Water tower painters are making the rounds

Jimmy Kelly and his wife Cathy were hanging out about 100 feet above Newberry on the downtown water tower at high noon in 90-degree heat.

Dressed in bright yellow vests and hard hats, they’re hard to miss. But often, Jimmy says he and his wife usually sneak into town, paint a tower, and locals don’t even notice until they spot the bright colors weeks later.

This is the second water tower in town needing a new logo and paint job that the couple from Conehatta, Mississippi, has been hired by the City of Newberry to do. The first tower located at the sports complex on the other side of town was finished in March.

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The couple started their company Industrial and Commercial, LLC in 2001 and average one big paint job every month.

Jimmy used to paint the insides and outsides of water towers and then decided he was interested in doing the logos on the outside.

Cathy serves as his helper and is the office manager.

“I fill in wherever I have to,” she says.

The first step, Jimmy says, is to go up the tower and pressure wash it to prepare for painting.

He climbs up the inside of the tower carrying a rope and pops out the top of the tower, threads the rope through a bracket, then lets it fall down on each side. Then he attaches the lines to the 10-foot painting platform.

With dual motors, the team raises the platform to the perfect spot that lines up to where the work area will be.

Once the rigging is set, Jimmy says the hard part of the job is done.

From the Fort Lauderdale City Tower to the Hollywood, Florida, tower covered in sea turtles, the team says they do a lot of work in south Florida. But they also travel to Ohio, Texas, and anywhere within 1,000 miles from home.

Working on rounded surfaces is a challenge, Jimmy says, and people assume he freehand draws his projects. But Jimmy says he used a grid system that takes the round shape of the surface into consideration and he works off of a blueprint filled with measurements.

After serving in the United State Army and working as a mechanic, Jimmy started working with a mentor to learn the “water tanking” business. He studied art at the Art Institute in Minneapolis and has been drawing since he was a kid. He did his first tower logo in 1992 and then freelanced on the side in logo design.

He finally broke away and started his own business.

“I’ve always wanted to make a living painting water towers,” he said. 

The Kellys work in Florida most of the winter, when surfaces up north get too cold to paint.

Jimmy says he is most proud of the intricate paint job design he transferred onto the City of Fort Lauderdale tower.

“When you look at that tank and you see the design on that tank, every color on that is an exact match to the paint they wanted,” he said. 

The couple says they enjoy traveling to towns and the unique point of view they get from hanging out above towns for jobs that last weeks at a time: “Just like those window washers in New York City.”

Jimmy Kelly, water tower painter

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