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Inside the Guerrilla War on Billboards

Urban renegades are blotting out big ads, claiming the law is their friend. Watch them at work.

Katie Hyslop 13 Sep

Katie Hyslop reports on education for the Tyee Solutions Society, and is a freelance reporter for a number of other outlets including The Tyee.

You see them everywhere: on public transit, in washroom stalls, on abandoned buildings, and even lurking outside our houses. They're big, flashy, and ugly. They're advertisements, and sometimes they're illegal.

But not everyone is willing to sit idly by while illegal billboards plastered with Jay Leno's face are set up outside our bedroom windows. Vancouver journalist Sarah Berman found one such person in Jordan Seiler, a New York City artist and activist, who orchestrates street ad “"takeovers," in which he and his volunteers wheat paste art over advertisements that break city bylaws by being too close to construction sites, residential areas and parks.

Berman (full disclosure: we're friends and former roommates) came across Seiler's work while interning at Adbusters last summer. When Seiler let her in on a secret plan to conduct a massive illegal ad takeover in Oct. 2009, she jumped at the chance to make the plan the main focus of her masters of journalism thesis, and flew 4,000 kilometres to New York City on her own dime to film for eight days. She returned again in April for follow-up interviews, and finished her film last month.

The piece has since spread farther than the University of British Columbia's school of journalism, however, and has been posted online by Megaphone Magazine, Seiler's website, street art blogs Wooster Collective and Urban Prankster and was tweeted by Adbusters.

Seiler has also been busy, completing the Toronto Street Advertising Takeover last month. His next city? It could be Vancouver: "There are laws in the city of Vancouver that say there can't be advertising within x amount of metres of residential areas," Berman told The Tyee.

"[Making this documentary] definitely has spawned [in me] different ways of thinking about advertising, that it's not always legitimate, that we don't always have to take it in as face value, that we can question it.

"Maybe I, being a member of the public, I can change that."  [Tyee]

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