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Do You See Art, Advertising or Both?

Mural bylaws in Vancouver are complex, as a brewery owner frustratingly discovered.

Jen St. Denis 14 Aug 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

The mural featuring cartoonish beer vats and feisty rats has adorned the wall of Storm Brewing’s Commercial Drive building for almost 10 years.

But the promotional artwork — which features the name of the business in four-foot-high letters — ran afoul of city hall this spring. Mike Crozier, general manager for Storm, said the business got a letter saying the business needs a mural permit.

“When I started digging to see exactly what I needed and found the applications I need to apply for, I was told that we would never get approved,” said Crozier.

City staff had determined that the mural didn’t comply with a sign bylaw that sets out just how big promotional signs and advertising can be and where they’re allowed to be located.

The problem, Crozier says he was told, was that Storm’s mural includes both the name of the business and depicts the actual product the business sells.

“Your signage can only be 10 per cent of the size of the wall if you’re painting it on the wall,” Crozier said he was told. The mural’s depiction of beer-making was a problem because even though the mural is a piece of art, it’s considered a promotion for the business.

“I was given an example that a flower shop can’t have flowers painted outside the building.”

The city dictum struck many Vancouverites as ridiculous, including councillors with the ABC party, who were elected on a platform that included cutting red tape for businesses. (Those same councillors were previously roasted on social media for celebrating the erasure of graffiti with dull gray paint.)

“Last month, city council voted unanimously to direct staff to consider proposed bylaw amendments that would allow the Storm Brewing mural to be grandfathered and allowed to stay in place.”

At the last council meeting in July, city council voted in favour of considering amendments to the bylaw that would keep murals like the one outside Storm protected. These require city staff to report back on recommendations for commercial installations on business property when there is “a substantial component of artistic expression and benefit to the public realm.” For now, Storm has some time.

Storm has been in its location in an industrial area of East Vancouver since 1994, when craft breweries were just starting to take off. Crozier said the small brewery needed a way to stand out amongst the warehouses and small manufacturing businesses that dot the area, so in 2012 the brewery commissioned a local artists’ collective, Shop Wrong, to design the mural.

Vancouver has a long history of wrestling with the aesthetics and politics of signage. In 1974, city council banned the use of neon signs from the city out of a concern that neon made the city look trashy. A large electronic billboard erected by the Squamish Nation beside the Burrard Street Bridge also created consternation.

Mural Fest in Mount Pleasant has created stunning pieces of public art, but has also sparked conversations about gentrification and the role the real estate industry plays in the festival.

Between 2016 and 2019, the city reviewed its sign bylaw, with a focus on electronic and digital signage. The sign bylaw was streamlined and modernized, according to city staff.

Crozier said small businesses in Vancouver already feel the pressures of rising land costs and relentless gentrification. Storm’s building was sold several years ago, and the business expects that at some point, it will have to find a new space — a challenging prospect in a city with shrinking industrial land and very expensive rents for both businesses and residents.

Crozier now hopes city staff will consider whether murals can be both artistic and promotional. It’s a small way the city could make it a little easier for local businesses to thrive, Crozier said.

After a decade of adorning the wall of Storm’s small beer-making operation, the business’s mural is showing its age and needs a touch-up.

While Crozier waits for the final word about the mural, something good did come out of the uproar: Storm Brewing had lost touch with the artist, but he’s now made contact with the business and plans to give the mural a fresh layer of paint.  [Tyee]

Read more: Art, Municipal Politics

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