Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign....
True Story: I was near the end of my presentation on Turf War regarding the blurring line between street art versus outdoor advertising. I had just stated: "No one but graffiti artists, with their cavalier/cowboy attitudes towards their own health and safety, has ever been hurt by graffiti ; however, distracting billboards along highways are proven safety concerns...." when everyone burst out laughing. Unbeknownst to me, a sign had fallen and killed someone that very morning.
I've read that you call tell what a culture values by the things they have erected super-sized. Egypt had its deities, Babylon had its hanging gardens, and North America luves 'em's billboards. I find it odd when outraged Torontonians and property owners are vehemently against graffiti yet soft on ad creep. Perhaps people tolerate the signs in the thinking that the city benefits financially in the long run or perhaps they value them simply for the information vehicles that they are. Whatever the case, some are truly puzzled at the efforts of those who take issue with corporate vandalism such as the volunteers at Illegal Signs and the Billboard Battalion arm of the Toronto Public Space Committee.
Safety issues, the pursuit of justice and all other quibbles aside, the heart of the public space debate on both sides is really who gets to say what, where and how. When I talk to property owners regarding so-called graffiti damage, and deflate their surface arguments, the issue boils down to "what gives graffiti artists the right to express themselves on someone else's property?" (although if a billboard company was to call them up and say, "we want to bolt large holes through your roof to erect an illegal heavy object that will stress your building's bearing load", owners will often be quick to let go of these preciously held tenets and invariably respond with "cha-Ching!"). Determining who has the right to say what on one's property is a valid point I'll grant them despite of what some of my street artist acquaintances might have to say on the matter, as it is the exact same point public space activists are making in regards to advertising in public space (our property). Since advertising in this city is so pervasive their question then becomes, "who gives corporations the right to drown out everyone else's voice?"
It's all a matter of what you value.
Photo credit: on'tol'o'gy
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