Soon after I arrived in New York City as an art student in the early oughts, my roommate, an occasional graffiti writer, asked if I wanted some “quick money work” on a “street team.” We would “sticker bomb” a vinyl decal of a two-headed Rottweiler on lampposts, power boxes, bar bathrooms, and park benches throughout the East Village. We would be paid by “unit distributed.” After doing the math, and weighing the odds of getting caught, I declined.
I soon learned that street teams drew from the ranks of underemployed art students and former graffiti writers who have “gone straight.” Guerrilla advertising happens in the gray zone between what’s maybe legal and downright illegal, and between what’s frowned upon by the advertising industry and what works on the street. The relationship between advertisers and the street teams they employ (often through a marketing agency) is typically a “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” sort of deal. The teams agree to spread the word about the brand in “innovative ways,” without getting into much detail about those ways. 1
Street teams can be arrested and charged with vandalism, but usually police choose to ignore both the teams and the companies that unofficially commission them. In our case, we learned months later that the Rottweilers were promoting Viacom, which was then rolling out a reboot of its MTV2 channel. Guerrilla marketing didn’t begin at the turn of the millennium — that’s just when it acquired a name. In fact, it’s part of a long history of urban streets and public spaces being covered with — or defaced by, depending on your point of view — visual information of all sorts, from political posters to municipal notices to commercial signage to corporate advertising to those Janus-headed dogs. This history underscores the long-running battle between civic and commercial interests for control of city streets and their surfaces — a contest that remains very much alive in our own era of proliferating media and consolidating corporate control.
In 19th-century London, the archaic and ad-hoc practices of posting signs and public notices were giving way to the ruthless business of commercial advertising.
When the British journalist Henry Sampson published his 600-page History of Advertising from the Earliest Times, in 1874, London was in a period of tumultuous and often chaotic growth. The population had doubled since the turn of the century; slums were crowded, crime was rising. And industry was booming. Factories were producing huge quantities of goods, and traders were eager to market and sell their products. All around the city the archaic and ad-hoc practices of posting signs and public notices had given way to the new and increasingly ruthless business of commercial advertising. Sampson’s book traces a long history of advertising, from signs carved in stone tablets, in imperial Rome, and written on papyrus, in Thebes; to early Christian scrolls and medieval town criers; to shingles hung outside shops and inns, often with pictograms showing the services offered inside (“a knife for the cutler, a stocking for the hosier, a hand for the glover, a pair of scissors for tailor, a bunch of grapes for the vintner”). But he devotes particular attention to his own era, when outdoor advertising was becoming an issue of keen civic concern due to what critics deplored as the psoriatic-like profusion of posters across the teeming metropolis. As Sampson notes, street advertising was “a comparatively modern institution,” enabled at once by increased literacy and advances in printing techniques. “It was not until printing became general, and until the people became conversant with the mysteries of reading and writing,” he writes, “that posters and handbills were to any extent used.” 2
Audacious strategies were tested, including garish typographic branding, cheaply printed sheets wrapped around purchases, and bills shoved into the pockets of pedestrians.
By the 18th century, it was already common for public bills to be posted on the walls of buildings in city centers, arranged along strictly hierarchical lines: government notices at the top, then theater playbills, then other promotions. 3 But soon this relatively orderly system would prove wholly inadequate to the flood of commodities and profusion of markets that marked the modern industrial city. New and audacious commercial strategies were tested, including garish typographic branding, cheaply printed sheets wrapped around purchases, and bills shoved into the coat pockets of pedestrians. Some advertisers employed “human billboards” or “sandwich men,” as Charles Dickens called them (“a piece of human flesh between two slices of paste board,” in his words). 4 More established brands bankrolled hordes of glue bucket-wielding desperados, “wild billstickers” who seemed intent on papering every possible surface in London. They were, in Sampson’s view, a “nuisance of the most intolerable kind” that “cared nothing for the privacy of [blank] walls, or, for the matter of that, of dwelling-houses and street doors.” 5 This unsanctioned publicity was, by the mid 19th century, deemed a scourge on the city and a threat to civic propriety.
The sheer quantity of unsanctioned advertising provoked alarm that London had become ungovernable.
Sampson tracks how walls once reserved for “proclamations, and suchlike official announcements” were sullied by polychromatic bills pushing industrial products. For many contemporary critics, the city’s visual clutter was not merely an aesthetic problem; it was a symptom of deeper ills. The untidy streets were a manifestation of a fraying social fabric, of a disorderly city where household crockery was caked in soot from nearby factories, and laneways were clogged with miserable shacks, and a flourishing criminal underworld of Dickensian Artful Dodgers pickpocketed with impunity. Just as law-and-order New Yorkers of the mid-20th century would blur the distinctions between graffiti writers and hardened gangsters, mid-19th-century Londoners turned the audacious billstickers into convenient scapegoats for problems that were far more deeply rooted. Posters had long been a part of the urban scene, but the sheer quantity was provoking alarm that London was becoming ungovernable.
Victorian London was, as the historian Robert Hughes has written, marked by “hopelessness, poverty, and resentment.” The world’s first industrial economy was producing more goods than any society in history, but it was also displacing rural workers and creating an urban underclass of wage laborers. Between 1830 and 1845, Hughes notes, “more than 10 percent of the working population of England [were] classified as paupers” 6 In hard times, billsticking was a reliable trade, no matter its dubious legality.
Much like graffiti writers a century later, billstickers violated the norms of public space, competed mightily with rivals, and rendered city walls a jumble of overlapping messages. But they also cut dashing figures and were celebrated as folk heroes, especially as London began to regulate the placement of advertising. Henry Sampson concedes that the billstickers’ handiwork was “disfigurative,” yet he also recognizes their pluck, and quotes from a popular mid-19th-century ballad:
I’m Sammy Slap the billsticker, and you must all agree, sirs,
I sticks to business like a trump while business sticks to me, sirs.
There’s some folks calls me plasterer, but they deserve a banging,
Cause yer see, genteelly speaking, that my trade is paperhanging.
With my paste, paste, paste!
All the world is puffing,
So I’ll paste, paste, paste!” 7
By the time the History of Advertising appeared, the Sammy Slaps of London had been replaced by professionally managed advertising crews who pasted posters at assigned hoardings (large boards for billings). Starting in the 1860s, the industry began to self-regulate, first by licensing hoardings, and then by forming associations that contracted out “advertisement stations” and ensured police protection against rogue posters. The free-agents had been banished, or were brought in to work for contracting firms; as Sampson put it, “the Bashi-Bazouks of billsticking are becoming absorbed into the regular ranks of the agents’ standing corps.” 8
Within a relatively short period, nearly all the commonly held surfaces of the city were effectively privatized, and the rapidly professionalizing ranks of advertisers found new opportunities. As Sampson writes: “Anyone having a vacant space at the side of his house, or a blank wall to the same, may, provided he live in anything like a business thoroughfare, and that the vantage place is free from obstruction, do advantageous business with an advertisement contractor.” Thus the general public were now encouraged to monetize their “private walls” so that even “fashionable localities” might become “well papered” by the “hand of the advertiser.” 9 London’s visual chaos had been not so much tamed as channeled into more respectable and market-appropriate formats.
Similar histories were happening in other European capitals. A few years ago, while living in Berlin, I often went to Kino Babylon for the free silent films that were screened on Saturdays at midnight. Once, while walking from the U-Bahn, I noticed a strange monument — a ten-foot-tall cylinder in the form of one of the classic Litfaßsäulen, the advertising columns found throughout the city. But this one had no advertisements; instead, it was sheathed in copper, and intended as a memorial to Ernst Litfaß, the printing and advertising mogul who, in 1854, introduced the columns to the streets of the growing metropolis.
Litfaß promoted the advertising pillars as a piece of multifunctional street furniture that could contain a water fountain, a newsstand, even a discreet pissoir.
Ernst Litfaß designed his advertising columns both to standardize the commercial space of the city and to increase its extent. Not only could the sleek new columns accommodate large posters; they could also be positioned amidst the flow of pedestrians. 10 Early on, Litfaß enjoyed a monopoly on their installation and management, which made him rich. But his great success was due not to originality but rather to his deft handling of municipal authorities and knack for self-promotion. He promoted the Litfaßsäule as a piece of multifunctional street furniture that could contain a water fountain, a newsstand, even a discreet pissoir. In the end, few of the columns had any uses other than advertising; but this did not prevent them from capturing the urban imagination. Over the years the columns have figured in entertainments such as The Third Man, Carol Reed’s postwar film noir, in which the profiteer Harry Lime escapes into the sewers of Vienna through a Litfaßsäule; and, more recently, in the German series Berlin Babylon, in which the columns are used by the policeman-protagonist for clandestine meetings with his psychologist.
The poster-less pillar in Mitte that I stopped to admire late one night featured a delicate bas-relief against the oxidizing copper — an image of Ernst Litfaß in a waistcoat, with the epigraph “King of the Advertising Arts,” written in Art Nouveau script. My encounter with the memorial was timely. Berlin was then moving quickly on plans to remove most of its 3,100 advertising columns. A corporate agency in Stuttgart had acquired the rights and, citing their age (most were installed in the reconstruction following World War II), sought to replace them with newer models that could be more easily wired for LED lighting and that would accommodate rotating displays and standardized posters. The old columns had required posters to be affixed with wheat paste; the new glassed-in versions would prevent unsightly drips and creases — not to mention unsanctioned pasting and tags.
Lately the pillars have provided space for guerrilla posting of art shows, anti-capitalistic stenciling, and tear-off flyers from new immigrants who make do without data plans.
The proposed changes did not go unnoticed; Berliners were, in fact, pissed. Over the decades the advertising columns had become a cherished part of the streetscape, a link to the past in a fast-changing city. More recently, their surfaces have provided space for the guerrilla posting of announcements for art shows, for anti-capitalistic stenciling, and for tear-off flyers from artists and new immigrants who make do without data plans; in other words, for the thinning ranks of the freewheeling, bohemian city. Berliners, never hesitant to bring a fight when unsolicited changes are afoot, struck back with — appropriately — graffiti and an “urban intervention” in the form of a poster campaign by the artist Tina Zimmermann. 12 Her posters, made to look like old-timey death notices, memorialized the säule in somber fraktur script with lines lifted from the tombs of Berlin’s cemeteries: Eine Stimme, die uns vertraut war, schweigt. (A voice, familiar to us, is silent.) Litfaßsäule, *1854 – †2019, Berlin.
There is some irony here; when it first appeared in the mid 19th century, the Litfaßsäule was quickly understood by state and municipals officials to be an ideal tool of control. More than a new means for animating public thoroughfares, the columns also allowed the Prussian rulers to monitor the content of both commercial advertising and political speech.
The new advertising pillars may have dampened the display of political discourse in Berlin, but in Paris they spurred the rise of the “art poster,” and what some observers called the “museum of the streets.” The art poster movement conjures memories of Toulouse-Lautrec, the Moulin Rouge, and artists swilling absinthe, and indeed, no city is more identified with the brief movement than the fin-de-siècle French capital. The appreciation of boldly colored posters was due in no small part to Baron Haussmann’s remaking of the city — to the broad new boulevards that allowed for greater sightlines, and to the proliferation of new street furniture designed by architect Gabriel Davioud, including the signature green kiosks that sported advertising on all sides.
In Paris, the poster form was evolving from crude commercial exultations in slab-serif to brightly rendered scenes of nightlife and travel.
To be sure, the kiosks met with early resistance; detractors dismissed the structures as little more than scaffolding for intrusive advertising, for large tasteless posters in “‘insane colors, furious reds, hair-raising greens and yellows.” 13 Poster-haters became so incensed that in the summer of 1869 they staged a Guerre aux Kiosques, smashing the structures and splattering them with paint. But public attitudes soon mellowed, and with time the kiosks came to be appreciated as an emblematic aspect of the Parisian streetscape. Posters provided welcome relief amidst the newly regularized thoroughfares, and by now the poster form was itself evolving from crude commercial exultations in slab-serif to brightly rendered scenes of nightlife and travel. These developments date to the 1870s, when Jules Chéret, widely considered the “father of the art poster,” set up his studio in the 9th Arrondissement. Chéret’s output was prodigious (more than 1,400 posters), and his style was distinct, with pastel colors and an airy “vaporous impression” that were in pleasing contrast to the monotonous rows of monochromatic type that otherwise marked the Parisian bill. 14 What’s more, Chéret’s life-sized scenes showed mirthful dancers in low-cut bodices and flush-cheeked ladies sipping aperitifs — imagery at once exciting and scandalizing in a still deeply Catholic country.
The affiche illustree was never a dominant form of advertising; even during the heyday of Toulouse-Lautrec, Chéret, and their compatriot Alphonse Mucha, artful and polychromatic posters appeared only on selected hoardings and advertising columns in central Paris. Nonetheless their very presence helped to improve the public perception of outdoor advertising, and soon produced a new kind of aficionado: the poster lover, or affichophile, on the lookout for hidden-in-plain-sight masterworks. 15 This collecting niche soon developed its own pedagogy, modes of critique, and journals, including L’Estampe et l’affiche in France, The Poster in the U.K., and Poster Lore in the United States. Some proponents were convinced that the increasingly sophisticated chromolithographs might spur nothing less than a revolution of accessible art — again, the “museum of the streets.” No less a figure than John Ruskin conceded that “the fresco-painting of the bill-sticker is likely, so far as I see, to become the principal Fine Art of Modern Europe.” 16
Ultimately these enthusiastic sentiments were naïve. Not only were art posters barely noticed beyond the urban flaneurs who had the time or money to stroll the boulevards and appreciate the frameless objets d’art; they also failed to move the product. Within the swirls and stippling and sinuous typography, the brand got lost. The foremost British poster critic, Charles Hiatt, made the point in 1896 when reviewing Mucha’s image of actress Sarah Bernhardt in La Dame aux Camélias for Poster Art and Collector. The dazzling, seven-foot-tall image, with its gorgeous details and rich colors, is one of the most celebrated works in poster history. Yet it was, in Hiatt’s judgement, too graphically sophisticated for the harsh city streets where, he said, it “would simply be killed by its less august and refined neighbors” on the hoarding. 17 Better to remove the work from exposure to the elements, mount it on acid-free paper, and preserve it in a flat file, for the enjoyment of collectors. And so it was that the art poster was brought indoors, and the streets were a museum no more.
In September 1890, the satirical magazine Punch published a poem, “Picturesque London; or, Sky-Signs of the Times,” which predicted a near-future when advertisers, “unmoved by civic pride, unchecked by taste,” would “smear the general sky with poster’s paste.” The poem was illustrated with a cartoon showing St. Paul’s Cathedral, then one of the tallest buildings in the world, lost amidst a profusion of billboards and hot-air balloons hawking everything from cigars to whisky to carpets. The feature channeled the persistent fears of Londoners that their imperial capital was being overrun by a surfeit of unfettered signage, painted walls, and bombastic marquees. Except now, towards the end of the century, the cluttering of the city was seen as less a reflection of economic travail or urban crime than of avaricious business and a new class of professional hucksters who were scheming up novel ways to push their brands. To quote the Punch poem:
Is it to be endured,
O much-enduring Briton? There be those
Who’d scrawl advertisements of Hogs or Hose
Across the sun-disc as it flames at noon
Or daub the praise of Pickles o’er the moon. 18
The history of street advertising is a record of continual upscaling. At the beginning of the 19th century, letterpress-printed posters were scarcely bigger than a book, their size dictated by the dimensions of presses and the available cuts of wood and lead type. By mid-century, the rise of commercial lithography allowed the intermingling of images and hand-drawn type; on the surface of a lithographic limestone, a poster artist could use a grease pencil to produce large-scale layouts unconstrained by the press-bed “lock-ups” of metal letterforms and carved blocks. The only limitations were the size of the stones themselves, which rarely exceeded 70 or 80 inches in length. By the end of the century, lithographers were released from even this limit, as tiled configurations of three, and later six, sheets became common, allowing for the full-scale portraits of the fin-de-siècle art posters.
The affiches illustrees captured the attention of Parisian flaneurs not simply because they were gorgeous and colorful compositions but also because they were huge. Chéret, in particular, recognized the necessity of creating works that would be conspicuous in the increasingly crowded and clamorous metropolis. In 1894, four years after the publication of “Picturesque London,” he wrote an essay, “The Art of Hoarding,” for the English journal The New Review, in which he elaborated on his techniques and goals. As he argues:
My posters are not intended for close or detailed examination, but to be looked at from a distance of fix or six meters. … The designer of illustrated advertisements needs to be a psychologist, and, in addition to a well-trained artistic sense, should have a thorough knowledge of the logical and optical laws that govern his craft. His aim should be to find something that will arrest the attention and appeal to the imagination of the average passer-by as he glances at the advertisement from the street pavement, or from the top of an omnibus. 19
The upscaling of advertising gained momentum with the arrival of motorized mobility as block-long banners were made to be seen from fast-moving vehicles.
Chéret’s acknowledgement of the omnibus was prescient. The upscaling of advertising achieved new momentum with the arrival of motorized mobility. In European and North American cities, the pumping up of posters continued with block-long banners made to be seen from fast-moving vehicles. Advertisements of ever greater scale could be achieved by teams of sign painters working on suspended scaffolds, gridding out designs and painting them across the sides of buildings. 20 By the 1920s and ’30s, the big billboards that fronted onto urban plazas and train stations began to migrate to the outskirts of cities, where land was cheap and sightlines uninterrupted. The driving public was still small, but it was also affluent, and catching the eye of Jay Gatsby on his drive to East Egg was worth the price of printing. In Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel Babbitt, the businessman-protagonist admires the “summer-resort posters” in the train station of his Midwestern city; but what really grabs his attention as he drives from his suburban home to his office are the “billboards with crimson goddesses nine feet tall advertising cinema films, pipe tobacco, and talcum powder.” 21
As in earlier eras, the critics were fierce. In “Townless Highways for the Motorist: A Proposal for the Automobile Age,” published in Harper’s in 1931, Lewis Mumford and Benton MacKaye memorably lambasted “the scorching ugliness of badly planned and laid out concrete roads peppered with impudent billboards.” The authors warned that the automobile, in allowing motorists to escape the urban center, was dragging the city’s clutter along with it. They saw early 20th-century roadside culture as profane; the billboards that seemed to rise up as soon as the concrete had cured were the front line of an invading force, the “vast, spreading metropolitan slum of multiple gas stations and hot-dog stands.” 22 To counter the sprawling ugliness, Mumford and MacKaye argued for carefully planned, “wide and handsome” highways where the adjoining land would be public property, and free from billboard blight.
The new gargantuan signage began to overwhelm city centers, as billboards came to sit across or atop tall buildings.
The car-centric redevelopment of cities and suburbs shifted the conversation on environmental clutter. Now the cause of consternation were not posters but roadside signage, massive billboards, and neon marquees. In the automobile era, billboards flanked the sides of expressways, their horizontal proportions reflecting the new speeds and modes of travel, the Babbitts speeding by in their Roadsters. Sometimes the billboards were even sequential, as in the staggered series of roadside advertisements pioneered by companies like Burma-Shave in the 1920s. The new gargantuan signage soon began to overwhelm city centers as well, as billboards came to sit across or atop tall buildings. The New Yorker Hotel, which opened in 1930, became famous for the immense sign that was added to its top four floors in the late ’40s; the twenty-foot-high, blocky red letters that spell out the hotel’s name can be seen across Midtown. As the Weimar architect Hugo Häring had observed, years earlier, the facades of commercial buildings were becoming “merely scaffolding for advertising signs, lettering, and luminous panels.” 23
In the early years of this millennium, as I was fielding that offer to join a street team, it seemed clear that Hugo Häring’s prediction, or warning, had been amply borne out. And it seemed clear as well that so far the only serious challenge to advertising’s grip on the visual space of the city is the graffiti movement of the late 20th century.
The only serious challenge to advertising’s grip on the visual space of the city has been the graffiti movement of the late 20th century.
Political and artistic statements have been part of the urban scene for millennia, whether emblazoned in tar, scratched onto walls, or slapped up with brush and bucket; but it was the postwar invention of the aerosol paint can that led to an explosion of graffiti, especially tagging (or the spray-painting of one’s name on building walls, subway cars, and highway overpasses). One of the first mainstream acknowledgements of modern graffiti came in 1971, with the New York Times article ‘“Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals.” Taki, then a seventeen-year-old Greek immigrant living in northern Manhattan, is widely considered to be the first graffiti writer in New York (meanwhile the practice of name-based graffiti likely originated in the late 1960s when the Philadelphian Darryl McCray started spraying “Cornbread” around SEPTA stations). The early writers were usually working class and mostly people of color, and they wanted the same name-brand recognition as that of the products advertised in their neighborhoods and the politicians who, as Taki said, “put stickers all over the subways at election time.” In the Times article, Taki described graffiti as “not something you do for the girls … You do it for yourself.” 24
In those years the “ad men” of Madison Avenue were busily extending mass marketing campaigns into secondary urban markets. Low-income communities were being inundated with advertising, often for “vice” products like cigarettes and liquor that promised some form of escapism from impoverished neighborhoods. The mechanics of these ad campaigns were evident to the young men and women who would become the first graffiti writers. The spray can, originally marketed for freshening up yard furniture, was recast as a talismanic object that enabled writers to compete with ads for presence on the streets and in the culture.
The spray can, marketed for freshening up yard furniture, was recast as a talismanic object that enabled graffiti writers to compete for presence on the streets.
At first, municipal authorities considered writing on walls to be a minor offense, and it didn’t even appear in most criminal codes (and teenagers, like Taki, were difficult to prosecute); but this changed quickly. By the early ’70s, New York mayor John Lindsay was calling graffiti an “epidemic.” The city began enacting laws to punish “graffitists,” especially “habitual offenders.” Thus was launched what would become a two-decade war of attrition against subway graffiti. The battle lines were, so to speak, drawn. For insiders, graffiti was a kind of direct action, a demand for attention in a city that was neglecting its young people of color; it was a covert act and a private code, thrilling to produce, and yet highly visible as the subway cars rolled across the five boroughs. For outsiders, it was a ubiquitous manifestation of growing social fissures. And for elected officials, like Lindsay (and the mayors who followed), it was a form of “vandalism” that had to be stopped in order to restore visual order to the city, and to begin combating larger and more systemic challenges. 25
Astute observers made the connection between corporate advertising and subway graffiti.
Astute observers made the connection between corporate advertising and subway graffiti. In 1975, Henry Stern, a city council member, described the proliferation of subway-entrance posters as an invitation to graffiti, arguing that “the billboards are permanent eyesores, and will soon be defaced.” 26 In a letter to the editor in the New York Times, a reader proposed a “solution to the subway graffiti crisis,” recommending the allocation of “a certain number of vacant billboards in subway stations and on trains to be used by those who wish to leave their imprint in the world via graffiti.” 27 Ten years later the artist Keith Haring would shoot to fame by doing exactly that, filling the black rectangles on station walls that were reserved for posting ads with his unauthorized chalk drawings.
Graffiti drew the attention of major authors. In an article for Esquire, from May 1974, Norman Mailer famously used graffiti as a metaphor for the troubles of the city. Full-bleed spreads of photographs by Jon Naar showed Krylon-coated train cars, as Mailer observed that the twisted letterforms could be found on “every institutional wall, fixed or moving, every modern new school which looked like a brand-new factory, every old slum warehouse, every standing billboard, every huckstering poster, and the halls of every high-rise low-rent housing project.” Mailer explicitly linked what he called the “plant growth of names” with the ubiquity of advertising:
Slum populations chilled on one side by the bleakness of modern design, and brain-cooked on the other by comic strips and TV ads with zooming letters [and] by the whip of the capital letters in the names of the products, and gut-picked by the … the excrescence of the highways and the fluorescent wonderlands of every Las Vegas sign frying through the Iowa and New Jersey night. 28
Graffiti could be seen as the twisted B-side of American advertising culture. The George Babbitts who had once motored across town leering at billboards of bathing beauties were now in retirement, and could only stare stonily at what Mailer called the “interlapping of names and colors,” and rail against this new “visual pollution.” Meanwhile the city was deploying “every legal and psychological weed killer” to make sure “the graffiti of New York was defoliated, cicatrized” and, ultimately, “Vietnamized.” Nor was Mailer the only critic to connect the war on subway writing with the misbegotten war in Southeast Asia; several years earlier a reporter had likened the producers of the broad-nibbed permanent markers used in tagging to “the people who make napalm.” 29
By the 1980s, New York was fighting a total war against the scrappy youth who dared to paint the subway cars.
By the 1980s, the city was indeed fighting a total war against the scrappy youth who dared to paint the subway cars. When asked about plans to put guard dogs in the train yards, Mayor Ed Koch boasted: “If I had my way, I wouldn’t put in dogs, but wolves.” 30 His reasoning was clear enough: New York, like late Georgian London, was perceived as out of control. Alarmist reports were a regular feature of the nightly news. A new subgenre of Hollywood thrillers, including Escape from New York and Death Wish, portrayed Manhattan as an island gone feral. In these movies, the graffiti-saturated walls of the Beaux Arts subway stations became a visual proxy for urban mayhem and civic decay. At the same time, proponents of the “broken windows” theory of crimefighting were arguing that a forcible response to vandalism would ultimately serve to deter more serious offenses. To regain the trust of the business community, Koch said, “we simply cannot allow this type of vandalism to continue to label New York City as a blighted town.” 31
Ultimately, Ed Koch won the war against graffiti. By the early 1990s, trains were being scrubbed clean with a chemical agent; removal services, like Graffiti-Free NYC, were power-washing paint off streets; and business improvement districts were pressuring property owners to remove tags from their buildings within 48 hours. 32 The loss of these urban canvases discouraged the graffiti subculture and forced writers to find new surfaces to “get up” on. Some turned to quick-and-dirty stencils, wheat paste posters, markers loaded with thinned paint (krink), glass-etching fluid (to indelibly mark subway windows), and refilled fire extinguishers that could crudely cover hard-to-reach surfaces. But without collective painting environments, like the train yards, which had helped to incubate styles and foster community, many graffiti writers called it quits.
Which is not to say that graffiti ceased. By the mid-1990s, a new cohort was emerging, as White practitioners from suburbia began venturing into cities to paint. These new writers often had art school training, and possessed the social capital to turn their illegal hobby into a design vocation or art practice under the more respectable rubric of “street artist.” The perception of graffiti began to change as well. The reactionary public that had so viscerally detested the painted subway cars was receding; a younger generation — raised on hip hop and VHS tapes of the documentary Style Wars — had a more favorable impression of the “aerosol arts.” Graffiti was no longer an “epidemic.” It was now an art form, specific to certain neighborhoods (like pre-gentrification Bushwick) and buildings (like the now-demolished Five Pointz in Long Island City), that could be appreciated by a new connoisseur class.
Graffiti tactics were repurposed by guerrilla marketers; or to put it more plainly, a sanitized version of a renegade art form was pressed into the service of shilling global brands.
Newly tamed, graffiti became an object of art-world fascination. In the tradition of the late 19th-century affichophiles, the new connoisseurs became “graff lovers” who sought out the messiness of aerosol-marked surfaces. This group included more than a few commercial art directors and ad buyers, who admired the grab-what-you-can ethos of graffiti writers. As the turn of new millennium approached, their agencies were starting to worry about the growth of digital ad sales, and they sought out new attention-getting tactics. This was the moment when graffiti tactics were adapted and repurposed by guerrilla marketing; or to put it more plainly, when a sanitized and depoliticized version of a renegade urban art form was pressed into the service of shilling global brands. A few years ago, one of the partners of a San Francisco ad agency described the approach; the industry, he said, needed “to think more like vandals.” As he put it, “Like good advertising, good vandalism is funny, loud, and still there the next day.” 33
In 1980, at the height of the subway graffiti era, a New Yorker named Thomas Romich wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, arguing that “graffiti is nothing more than advertising in a socially unacceptable form.” He then made a proposition:
Both forms of expression can be equally offensive or exciting. (In terms of design, color and overall impact, much of the graffiti is far superior to other advertisements.) However, by accepting the one we invite and even encourage the other. Perhaps it is time to experiment with a transit system which is free of all advertising. It is my opinion that the incidence of graffiti would greatly diminish, and the subway cars would boast a cleaner, less littered appearance. 34
Romich also recommended the sale of ad space on subway tokens as compensation for the loss of income from posters (years later New Yorkers would start to swipe through turnstiles with Metrocards, some with ads on their backs). As it turned out, Romich was ahead of his time; a quarter century later, the concept of an ad-free urban system would be tested at the metropolitan scale when, in 2007, São Paulo, the most populous city in the southern hemisphere, would ban all outdoor advertising.
São Paulo’s Clean City Law, Lei Cidade Limpa, is a testament to the determination of Gilberto Kassab, the charismatic politician who was then the city’s mayor, and who was intent on bringing “order” to the megacity of twelve million. The law required the removal of all billboards, posters, and other advertising within 90 days, after which stiff fines would be levied. Compliance was high: canvas was cut out from storefront awnings, billboards were popped out of their frames, sign boards were painted over.
The Clean City Law, which banned all outdoor advertising in São Paulo, was an attempt to bring ‘order’ to the megacity of twelve million.
The Dutch photographer Marike Schuurman visited São Paulo shortly after the ban took effect. In her images, the city looks less “clean” than naked and vulnerable. Schuurman took her photos from the Minhocão, an elevated roadway that snakes through the city, on a car-free Sunday. The city scenes appear almost surreal because they are missing not only the multistory, highway-scale billboards but also the cars themselves. In one especially eerie image, three nuns stroll by the skeletal scaffolding of a missing ad; high above, on the facades of buildings, are the empty white squares of redacted billboards that once sported ads for televisions, tires, and whiskey. The Clean City Law allowed Paulistas to appreciate their Beaux Arts city center, but it also exposed the markers of Brazilian inequality — the micro-favelas obscured by billboards, the rough sleeping spots, the sex workers. The newly “clean” city, stripped of commercial clutter, was more than some wanted to see.
The politics of Lei Cidade Limpa are complicated. Opposition to billboards, and corporate advertising in general, is often driven by left-wing groups like Adbusters; but Kassab is a conservative, and the Clean City Law coincided with an anti-graffiti crackdown. 35 The police targeted the city’s pichação writers, known for their raw tagging style — angular Gothic letters, rendered in black paint or tar, usually found high above the street, created by pixadores perched daringly on narrow ledges. Pichação has been reviled for its brute appearance; even an appreciative article in The Guardian described it as an “‘angry’ alternative to graffiti.” 36 Many pixadores are from favelas and, when caught, are frequently beaten; at least one was shot by police.
After the removal of advertising, local urbanists sought to renew the blank surfaces with public art projects, often created with the tacit or active agreement of building owners.
The campaign against pichação was paralleled by a resurgence of interest in street art. Following the removal of advertising, Paulistas sought to fill the many voids that had been left, some of which were disconcerting, especially since the commercial underpainting was sometimes legible on walls that had been buffed white. Echoing similar cultural dynamics, or appropriations, in other cities, local urbanists sought to renew these blank surfaces through public art projects, often created with the tacit or active agreement of building owners. New murals, which started to appear on the high-rises that line the Minhocão, were defiantly not pichação; while many incorporate the colorful Carnival-inspired symbolism of afro-brasileiros, they are more likely to reflect a culture of cloistered privilege and an appropriative “street style” chic. And, in an ironic turn of events, some of the large-scale murals were sponsored by corporate advertisers. The creative director of a large ad agency, who commissioned three local artists to create nine-story murals for General Electric in the city center, put it this way: “We thought about GE giving a gift for the people, turning a grey and cold city like São Paulo into a more colorful, happier and fun city.” At the bottom of the colorful murals, which appeared in 2012, the company’s signature blue-and-white logo has been worked into the compositions; a companion social media campaign was titled “If you can imagine it, it can be done.” 37
Two years ago, Juan Rodriguez, a 41-year-old Manhattanite, deliberately damaged more than three dozen LinkNYC kiosks, hurling bricks and other objects at their screens over the course of several days in early spring. A few months later, another smasher staged a similar assault against several of the 9.5-foot-tall stele along Tenth Avenue. Since then, further acts of targeted vandalism and drunken mischief have put numerous kiosks out of service across the city. These street actions followed the revelations that the digital pylons — which provide free internet and phone charging at a console framed by illuminated ads — were not just selling, but sensing, with concealed high-definition cameras and microphones.
LinkNYC began as an effort to replace aging payphones and offer free broadband services.
New York’s “Links” were the result of an open ideas competition sponsored by the city in 2013. Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to explore innovative ideas for both repurposing aging payphones and offering free broadband services. The heavily promoted Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge received several hundred entries, including many from student groups recruited by the city (through its Information Technology and Telecommunications department); six finalists emerged via a Facebook voting process. Ultimately, however, for the purpose of constructing the actual kiosks, the city issued a conventional RFP. 38 The contract was awarded to CityBridge, a consortium of major technology, advertising, and design companies.
When the first LinkNYC units were installed, in 2015, they didn’t attract much attention, let alone controversy. For weeks they remained switched off, standing on Midtown Manhattan corners like the black monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Once illuminated, they resembled giant iPhones, set on edge, but in tourist-packed Midtown, with its countless glowing signboards, the kiosks didn’t much stand out. Mainly they seemed utilitarian, providing free wi-fi and USB powering, which were convenient for tourists and theatergoers, and incorporating tablet-like screens that could be used for web browsing and making calls (the RFP stipulated that the kiosks had to retain some payphone functions). The first real to-do happened in summer 2016, when a weak content filter on the browser allowed for public porn watching; videos quickly circulated on Twitter, and the browsing functions were disabled. The program continued to be praised as an exemplary public-private partnership.
The protests began when the news broke that the kiosks concealed cameras and microphones — that they were not just selling but sensing.
Then the news broke about the kiosks’ tracking capabilities, and the smashing began. In a New York Times essay titled “Smile, Your City Is Watching You,” the tech writer Ben Green revealed that sensors and cameras in every kiosk were conducting ongoing surveillance of passers-by and delivering the data to companies in the CityBridge consortium, including Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. 39 In other words, the Links were collecting just the sort of granular data that might someday prove valuable to the owners and programmers of companies that were designing smart cities — like Sidewalk Labs. And they were raising disturbing visions of a future in which seeing and selling, walking and watching, would be increasingly conflated; in which, for instance, sensors would allow advertisers to micro-target pedestrians, a scenario reminiscent of the dystopian film Minority Report. In this light the New Yorkers shattering LinkNYC kiosks can be seen not merely as wreckers in a new Guerre aux Kiosks, but rather as saboteurs with political purpose. Rodriguez delivered his blows just at the spot where cameras are thought to be located behind the Link’s screen. 40
The early controversies may have been at least partly tempered by the fact that the first Links were all located in parts of Manhattan with busy streets and buzzing nightscapes. (In Times Square, illuminated signage and scrolling LEDs are mandated by a local zoning overlay in order to reinforce the marketable aura of the city-that-never-sleeps.) By the end of 2019, in fact, CityBridge had installed only one-quarter of the promised 7,500 kiosks, undercutting its claim to be providing free wi-fi to the city’s needier residents. Only in the past year have the flashing kiosks started to appear on street corners in Jackson Heights, Mott Haven, and Flatbush, where they mix awkwardly with bodegas, fading dry cleaners, and check cashers. When they are not cycling through ads, the screens display “facts” over an ombré background that resembles that of Instagram Stories:
NYC FACT № 01: Albert Einstein’s eyeballs are in a safe box in NYC.
NYC FACT № 514: Brooklyn’s IKEA, the only store in NYC, sold over 1.6 million meatballs in 2015.
NYC FACT № 775: The Booze History Museum of Staten Island is home to over 1,000 alcohol related artefacts.
NYC FACT № 776: Six couples have been married in a pool or tub of Serendipity’s Frrrozen Hot Chocolate.
NYC FACT № 803: There’s a street in Staten Island named Lois Lane.
NYC FACT № 1004: The former bassist from Third Eye Blind and his brother founded Dos Toros [Taqueria] in NYC in 2009.
Clearly these cornball factoids do not take advantage of the site specificity of the kiosks to offer details of local interest. Instead, they feature the same content citywide, and some also refer to extant businesses, blurring the line between public information and product placement.
Not everything about this new signage is objectionable. Like Litfaß columns, the LinkNYC kiosks are meant to stream public health and safety messaging. They display Notify NYC emergency messages, and, recently, have been deployed to deliver Coronavirus Prevention Tips (these appear on a somber black background). The kiosks provide welcome exhibition opportunities for illustrators and artists in historically underrepresented communities via a program called #ArtOnLink. The format has also allowed for GIF-based animations, and, as a result, the design establishment has begun to recognize the animated poster as a new form of outdoor advertisement. 41
LinkNYC threatens to remake edgy Gotham into a sleek Silicon Valley East, where surveillance is omnipresent and privacy is elusive.
Nonetheless it was hardly surprising that many cheered as they watched the CCTV footage of Juan Rodriguez hurling a brick at the kiosks. 42 Flashing lights and gaudy signage have epitomized New York’s libertine ways and free market dispositions since the arrival of neon signage from France almost a century ago; but LinkNYC has been pushing in new and not necessarily welcome directions, towards a remaking of edgy Gotham into a sleek Silicon Valley East, where surveillance is omnipresent and privacy is elusive. And, even considered simply as street furniture, the kiosks have none of the material exuberance of neon. They suggest a dreary future of not only surveillance but also corporatized sameness. Jeremiah Moss, the indefatigable chronicler of the loss of New York’s mom-and-pop key grinders and knish shops, deplores the kiosks’ “dumb cartoons and repetitive quotations.” Moss also notes that they “continually rob our attention.” Because of the placement and luminosity of the Links, he writes, “your thoughts are interrupted by the flashing screens, violating your right to keep your attention where you want it.” 43
Moss’s criticism echoes that of Désiré Hémet, a fin-de-siècle press agent who wrote A Practical Treatise on Advertising, which aimed to be the French version of Sampson’s History. The 1912 treatise described a new breed of flashing street signage that leaves the passer-by “indisposed by a brand which uses and abuses his eyes, obliging them to submit to work they have not consented to.” In Hémet’s assessment, these new signs degraded the experience of cities by overstimulating citizens. 44 Urban overstimulation has indeed been a subject of lively debate since the birth of modernity. In his influential essay from 1903, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” the sociologist Georg Simmel warned of the rising influx of “rapidly shifting stimulations” that are “the source of the increased intellectuality in the metropolis,” but that also overtax the nerves, and produce in the city dweller a hardened, “blasé attitude.” 45
The clutter of smart cities might well fry our perceptual circuitry even as it homogenizes our experience and micro-targets us with personalized ads.
The accumulating clutter of smart cities might well fry our perceptual circuitry to some yet unforeseen degree, even as assorted urban objects simultaneously homogenize our experience and serve us up personalized advertisements. The uncanny results might be cities in which shared, communal spaces are being experienced differently through customized interactions with sentient street furniture and commercialized installations. In Super Sad True Love Story, the novelist Gary Shteyngart envisions a near-future New York dystopia where everyone wears smartphone necklaces that rate their “fuckability” while sidewalk “credit poles” broadcast the net worth of passers-by for all to hear. Shteyngart’s protagonists adapt to these intrusions with remarkable equanimity. They eat bagels, drink beers, and have flings in a surveillance city that has come to seem almost normal. 46 A few people object to the digital invasions of personal privacy and urban space, but they are considered cranks and roundly ignored.
On that note, a personal confession. When considering LinkNYC, and my deep aversion to the entire project, I also wondered whether, in my mid-thirties, I might already have become a hidebound traditionalist — one of those cranks who are fearful of the future and unwilling to see their beloved city change. Maybe my hatred of LinkNYC’s fun facts about New York City is akin to the disdain the French clergy felt for Jules Chéret’s lively ladies? Maybe a century from now this essay will be cited to illustrate the sort of irrational aversion to digital advertising felt by nostalgic commentators in the early 2020s? Maybe I should stop worrying, get with the program, learn to love the stupid glowing kiosks?
Then again, maybe not.