry knowledge that was the challenge -- it was finding clients to take a risk and trust in their vision.
“We were living off baked beans and toasted cheese sandwiches,” he said. “I had used up all the startup capital I had but the industry had taken to it. Everyone we presented to absolutely loved the idea.
“But there was a lot of fear around; ‘OK, this is great but how do we sell this to a client as no one has done it and who will be willing to take a risk to be the first, and what happens if this guy stuffs it up?’”
They almost signed a major launch partner in a major international tech company -- but the pin was pulled at the last minute.
“That pulled the rug out from under our feet -- we had no money, no work,” he said.
Devastated, the trip took a week out to think about the whole idea -- but regrouped with a new determination. They did odd jobs painting murals in cafes around Melbourne and Hunter and Minter borrowed money from their families.
Then, a few months later, the people from Coke showed up.
“We got a phone call from Universal McCann up in Sydney and they had just won the Coca-Cola Amatil account so I flew to Sydney and presented to about 15 people,” he said.
“I walked out and called the boys and said I thought this went really well.”
‘Really well’ turned out to be an understatement. The crew was employed to roll out the massive Colour Your Summer campaign in Sydney and in Melbourne -- and then the jobs just started rolling in.
“It was kind of a massive, ‘we can do this’,” he said. “We moved on to a Nike campaign, a Bank of Melbourne and Vans campaign and now our list of clients is crazy. We launched with Coke in December 2014 and so really we were only operating in 2015.
“The momentum gathered that much that by August we were painting 3-5 murals per week for massive international brands and we have stayed that consistent until now. Our sites are booked out six months in advance and it’s just crazy-exciting and crazy-busy.”
How do they do it?
A client either brings a design to Apparition Media or asks the team to create one for them. The finished design is printed on hundreds of metres of sheets of paper with holes that, when attached to the work site, are traced over with chalk so the artists knows where the lines are.
Depending on the size of the artwork, it can take two to 500 hours and between 30 and 250 litres of house paint are used. Hunter says it’s such a major outlay that they relied heavily on sponsorship from Dulux.
“Without that sponsorship back in the dark days if we had to cover the cost of all that paint, there’s no way we would have survived,” he said.
“Some of our sites are 150sqm and sometimes we have to go over them twice.”
The team employs 12 artists with the team expanding as the business is set to open this month in Sydney. The artists have been recruited through Instagram, galleries and referrals, and they all take turns to manage projects.
“I think the coolest part of our business is we employ artists to paint full time and we pay them really well,” he said. “So these guys who would usually be pouring coffees or beers and doing their art on the side are now getting paid full time to be artists.”
Where do they do it?
Apparition Media identifies prominent sides of buildings and negotiates a lease agreement with the owner of the building and applies for permission to use it for promotional purposes from the relevant Council.
Hunter says there has been some very positive responses about their handpainted approach to advertising. They got a permit for a space near Melbourne Central under the proviso that it only ever be hand-painted.
“It’s really cool that we are getting that respect and Melbourne City Council are understanding the value of it and underpinning what we do and how much people are appreciating it,” he said.
Why is the concept working?
Hunter says the business has struck a chord with brands because it’s something cool, different and retro in an age where everything has to be online.
“In the digital age where everyone has moved that way to fast-paced media, and there is so much of it trying to grab your attention that to stop and sit and stand still and actually watch something be created is what has been so successful,” he said.
But the team gets its fair share of digital love, with photos of the artworks shared widely on Instagram and their videos going viral too.
“We have thrown it back to old school and kept this authenticity, this intangibility about it, but still sort of moulded into a digital age where this content can be shared and can be used by our clients.”
Authenticity is the key, even though the artworks are paid for by huge companies with equally large marketing budgets.
“We love and appreciate and adore street art and Australia, and Melbourne in particular, has some of the best street artists in the world,” he said. “We are very deliberate that we don’t play in that space. We are a signwriting company.
“We are able to bring that beauty and that authenticity into the advertising space -- which is a difficult area to use those words with. I think as a whole it created awareness around art.”
And he said people on the street love watching it unfold as well.
“People walking by get engrossed in the process and watching people sit there and hand-paint,” he said. “Something really beautiful about it is watching someone sit there and create something. For me, one of the most rewarding is if I am working onsite are the comments you hear as people walk past like ‘did you see that?’, ‘Those guys are talented’ or ‘that’s so cool’.
“It’s that positive reaffirmation that what we are doing is impacting upon people, that’s rewarding for us.”