Postering Public Space: Can DIY Poster Pirates Reclaim Your Downtown?
by Emily Pohl-Weary
I love posters, billboards, murals and graffiti. You can learn
a lot about a city from the art plastered on its walls, hydro
poles and construction hoarding. They're speedy introductions
to the political issues and cultural activities that litter the
urban core, and a great way to find out about concerts, movie
nights, political actions, forums and discussions. Walking around,
I always stop to look at crusty wads of paper peeling off telephone
poles. I deliberately take back alleys rather than main streets,
and stop to examine hastily scrawled statements like "The
revolution will not be sponsored by Murad" scrawled above
an exploding television set.
If you're ever exploring a new city and want to know about a
neighborhood, use the street art as your barometer. It's free.
It reveals a great deal about contentious socio-political conflicts.
And there's nothing coming between you and the artist - no curator
or editor to mediate with the aim of maximizing market and/or
In our sales-driven society, where billboards and advertisements
overwhelm us and even encroach on our private space, public art
plays an important function. Poster art provides a haven for consumption-weary
minds, a reminder that not every source of public expression has
to involve buying and selling. For example, the Murad graffiti
was referring to a Toronto advertising company that hires graffiti
artists to paint ads. While the products of marketing can often
be beautiful or stimulating, behind the glitzy facade lurks the
bear trap of product. True, some free posters may contain an overt
message; nevertheless, the motivation behind plastering images,
poems, stories and manifestos on telephone poles around the city
is never as simple as getting you to buy the latest fragrance.
So why do people hit the streets of their hometowns armed with
nothing but a staple gun and a stack of obscure photographs, art
posters or short stories? As part of a group called the Science
Friction Action Heroes, I poster neighbourhoods around Toronto
with utopic and dystopic fictional visions of the future. Myself
and other local radical writers including Nalo Hopkinson, Renee
North, Jim Munroe and Dave Wonderbread have all taken part in
the Action Heroes' poster campaigns.
We tackle issues like post-gentrification life in Kensington
Market, rabid consumerism on Queen Street West and the corporatization
of the University of Toronto. Every poster series has a targeted
theme, and we each contribute a one-page piece of poster art.
Our contributions are nicely laid out and photocopied onto brightly
coloured paper. The series of fictional future visions go up in
a specific part of the city.
Each of the Action Heroes has a completely different writing
style and motivation. However, what we have in common is the desire
to make explicit the correlation between science fiction (which
is often highly surreal) and its (highly real) political context.
According to a flyer which writer Munroe created to accompany
the poster series, our actions "bring together radical politics
and science fiction to form a new breed of activism". He
continues his description of the group on his website (nomediakings.org)
"The difference between a creative visionary and a political
visionary is smaller than you think. For every 1984 that
shows us the horror of governmental control, there's a Mad
Max that scares the straights off lawlessness. Speculative
writing isn't inherently leftleaning or anarchist. But people
who are disenfranchised by the status quo are much more likely
to ask 'What if...?' "
The Action Heroes learned quickly that it's most effective to
poster late at night, in order to avoid nasty encounters with
shop owners. We always work in pairs, and carry only the flyers,
paste made out of flour and water (for the flat surfaces) and
staple guns (for the wooden telephone poles and hoarding), because
anything else gets heavy after you've been postering for a few
Keep your eyes open, because the Action Heroes are certainly
not the only group involved in poster art in Canada. During the
fall of 1999, a group of people who are all named Bill, William
or Will met together in Toronto. Bill Meslin ([email protected]), one
of the organizers, commented on the group's motivation: "What
about the little Bills? What about average Bills like me? We want
to be represented in public space on an equal footing with corporate
In response, they created the Posted Bills series. On behalf
of "all repressed Bills in our society", they selected
the top 25 Bills, found images of their faces, photocopied them
onto 11" by 17" fluorescent colour stock and posted
them wherever they saw signs that said Post No Bills. Meslin notes:
"Some of the Bills who made it into the poster series were
Bill Clinton, Bill Bixby, Bill the Cat, Mr Bill, William Shakespeare,
William Penn, William Shatner, Billy Madison, Billy Idol, Bill
Cosby, Bill Evans, and my roommate Biljana."
The group of Toronto poster artists decided it was unfair that
corporations were allowed to put up large billboards and bills
- in the name of promoting their products - whereas for most people,
postering public space was illegal. Meslin comments, "Some
of our posters were gone very quickly, but some stayed up for
more than a month. One in particular, a Bill Gates, was up on
hoarding near St Michael's Hospital forever. The hospital was
renovating its lobby, so they had put up Post No Bills signs everywhere."
"On Adelaide Street, we put up a bunch in front of a bar
that was closed. Suddenly this guy came storming out of the bar
that was right next door. I was worried because I thought he was
going to get mad. Instead, he invited us in and gave us free drinks.
It turned out to be the opposite. He hated his neighbour and wanted
us to put up more posters."
During the summer of 1998, Toronto's South Asian Visual Arts
Collective (SAVAC) ran a highly visible and educational poster
art series called "Taking It To The Streets". SAVAC
is a non-profit organization mandated to promote and facilitate
the expression of contemporary visual arts by artists of South
Asian descent. The three posters they used were: "Working
for Change" by Kulwinder Bajar, Deena Ladd and Tanveer Sharief,
which confronted cutbacks to culture, health care and social services;
"It Takes Courage to Imagine Peace" by Beeta M. Jafari
and Tanya Lena, which featured poetry by Siva Ramoni about the
15-year long Sri Lankan civil war; and "Gay and Lesbian Human
Rights" by Grace Channer, Melanie Liwanag Aguila and Courtnay
McFarlane. SAVAC plastered the downtown core with their posters
- and the haunting images were emblazoned in our collective memory.
Last year in Ottawa a small group of zinesters posted a series
of stories and images in the Bank Street and Elgin Street area
of the city under the moniker Violence Against Windows. This public
manifestation of the kind of writing and art found in zines seems
to be a natural extension of the zine form. It's accessible, cheap
(free), directly disseminated by the artists and easy to produce.
Jeffrey Otaku, who makes the popular Ottawa zine Otaku,
says of the series: "I put up posters of a story from the
fourth issue of my zine. I've also done some hand cut stencils
of birds, spray painted at 4 am. Some of my friends from photography
school wall-papered the city with photos labeled 'violence against
windows', which was our weird code name. We only did this on a
Other than poster art, there has been an explosion of public
art across Canada, such as Toronto's numerous alleys filled with
a mixture of hip hop graffiti and fine art, Halifax's public art
wall (as documented in an article by Michelle Irving in Broken
Pencil issue #10), Vancouver's Adbusters-inspired "subvertisements",
graffiti proclaiming "Viva Quebec Libre", and flat-paint
art murals along Vancouver's Commercial Drive. In Ottawa, the
English Department of Carleton University creates the Graffito
Poetry Poster, a series of posters with poems on them that
get plastered around the city.
In the US, there are such public poster luminaries as San Diego
skateboarder/Rhode Island School of Design graduate Shepard Fairey,
who has been putting up posters and stickers across the US which
say "Obey Giant", and show the face of Andre the Giant.
He's been doing it for 10 years. Fairey says about the series,
"I was a skateboarder, so I thought it would be funny to
make my skate clique mascot something that was so stupid. At the
beginning it was all just about the repetition of the stickers,
so people would say 'What is this? Why is it everywhere?' It's
amazing how much it just freaks people out that I'm not working
for somebody. When the cops bust me and want me to give them the
name of my employer, they never believe that I'm actually spending
my own money."
Artists who choose to display their work for temporary public
consumption are rejecting the idea that fine art and literature
are elitist creative forms, separate from our everyday experiences.
At the same time, putting up transitional images and texts disassociated
from the market place, and not protected by the sanctity of the
gallery, museum, or publishing house, can be seen as purposefully
obscure and disconnected - even, as Fairey repeatedly discovered,
dangerous. Why are you doing this? Who is it for? Who is paying
you? How to explain that your motivation is simply to satisfy
the post-industrial, egotistical desire to be seen and heard by
Jeffrey Otaku commenting on his Violence Against Windows series,
puts it this way: "It was part self promotion, part delete
the elitism and part willful obscurity that goes hand in hand
with making a zine. I wanted to make my writing available to anyone
who had the time to stop and read it on a pole. They only stayed
up for a few days, but I admit that February in Ottawa isn't the
best time to poster."
The act of making public art in an Ottawa winter conveys the
way obscurity and a sense of futility can reveal moments of breathtaking
clarity and beauty.
In the zine-like artists' book that SAVAC created to document
their Taking It to the Streets series, writer Kevin D*Souza comments:
"It is such a change to see posters on the street that not
only speak of humanity but that shine creatively and beautifully,
in a very unique way."
Until there is a paradigm shift in our understanding of what
public space is, it will be ads not art that continue to dominate
our social spaces. Advertisements are bright, big, in your face,
and invading your mental environment. You can't take a walk to
the store without dodging them, and often they're in your most
private spaces: bathrooms, paperback novels, even shaved onto
the back of people's heads.
Oddly enough, the resources of our social structure don't work
to rein in advertising and encourage community discussion; in
fact, the opposite is true. As a society, we are committed to
keeping individuals from countering the ads, and having their
say on the streets. Thus Bill Meslin notes: "This is a double
standard that should not be accepted. We didn't think it was fair
that there were places where people aren't allowed to post bills.
We think there are a lot of bills worth posting. As a Bill, obviously
it's a very important issue for me. Corporations are allowed to
post their bills anywhere they want. The police made us take ours
down (note that neither of the officers' names were Bill) or they
would charge us."
Does public art really compete with the bombardment of marketing
materials? As an Action Hero, I feel it's my duty to put up poster
art that provides a respite for those people who want to look
anywhere but the ads.
Jeffrey Otaku, on the other hand, comments: "I think there's
no way my 500-word hand written story poster could compete with
a huge billboard that has only five words of text."
Bill Meslin disagrees: "We like to think our bills compete
with the corporate billboards. Of course, our bills are a lot
smaller, and the amount of public space is limited. So much of
it is saturated with corporate propaganda. It's a war, and the
booty is space. We wouldn't have to reclaim it if it weren't already
taken from us. I'd hate to think that people see ads as untouchable,
that they see a space taken up by an ad as a space where they
can't put their posters."
Public postering is an evolving medium of social dissent, community
communication and grassroots promotion. Since the Posted Bills
series, Bill Meslin has gone on to other things, including billboard
liberation (altering corporate ads), the Reclaim the Streets theatre
installations which use people as an artistic medium, sunflower
installations (anonymously placing potted sunflowers on bus shelters
and phone booths). He also turns billboards off by flicking a
switch on the back of them, an action which does no physical damage
to them whatsoever.
Jeff Otaku, too, has found that public postering has lead to
a desire to explore different possibilities of public art. He
says: "I think the definition of public art should be expanded
to include things like skateboarding, break dancing, graffiti,
drawings in the snow, weird conversations, music coming from windows
and cars etc. Some of the activities listed I have participated
Zinesters like to have complete control over their work. They
also want their writing to be accessible and relevant. The Science
Friction Action Heroes' postering campaign seemed to be the perfect
forum for me to disseminate my opinions about local political
issues cheaply and effectively. Posters and public art are ways
for independent artists to interact directly with the people who
live in their neighborhood. It changes the perception of urban
space into something that is shaped and improved by the people
who live there, and turns skyscrapers and concrete into a home
that visitors quickly identify as a unique and individual community.
As Kym Pruesse writes in the recently released book of essays
Accidental Audience: Urban Interventions by Artists, "The
works are not advertised...They come into our lives by circumstance,
accidentally encountered without brackets. Often we pass right
by them; other times they penetrate the surface of our consciousness,
puzzling our day, or surprising our routine."
Is there a little bit of Action Hero in all of us? As Jeff points
out, one time or another, we've all dabbled in spectacle, in turning
the personal and private into the public and anonymous. Perhaps
we're closer than we think -- just a staple gun and a stack of
posters away -- to reinventing main street and, in the process,
Emily Pohl-Weary <[email protected]> is a Toronto
media activist, writer, translator and managing editor of Broken
from broken pencil 13