Reading the Signs on the Wall:
Unsanctioned Images in the Public Sphere
Part II

Tricia Irish, Vancouver island University
March 10, 2005
Visual Culture Conference
Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas

[Municipal Bylaw Research – Summer 2004]

Our survey of municipal legislation was initiated in part because of the effects of “Graffiti Bylaws” enacted in Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia, that are enforcing clean-up of graffiti on private property within a specified time period, 10 days in Vancouver and 14 in Victoria. If cleanup is not done within that time, the cities can and have charged back the costs of cleaning up the property to the property owner.

In addition to this, Vancouver has created a “spread the paint program” that provides free paint to business owners as well as established a mural program that helps business owners and communities put up murals in high target area. They have been spending three to four hundred thousand dollars a year to remove posters from utility poles, and a great deal of money has been spent on finding a solution to coat off-limit poles to prevent the unsightly mess caused by removing posters that have been glued to them (phone interview).

In Victoria, posters are well contained by poster collars, which along with the new graffiti bylaw, has created a downtown aesthetic that enhances its visibility as a tourist destination and historic town. Meanwhile a legal graffiti park has been developing outside of the downtown area somewhat legitimized by the presence of an outdoor art gallery.

We wondered what the rationale was for these moves, and if it was embedded in the legislative language that allowed for cities to regulate these phenomena. We also pondered the amount of money spent on developing solutions and controlling the presence of these signs where they were not allowed. We asked how were these phenomena perceived by legislators? We sought to see if the language being used in the municipal regulations to prohibit or regulate unsanctioned graffiti and posters would give us a clue.

The survey took place last summer by contacting municipal officials and searching the websites of several large, middle-sized and small municipalities across Canada looking for bylaws that address posters and graffiti management. We gathered information from 29 municipalities including the largest and capital cities.

This study revealed that there is a diverse approach to regulating these phenomena -- where it is being regulated (small and mid-size cities often don’t have as serious a problem with these issues), but there are a few trends. First, not many cities have municipal regulations specifically designed for these issues as they do in Victoria and Vancouver. Two cities in the interior have “Poster Bylaws,” and no other Graffiti or Poster bylaws were found (although Calgary, Alberta did have one but has since replaced it with a Community Standards Bylaw which I will refer to again below).


The City of Nanaimo's Property Maintenance Bylaw is
described on the City's website as a bylaw that
"...prohibits the accumulation of filth, discarded materials,
rubbish and other noxious or offensive matter on property."


The study also revealed that graffiti as a crime of vandalism in Canada’s criminal code underlies much of the legislation – as well as its connection to the increasing presence of crime as an attraction for more (as per the broken window theory of crime that sees areas of neglect contributing to more of the same). However, it is not the crime of vandalism that municipalities enforce, that is enforced by the police. Instead, municipalities use property maintenance standards to enforce removal of graffiti on private property within city boundaries because graffiti is “unsightly” and detrimental to the standards that have been established. Graffiti does not need to be clearly stated in these bylaws, a simple reference to “unsightliness” will suffice to include graffiti. As one city bylaw enforcement officer advises (Regina), their "legal department has maintained that graffiti on private property would be deemed as untidiness or unsightliness and our Division would enforce the owners to remove the graffiti."

The connection between community welfare and graffiti becomes more clear in Calgary’s new Community Standards Bylaw (2004), which regulates community standards in order to promote safety, health and welfare. This bylaw replaced the city’s Graffiti Bylaw, and states its purpose is “to regulate neighbourhood nuisance, safety and liveability issues” including graffiti abatement, property maintenance, outdoor burning, charitable donation bins (which is a bit confusing but I assume they’re referring to untidiness or unsightliness of the bins) and the establishment of community appeal boards, in order to promote healthful living environments. In another province, Quebec, my inquiries were directed to a similar type of bylaw that promotes Public Peace and Order (Quebec City) as a basic goal for community, establishing these values, in part, by preventing these unsightly factors.

Calgary Alberta's Community Standards Bylaw:
"A bylaw respecting the safety, health and welfare of
people and protection of people and property."

These broader approaches to community well-being have been taken to the next level in the United Kingdom with the recent enactment of Anti-social Behaviour Acts in England and Scotland. These acts deal directly with graffiti as anti-social behaviour along with other symptoms of social dysfunction by establishing or strengthening combative measures, including:

  • extending the availability of electronic tagging of children;

  • strengthened penalties for litter, fly-tipping (illegal dumping of waste), graffiti and abandoned cars;

  • banning the sale of spray paint to under-16s;

  • strengthened local authorities’ powers to tackle noisy neighbours;

  • strengthening local authorities’ powers to deal with landlords who don't tackle antisocial behaviour by their tenants through a national landlord registration scheme;

  • giving the police powers to close premises where drug-dealing or other antisocial behaviour takes place and to disperse groups where there is anti-social behaviour.

It is with some concern that we see a shift in focus here from the perceived negative environment to the social behaviour that causes it because, unfortunately, the factors that cause the social behaviour do not appear to have been addressed. Instead it appears that cities believe that by removing the symptoms, the problems or roots of the phenomena can be removed as well. In contradiction to that idea, graffiti writer Celtic says, “The streets aren't any safer because the walls are clean, it just looks that way” (Art Crimes FAQ).

Posters have been viewed through a similar paradigm as city officials try to contain them to specific areas to prevent an unsightly and untidy environment. For example, the language in Victoria’s Street and Traffic bylaw states its objectives as “ensuring traffic safety and preserving the aesthetics of the City for the enhancement of its tourism and historic quality.” They are managing the sightliness of the city as well as safety issues for motorists and pedestrians.


Definition of a poster from Saskatoon's Postering Bylaw:
"Any bill, notice or sheet of paper announcing
advertising any topic, event, election, referendum or plebiscite;
but does not include any material required in
Court order or Court process.


However, postering is an important medium of social commentary that has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada. In the ruling on postering in the 1993 case Ramsden v. Peterborough (City), the judges found that the City of Peterborough’s complete ban on postering contravened one of the fundamental freedoms in the Canadian Charter of Rights and freedoms.

The judges agreed unanimously that:

… it is clear that postering on public property, including utility poles, fosters political and social decision-making and thereby furthers at least one of the values underlying S2(b) [of the Charter]: freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.

The value of expression, and the forum that postering has historically provided, were determined to be of greater value than the cost of making utility poles safe for workers, which was the underlying argument of the City in their defense. [(Interestingly, a poster ban in Seattle Washington was also overturned at the Washington State Supreme Court in 2002 (Seattle Times)].

Though cities are unable to ban postering, the court sympathized with their concerns about litter and the “visual aesthetic blight” that abandoned posters create, and suggested content-neutral ‘time, place and manner restrictions’ (City of Cambridge report) to control the where, how many, what size, length of time, and method of posting posters. To date, several Canadian cities have implemented these restrictions in their legislation, and introduced ‘poster collars’ or kiosks to contain the spread of posters.

Unfortunately, cities can still negatively downsize this forum with time, place and manner restrictions. The Toronto Public Space Campaign has challenged Toronto’s draft bylaw, which only allows for one percent of its utility poles to be used for postering. Meanwhile advocates for postering see the medium as a positive addition to the political and social life of a city. As Emily Pohl-Weary notes in her paper about poster pirates reclaiming downtown, benefits of postering include offering respite for viewers, challenging corporate takeover or competing for space with corporate interests, and providing an unmediated and “evolving medium of social dissent, community communication and grassroots promotion” (Pohl-Weary).

These issues can come into conflict with city objectives to promote themselves as healthy living environments and attract the benefits of economic investment and tourist dollars. Toronto’s “Roundtable on a Beautiful City,” for instance, advises the mayor on “strategies and actions to implement a variety of beautiful city-related actions.” (city website). While these efforts are to be applauded they need to not overlook the importance of these other potentially “unsightly” signs.

The city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s Postering Bylaw (1996) merges all concerns in its objectives. It aims to:

  • afford residents an opportunity to communicate with others in a simple and affordable way

  • improve safety for motorists and pedestrians

  • minimize visual clutter

  • prevent littering, and

  • facilitate necessary maintenance of public property

The first objective on that list is unique to the survey, and stating it as they have done works to acknowledge and balance those competing objectives. When this objective isn’t stated, those others appear to become more heavily weighted as priorities in governance. It’s easy to imagine that resentment could build towards the encroachment of, and apparent preference for, other types of signs – regulatory and commercial – that contribute to unsafe visual clutter and a negative visual aesthetic in our environment as well (such as the severely distressed billboard in Marsh’s Canadian tour). Yet these are tolerated and even endorsed because they contribute to society in some way that posters and graffiti do not. Or so it seems.


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 sociopolitical 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 grant-getting potential.

Emily Pohl-Weary, June 2000, Broken Pencil Zine
"Postering Public Space: Can DIY Poster Pirates Reclaim Your Downtown?"


If we read these signs on the wall we can see, as Emily Pohl-Weary notes, the life of the city, and there are important messages in these signs for community and city officials alike about fracture points in their community. The dialogue evidenced by the signs’ appearance is potentially a plea for attention to city social problems, a sign of resistance to over-regulation and commercialization of city space, an effort to contribute to a diminishing public sphere, an urban art movement, and a comment on the double standards that inform the cities’ bylaws.

As one graffiti writer “Krypt” tells it:

It’s about control of information. We’re putting up our own information and they can’t control it. In the tunnels, on rooftops, in abandoned buildings, next to the railroad tracks; that’s where we give shit life. We make the gray, the brown, the dirt, into something new, colorful, and ever changing” (in Walsh, unnumbered page).

This analysis of city legislation is useful to excavate the objectives of regulators and in future to contrast them more fully with signs of structural conflict such as unsanctioned posters and graffiti.


Art Crimes FAQ. Accessed February 2005.

Cambridge, Ontario Postering Bylaw Report. (or search google "City of Cambridge Postering Bylaw"). Accessed August 2004.

Myler, Don, City of Vancouver Engineering Department. Phone conversation. July 22, 2004.

Nanaimo Property Maintenance Bylaw description. Accessed July 2004.

Pohl-Weary, Emily. "Postering Public Space: Can DIY Poster Pirates Reclaim Your Downtown?" Broken Pencil Zine, June 2000. Accessed February 2005.

Ramsden vs. Peterborough City (1993). Accessed August 2004.

Scottish Parliament Antisocial Behaviour Bill (2004). Accessed January 2005.

Seattle Times. "Court throws out Seattle ban over posters on utility poles." August 8, 2002.

Toronto Public Space Committee Postering Campaign. Accessed August 2004.

Toronto Roundtable on a Beautiful City. Accessed August 2004.

Vancouver Free Paint Program. Accessed February 2005.

Walsh, Michael. Graffito. Berkeley, CA:North Atlantic Books, 1996.