Homeless in Vancouver: Some bad news about reverse graffiti

Reverse graffiti is one of the favourite techniques of a new generation of marketing firms using “natural media” techniques to catch the attention of young, media-savvy people.

It’s eye-catching, cheap, and nonpermanent. But as far as the City of Vancouver is concerned, it’s still graffiti, and it’s illegal.

Graffiti tagging is usually done using spraypaint or markers—paint or ink is added to a surface.

Reverse graffiti on the other hand—or “clean graffiti”—is a way of tagging a message  by “cleaning it” onto a surface, using a power washer, cleaning chemicals, or something even simpler.

If you’ve ever seen a really neglected car and given in to the temptation to use your finger to write “Clean Me” on the dirty windshield, then you’ve indulged in reverse graffiti.

Trying to catch the eye of Generation Y

A number of “young” marketing firms are touting reverse graffiti as an effective method of “guerrilla marketing”.

That appears to mean finding unconventional advertising alternatives to traditional media. On the one hand, it’s said that young consumers filter out conventional advertising but are receptive to street culture; on the other hand, sidewalks and walls have lower advertising rates than newspapers, magazines, or television.

GreenGraffiti is a Dutch marketing firm that has been successful in getting mainstream brands such as Becks and Starbucks to buy into alternative advertising campaigns that use what the company calls “natural media techniques” such as reverse graffiti, sand printing, moss graffiti, and milk paint. The result, says the company, should be to “grab attention and cause an emotional reaction that helps people to remember … brands in a different way than they are use to”.

They keep forgetting to mention that part about it being cheap.

In the summer of 2011 Domino’s Pizza paid GreenGraffiti $20,000 for a campaign involving reverse graffiti in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, which it estimates brought it about $1 million worth of publicity.

In a 2010 special report the New York Times looked at so-called natural media marketing companies and began a reference to Jim Bowes, founder of the Dutch marketing firm GreenGraffiti by saying:

“In truth, neither the authorities nor Mr. Bowes knows whether GreenGraffiti’s widespread outdoor ad campaigns [of reverse graffiti] are even legal.” 

The question of the legality of reverse graffiti is discussed on the Web but not resolved.

When I found the question “Is reverse graffiti illegal in Van?” posted on Flickr last summer, with no answers—just the original poster’s question and his comment that it would feel weird to ask the city—I decided to find out just how weird and ask the city myself.

The first reply I received from the City of Vancouver’s property use branch showed that it was a little unclear on the concept:

“The Graffiti Bylaw didn’t specify a specific way to remove graffiti.“

Ouch. I rephrased the question with a better description of what reverse graffiti was. The reply was unequivocal:

“I’ve consulted with our graffiti experts and 'Reverse Graffiti' is not allowed in the City.”

That only felt weird in the sense of being anticlimactic. Graffiti is graffiti. No surprise.

Where marketing firms such a GreenGraffiti with big global ambitions have tried to work with municipalities, it seems to me that the a lot of small fry would rather not know. Can’t be guerrilla marketing if the insurgency has paid for a permit.

Back in 2008 activists received lots of attention when they used pressure washers to etch the slogans “Gordo, Come Clean on Gateway” and “Transit First” into the grime on sidewalks and freeway overpasses. They even put together an instructable on how they did it.

I remember seeing advertising power washed into downtown sidewalks during Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics. I wouldn’t be surprised if approval can be acquired from the city if one goes through the proper channels. But then it wouldn’t be graffiti, would it?

Comments (7) Add New Comment
Chris Ryan
The best solution to this—though probably not as cheap—is the "lighting graffiti" (not sure if there's a formal name) that's becoming increasingly common. Type and/or graphics are projected down onto the sidewalk from above. Some of them are quite attractive; and they definitely grab attention, while making no permanent alterations to the sidewalk.
Rating: -1
Kim de Bruijn
Reverse graffiti actually does not make permanent alterations either. Depending on the filthyness of the sidewalks it will last a couple of months. 'Lighting graffiti' is an option, but is far less sustainable than natural media.
Rating: 0
Jim Bowes
As a company that has been using natural media for over seven years with hundreds of campaigns under our wings, we are working closely with cities around the world to help define the rules of engagement.
New ideas bumping up against old rules is nothing new. Our goal is, of course, to work WITH cities and not just in them.
Cities see their dirt as a cost, a negative. We see dirt as a huge public asset that can be used to help support budget short falls. The public space belongs to the public so why not use it to fund public works especially in these difficult times? Cities manage hundreds of times more potential natural media space than the outdoor media companies manage and these companies are earning millions from their work in our cities. Why are cities using their space to also earn millions?
Reverse graffiti sometimes suffers from the word graffiti. There is a big difference between traditional graffiti which often destroys public property and reverse graffiti which is only selectively cleaning the surface not damaging it. We, as the general public and our governments are demanding companies become better corporate citizens and reduce their impact on the environment. Traditional out door advertising is very unsustainable, consuming mass quantities of natural resources for posters and billboards with a very short life cycle. In order for companies to meet these demands, they need choices. Unfortunately, the advertising and media industries are one of the last industries to embrace sustainable development. If the big boys are not going to offer their clients sustainable forms of communication, it is up the the small company who dare to take risks to provide alternatives.
Vancouver should look at the bigger picture when considering if natural media fits within their own "gren" ambitions. We understand their valid concerns and look forward to having the chance to enter into constructive dialogue with them.
Natural media is here to stay. We, as a new industry, now must work with cities to help them overcome their issues. Regulation is needed and it will come.
Jim Bowes
Founder GreenGraffiti®
Rating: 0
"But officer, it's not graffiti! I was cleaning the sidewalk...and um, wasn't quite finished yet..."

Thanks for the article, I learned a few things :)
Rating: -6
Graffiti in all its incarnations is overt advertising insofar as it appears where I do not expect it to be, and I find all overt advertising offensive. I simply do not want to be walking down a street or anywhere else and see advertising, and that includes graffiti. The only exception I would draw is a sign on a business establishment indicating its identity.
Rating: -10
Stanley Q Woodvine
I think all kinds of truly temporary reverse graffiti should be legal. I question how temporary the use of bleach is.

Otherwise, encourage it. The monochromatic effect is far less distracting than full colour posters; it vanishes on its own and would probably lead to interesting new forms of urban creative expression.

Make it cheap or free for taggers and arts groups and the like. For advertising, Vancouver can sell permits for good money.

Advertisers will probably clamour to buy ads on sidewalks when they finally clue in to the fact that Generation Y spends most of its time looking down in the direction of their phones rather than up in the direction of traditional advertising.
Rating: -4
Graffiti is about writing your name. I've seen incredible pieces done by artists in places where you can see them from the skytrain. Here's an idea: Why don't more business's employ the youth who write graffiti for the advertising in and on their place of business? There are far too many positive reasons for me to write them all down here. Just a thought.
Rating: +4
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