i love posters. i think they are one of the most fascinating parts of the streetscape because they are a window into the city's soul: just by looking at posters, you can get a sense of a city's character and find out what's going on.
many people do not like posters. i'm sure that some of you who are reading this despise them and wish nothing more than for all posters to be ripped down and postering to be banned. in fact, in some cities, vigilantes have taken it upon themselves to rip down any and all posters, even perfectly legal ones.
back in 2005, i wrote a column on the social importance of postering, which you can read here on urbanphoto. in this thread, however, i want to take you on a tour of posters around the world and present to you some of the key reasons why i think postering should be embraced as a legitimate use of public space.
what do i mean by postering?
i'm talking about all of the bills you normally see taped to lampposts or stapled to hydro poles. they promote concerts, rallies, community meetings, garage sales, fledgling political groups, art shows. they ask for help in finding lost pets and missing people.
but they're ugly. why shouldn't they be banned?
beauty is of course subjective, and i personally find posters quite beautiful. but i can understand why many would consider them to be a visual affront: they are disorderly and chaotic. if you like your public space to be neat, tidy, uncomplicated and predictable, you will not like posters.
but posters must be tolerated because they are a vital form of grassroots communication. in fact, they are such an important aspect of free speech that posters cannot be banned in canada: the supreme cout ruled that any such ban would be unconstitutional. of course, that hasn't stopped some cities from doing everything they can to make posters disappear---but more on that later.
the effectiveness of posters
imagine you are an independent band and you need to promote your show this weekend. you have three ways to spread the word: contact the local media; post something on the internet; or create concert posters and paste them around the neighbourhoods where the people who would listen to your music live. of the three, posters are by far the most effective way to advertise your show. only a limited number of people read alternative newspapers, listen to community radio and surf the internet---but almost everybody walks down the street. that's why generations of rock bands have hired artists to create fabulous, eye-catching posters.
posters are the most democratic form of communication. they are a way for people without many resources to spread a message quickly, effectively and to as many people as possible. they are also the best way to target a specific geographic locale. if you're holding a community meeting, the best way to let people know is to put posters on the main street where everybody does his or her daily business.
the advertising argument
cities are full of corporate advertising. if the rights to advertise in public space can be bought and sold by private companies, why shouldn't ordinary citizens be free to use public space---their space---to make themselves heard? you have every right to stand on a streetcorner to hand out bills to passers-by. postering is simply a more effective, less intrusive and more accessible way of doing that.
how to regulate posters
clusters of posters tend to form on blank walls and street furniture along streets with high levels of pedestrian traffic. the more diverse the pedestrians, the more posters there will be. the number of posters is also related to the creativeness of cities and neighbourhoods; places that are culturally dynamic will naturally have more posters than places without much artistic, community or political life. that's why neighbourhoods with lots of young people and students tend to have so many posters.
now, as i mentioned earlier, it would be unconstitutional for cities to outright ban posters. (this is true for canada, but i'm not sure what the sitution is in the united states or in other countries.) some municipalities have done everything they can to ensure that posters remain absent from the public realm, but others have taken a more realistic approach. on hundreds of lampposts in vancouver, for instance, the city has installed casts to which anyone can staple a poster. city workers clear the posters every week. many other cities have installed designated postering boards on major streets. often, these boards will become magnets for activity as people stand around them looking at apartment ads or gig posters.
if cities fail to provide a legal outlet for postering, they will lose control over it. in montreal, posters are legal only on construction hoardings and boarded-up, vacant storefronts. these spaces have been monopolized by an advertising agency that specializes in arts and culture. unfortunately, the rates for these ads are high and only mainstream cultural organizations, like major publishers, festivals or the opera can afford to buy them. as a result, ordinary people and artists are forced to illegally put their posters on lampposts and other surfaces.
here are some examples of the casts i was talking about in vancouver.
poster stands can become neighbourhood focal points, like this one in west end vancouver.
in calgary, the 17th avenue merchant's association has provided ample space for posters.
other concentrations of posters have developped naturally along 17th avenue.
legal opportunities to poster are rare in montreal. this vacant storefront is dominated by commercial posters.
in madrid, postering seems to be widely accepted and both commercial and non-commercial posters were in abundance.
same story in lisbon, where there seemed to be several designated poster walls in the bairro alto.
in paris, posters for concerts were found on blank walls.
in chinatown, a whole wall was devoted to posters, most of which were relevant to the community.
so let's take a closer look at the content of some of these posters.
they are the best way to look for lost cats, people and teddy bears.
they can be used to advertise political and community events.
posters are a great way to target specific neighbourhoods and groups of people.
posters can serve as friendly reminders to neighbours.
one of the great benefits of postering is that it is an incredibly flexible medium of communication that can respond to a crisis faster and more effectively than anything else. these posters appeared around downtown montreal just shortly after the dawson college shootings.
posters can be an outlet for strange proclamations.
politicians use posters to promote themselves during election campaigns.
above all, posters are an essential tool for a city's musicians and artists.
over the past several years, posters have been adopted as a form of street art that is more benign and more versatile than graffiti.