Take a walk in our city and I guarantee you’ll see street art. Stickers, murals, spray paint, wheat pastes, and even crochet: it’s almost everywhere. And when some of it disappeared under a foreign ad campaign earlier this month, Philly responded in force.
British oat milk company Minor Figures pasted their ads over enormous swaths of street art space across the city, covering the work of dozens of artists. Streets Dept’s Conrad Benner (documenting art on Philadelphia’s streets since 2011) first brought wide attention to the incident on April 11 via social media—noting that one covered mural carried a Covid-19 public-health message—galvanizing thousands of disapproving comments.
“A massive error”
On April 13, Minor Figures posted an apology of sorts on Instagram, calling the misplaced wheat pastes “a massive error,” but blaming it on “local Philly artists” the company claimed to have hired for the campaign, and iterating the company’s location overseas as the reason it was slow to understand the outrage, and address it.
The company’s response was broadly criticized for its dismissive and casual tone, contradictory statements, and personal attacks. When I reached CEO Stuart Forsyth by email, he called the situation “a street activation that has gone wrong,” and admitted that “the tone was off” in the company’s initial apology. (Minor Figures followed up with Instagram posts on April 17 and 21 promising community donations and changes to future ad campaigns.)
However, it’s not really the corporation that matters, or even their bad PR. It’s the impact it had on artists and observers. The question remains: are ads street art? Who belongs in this space, and what made this different from other ad campaigns?
Anything goes (except ads)
In the words of Robo Q4, an artist whose diverse work often comments on phone use or splices images with Terminator-style faces, almost everyone is welcome. More specifically, he says, “Artists and muralists, writers and taggers, sticker-slappers and activists. Advertising and the far right do not belong in this space.”
Every artist I spoke to, through a mix of emails and DMs, agreed: even though ads can appropriate the street-art medium (and may be avoiding taxes while doing so), it doesn’t mean they belong. After all, if there was a framed ad for Pepsi in the Louvre, it would be inappropriate no matter how beautifully it was painted or how gilded the frame.
“Ads shouldn’t be in the spaces, period. Part of why I do what I do is, yes, my own artistic expression but also to take back public space from ads,” explained Praise Dobler, whose art illustrates reverent hero-worship of NFL guard Conrad Dobler. “They’re already everywhere. Then [we] have a company come out and put even more ads up over decidedly anti-ad spaces.”
A space for the people
Hysterical Men, known for her political art, much of which highlights sexist language and stereotypes applied to members of Congress, believes it’s time to talk about “who the public space belongs to and what we (as the public) want to see there.”
“The public space belongs to the people. I don't think anyone would choose to just see a bunch of lame ads everywhere when they could have something that's actually interesting or thought-provoking to look at,” she continued. Art gives us something: “inspiration, beauty, a political message, solidary, a new perspective, etc., but ads just feel like they are just there to take.”
Respect the work
Hysterical Men also noted that the scope of the ads (which in some spots covered areas roughly six feet tall and fifteen feet wide, hiding dozens of works on a single wall) were part of what made this campaign feel different to her. Usually if art is erased, it’s “one or two” pieces, rather than a large number covered by a single company all at once. While her work has been pasted over before, in those cases, the intruding material was removable, and her work remained unharmed beneath it—not the case with the Minor Figures campaign. “There are ways to be respectful or even ways to just not be a jerk,” she concluded.
“Even though there are no rules in the street art, there is RESPECT for others' work. Which Minor Figures FAILED to show the streets of Philadelphia,” added Lâmi Tolla, an artist whose work was not affected by the campaign, but who was one of the many to quickly respond by creating new art over the ads.
Artists crew up
I love street art—it’s my favorite type of art for many reasons, but especially because it’s so diverse and accessible. The barriers to entry for both artist and audience are much lower than other forms of art, and it’s almost alive: the streets change like a living, growing thing. It’s a form of community, self-expression, and a temperature check on what’s inspiring and motivating artists around the city. And based on the response to the ill-fated oat milk campaign, I’m not alone in my enjoyment. Thousands of others value the beautiful works that pepper our streets.
Street art stands out because it’s a medium full of artists of color and poor and working-class artists, a medium that prioritizes free public access—but it’s often undervalued and deemed disposable for those same qualities. If there’s a benefit of the great Philly oat milk debacle, it’s how it brought the community together and prompted us to reflect on the value of street art, opening an important discussion. As Praise Dobler said, “it was fun to crew up the next day with other artists and DESTROY those ads. It brought the city together to hate on them.”
Special thanks to Anti Flower Show Movement, who facilitated artist interviews for this piece. Full statements from Robo Q4, Hysterical Men, Lâmi Tolla, and Praise Dobler are available here.
Image description: A photo of a colorful mural on a city street that was covered over with large, white ads featuring a line drawing of a woman wearing sunglasses. The words "minor figures oat milk" is printed beneath the linedrawing. These ads have been partially covered with a wide variety of new wheat pastes, stickers, and graffiti.
Image description: A close-up photo of artwork by Praise Dobler covering a Minor Figures ad. The artwork is a cartoon of man’s mustached face featuring red eyes and raised brows that seem to glare directly at the viewer. The words “For shame vile ad-mongers! are written above the face, and "Smite all blasphemers!” appears below.