3 min

Paint the town

Imagine if you will. I was 19 years old and it was my first trip abroad. The cities of Europe in which I found myself wandering were at the time covered in posters of Sharleen Spiteri, lead singer of the Scottish band Texas. The group had recently released its Greatest Hits album.

The song “Say What You Want” would become the anthem for my European journey — and the ubiquitous posters of Spiteri ensured I eventually bought the CD. I think it was a Christmas gift to myself in Prague, where that year I spent Dec 25 at a Janis Joplin revival concert (yes, it was terrible). I had seen posters advertising the show, and the venue was one of the only places open.
I remember admiring the abundance of posters on the streets of Europe. I’ve been known to trip and fall flat on my face because my eyes are so often glued to splashy posters that decorate street poles and construction hoarding. In a foreign city it is typically one of the only (and certainly easiest) ways for a tourist to find out what’s going on. I have been to innumerable events in unfamiliar cities only because I learned of them from street posters — this includes everything from operas to raves to gay sauna parties.
I think street posters, public art and graffiti are the very things that help separate a big city from a provincial outpost where nothing happens. They are a visual representation of a city’s creativity — a glimpse into the inspiring (and sometimes try-hard) events going on behind doors manned by people in the know. They are also a representation of democracy at work — a tangible example of the diversity of views and opinions in a thriving urban metropolis. In addition, as I’ve noted above, commercial posters compel us to buy things.
In Toronto, street posters of all shapes and sizes have become a divisive topic, pitting those who think of them as I do against those who see them as clutter — the effluent of the city’s undesirables. Of course, there are more than two sides to this story, which is why we’ve decided to explore the topic further in this issue.
While we at Xtra champion the right to community expression and remember well the role posters played in the fight for gay rights and AIDS awareness, our own newspaper boxes are also the target of rampant street postering. Just as the City of Toronto pays to remove old posters, we, too, pay to clean them from our boxes. But does this mean all postering should be relegated to a handful of notice boards?

In some parts of the city, councillors and neighbourhood business associations are attempting to solve the postering “problem” by making public space unusable. In our feature on the topic, Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says residents are frustrated and don’t see notice boards because there is too much on our streets competing for attention. I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. To many the issue seems like another attempt to sell a political decision as an aesthetic one. In an effort to present a “clean” face, the city wants to vanquish all graffiti and clear street poles of posters. Democracy is ugly to look at; some find white walls much more appealing.

But what about the corporate advertising that assaults our eyes the moment we leave our homes? Do policymakers and neighbourhood business types make a distinction between public expression and corporate interests? The reason postering has turned into such a problem is because it has become a business — rather than banning all postering, couldn’t city officials come up with a way to curb commercial postering and take legal action against those whose posters don’t include the name and address of a responsible party?
These are matters that require resourcefulness and creativity — skills Toronto officials are, sadly, too often without. The squeakiest wheels have the ear of the city and business associations, but maybe it is time they stop listening and pause to see what other flourishing cities are doing. Removing things when loud people complain — whether it is bike lanes, benches, parks or posters — is not always the best long-term solution for a healthy city.