This post was last edited by at 2019-06-05

A bizarre art form invented to promote Lucky Strike cigarettes could bounce back in the Instagram age, or it could die with the few people who know how to do it.


The Bethpage Airshow takes place every year on Jones Beach, which is a barrier island loosely attached to Wantagh, New York, a Long Island town that used to be called Jerusalem. In advance of my visit, I confirmed that Larry Arken, one of fewer than 10 skywriters left working in the entire United States, would be performing with the Geico skytyping team that day, and orchestrating a marriage proposal for a couple who would be watching from the beach. I will explain what skytyping is soon.

Even though the Bethpage Airshow website (which also emphasized that all attendees must wear sunscreen) warned that the event was likely to attract 200,000 people, forcing the police to shut down access to Jones Beach, I was able to taxi to the front of the park and enter airplane land, which had a lot of people in it, but not 200,000 people.

Nathan was a self-described “ramp rat,” a kid who hangs around at airports. When he turned 18, he took over for his father, helping the Olivers transport their planes. For years, he absorbed everything he could about skywriting, and one day they had an accidental double booking.

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“They said, basically, go out and practice because tomorrow you’re going to skywrite over top of the Atlanta Motor Speedway,” he tells me. “It was truly a trial by fire. I went down to a southern part of Atlanta where nobody was around, put up a few letters real quick, and was like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ Next thing I know, I was at the speedway, skywriting for 100,000 people.”

The one thing they didn’t tell him was that it was going to feel like “a roller coaster ride that lasts 45 minutes and you can’t get off.” In a single plane skywriting situation, the plane is climbing, turning, diving, and the pilot is looking at everything upside down and backward, trying to turn the smoke on and off at the right time to make the letter. Hammond sings the Scooby-Doo theme song during flight to keep him in the right rhythm and make sure the letters are all the same size. That first flight, he was miserable and nauseated, but made it through, and now he’s arguably the most famous skywriter in the country. (He goes by Ghost Writer.)

Of course, what really sustains skywriting is advertising money. And the novelty of an Instagrammable outdoor spectacle is something brands crave now more than ever. Now that consumers are inundated constantly by advertising in their various feeds, in the fringes of every website they look at, in magazines, podcasts, street corners, benches, buses, children’s YouTube channels, and so on, the only way to stand out is to be a small miracle.

“I LIKE TO GO UP THERE AND BE THE UNKNOWN SCRIBE”


This is the same angle that Paul Lindahl, founder of the Brooklyn-based mural painting company Colossal, is currently working, as he readily told the New York Timeslast year. His clients include companies as big as Adidas, Coca-Cola, and Spotify, and all his advertisements are hand-painted on enormous scale by a team of highly trained “wall dogs.”

“Like other novelties of the post-hipster age, the source of value is not just the finished work, but also the tedious and rarefied conditions of its production,” reporter Jamie Lauren Keiles explained in the Times piece. “The spectacle of painters hanging from a wall is as much Colossal’s product as the murals themselves.”

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