Rod and Donna Hennig, Hennig Mural Design,
Seattle, Washington Murals brighten the Northwest
By Robert Simpson
, Washington State’s busiest Interstate Highway, and you are unable to see the town of Bellevue’s water tower dominating the skyline, then partners Rod and Donna Hennig have done their job. Since 1986, Seattle, Washington-based Hennig Mural Design has been designing and painting graphics that camouflage large storage tanks — the latest in a long list of surfaces that Hennig’s murals cover.
Donna Hennig began her career during the heady 1960’s, and like most artists was quick to realize that necessity was the mother of invention.
“I discovered my eight-month-old son eating the paper mache ornaments hung on the wall of his bedroom and I decided to toss out the ornaments and paint a mural on the wall. Neighbors soon began asking how much I would charge to paint a mural on their walls,” says Hennig.
But another ten years passed before Hennig pursued her first paying job painting murals. “I was working in a local dentist’s office when a colleague who specialized in pediatric dentistry asked if I knew anyone who could paint children’s murals on his office walls,” says Hennig.
Hennig was not yet convinced she could depend on mural work for financial security-especially as a single mother raising three boys and continued to work full time and paint part-time for another eight years.
Then she met Rod, her husband and current business partner in 1978 and he convinced her to pursue her art full time.
In 1978, Rod and Donna’s started a company named Transfer Graphics and began designing and distributing do-it-yourself mural kits. The company was an overnight success and reproductions of Donna’s wall-sized rainbow murals began appearing in children’s nurseries throughout the Northwest.
Another opportunity the Hennigs recognized and capitalized on was the school mural market. Early recognition of lucrative markets such as schools murals has pushed Hennig Mural Design to become the number one mural designers in Washington State. Since 1986, Donna has designed and painted over 500 murals in schools as well as several hundred commercial and privately funded projects.
Out of this experience came the pair’s latest venture — designing and painting murals on large storage tanks. This venture began in 1986 when Hennig was asked to design and paint graphics on a water tower in Bellevue, Washington.
Since the Bellevue tower was surrounded by trees Donna decided to continue the tree line to camouflage the tank. The camouflaged tank became an instant hit and by the end of 2001 Hennig Mural Design will have completed their 24th tower — most designed to camouflage the tank.
“Our tanks in the Northwest have featured tree designs, mountains, and streams. We have also painted three towers in California that feature desert-type scenes and palm trees,” says Hennig.
But painting murals on large industrial tanks is not without challenges.
On the first few jobs the Hennigs managed the whole process. They hired a contractor to strip, power wash and apply the first coat of paint on the tank. Next, an artist was hired who installed the scaffolding and painted the mural, while Donna supervised the work.
“We did the job from start to finish, but we soon realized if we were going to do this type of work we would have to make the process affordable,” says Rod Hennig. “Now on most of the tanks we specify the colors and color bands and then come in later and extend the colors up and down to create the mural. This significantly streamlines the process and we aren’t applying good paint over the top of good paint. We take off from the color that is left for us.”
But painting the tank is the easiest part of the process. Prior to beginning any tank project there is a long list of regulatory and bureaucratic necessities. “The biggest challenge with this type of work is negotiating with the water districts. It’s not that they are contentious, but there are several layers of bureaucracy to work with. First there’s the issue of getting the design approved by the management of the water district, then the whole process needs to be re-approved by the Board of Directors. These projects have very long lead times and often painting is the easiest part.”
Another challenge the Hennigs faced was learning to work together as partners in the company.
“It has its ups and downs, but for the most part we make the perfect business team — Rod has the business brain and I have the creative brain,” says Hennig. “He is methodical, thorough and tenacious and I’m creative.”
“The business relationship works well because there is little overlap in areas. Donna does the design and supervising the artwork, while I do more the technical things like marketing and finance,” says Rod Hennig, who quit his job to work full-time with the company five years ago.
The company has experienced an annual growth of 15 percent and currently receives contracts for three to five tanks per year. Both Rod and Donna anticipate the number of projects will increase in the near future. “We put a big push on tanks beginning last year and anticipate that many of the projects we have in the works will come to fruition in two or three years from now,” says Rod Hennig.
Camouflaged tanks are gaining popularity in regions where urban sprawl has pushed the once hidden tank into a community’s back yard. Hennig points to the California example where pressure from the local community had resulted in the Los Angeles Water Department deciding to camouflage the tank. The Los Angeles Water Department was unable to complete the painting themselves and contracted the work to Hennig Mural Design. When the project was complete even the skeptics were convinced. “The tank was located adjacent the LA Planetarium in a high traffic area with walkers, joggers and bikers. Each day as we neared completion, the people in the neighborhood became more enthusiastic,” says Hennig.
Another motivation for water districts to paint their tanks is to eliminate graffiti. So far, all of the tanks painted with a Hennig Mural have remained graffiti free.
The latest project for the company is their largest. A 10-million gallon, 600 foot circumference tank located in Alaska. The project has several challenges. As with all of the tank projects, finding artists who can work in the large scale is a challenge. The Hennigs have hired artists from across the United States on various projects and are constantly seeking new talent. Another concern on the Alaska project is the weather — there is only a four-week time frame where the painting crew can be guaranteed dry weather.
Hennig Mural Design has established a unique niche in the marketplace. Even today, nearly 12 years later, they don’t know of any other companies that specialize in mural design and painting for large industrial tanks. If there are other artists who specialize in this type of work the Hennig’s want to hear from them.