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?