I guess, because I’ve written about the fuzzy line separating street art and vandalism before, I received a letter a few days ago from a local designer asking about the legality of wheatpasting – the act of affixing artwork or posters to walls and other structures with flour paste. Here’s his note.
I’ve been trying to do some digging into whether or not there are any laws regarding wheatpasting in Ypsi. I know some cities allow wheatpasting in designated areas, others don’t view it as graffiti since it isn’t “permanent”… If you have any knowledge, or could point me to anyone who (might) know, that would be great.
As it’s been my experience that wheatpasted works tend to be less destructive than spraypainted pieces, and since I tend to be quite fond, for the most part, of wheatpasted propaganda… like this piece to the right, featuring Kevyn Orr, which just showed up a couple of weeks ago in Detroit… I decided to help this reader of mine find out just what he might expect to have happen to him if caught within the City limits with a bucket of paste. I wrote to our Chief of Police, several members of City Council, and a few other folks who know a thing or two about local ordinance enforcement. Here, summed up to the best of my ability, is what I was told.
1. The term “wheatpasting” doesn’t exist in the ordinance book. However, consensus seems to be that someone found doing putting up artwork with paste might be charged with a violation Section 42-47, which states, “No person shall use any paint, spray paint, pigment or similar means to injure, deface or destroy any public or private property including the making of any drawing, inscription, design, scribbling, model, picture, pictorial, graph or other marking commonly referred to as ‘graffiti’.”
2. And, if that didn’t work, as wheatpasting and graffiti are different and distinct (wheatpasted works eventually disappear), they’d likely charge you with a general nuisance violation under Section 74-51, which concerns the destruction of property. “It shall be unlawful,” according to the ordinance, “for any person to willfully destroy, damage, or deface any property not his own by, including but not limited to, the spraying or painting by any means such property without either the permission of the owner or authority granted by law.”
3. And, even if the piece in question were to be seen as a flyer or handbill, it would still be illegal. (The ordinance code deals with flyers and handbills in the “litter” section.) Section 42-81 prohibits the posting of notices in public spaces. “No person shall post or affix any notice, poster or other paper or device calculated to attract the attention of the public, to any public utility pole or City owned shade tree, or upon any public structure or building, except as authorized by law or the owner thereof, with the exception of public kiosks, and other places designated by the City Council by resolution,” it says.
4. There are no public kiosks within the City limits, and, as of today, City Council has not designated a place for either the public posting of notices or non-commissioned public art.
5. How about non-public buildings? “If put on private property,” I was told, “a wheatpasted poster would be considered a sign and a sign permit would be required.”
6. And what would happen to a building owner who gave his or her consent? “I remember, a while back, Hedger Breed received a notice to abate stencil graffiti on the alley wall of his building on Pearl Street,” someone told me, “and argued that he didn’t have to remove it because he was retroactively granting permission to the unknown culprit, because he liked it as art.” If I’m not mistaken, that particular piece has since been removed. The City, I believe, handed it off to the Historic District Commission (HDC), and, citing national standards dictating that unpainted masonry should remain unpainted, they ordered its removal. (If I’m not mistaken, the HDC can levy fines.)
7. A possible alternative… Within the sign ordinance, there’s a provision for murals. I don’t know how likely the’d be to sign off, especially if the work in question is in any way political, but I’m told that it’s free to apply.
8. Lastly, nothing is stopping us from working with our elected officials to designate a space for the sharing of these kind of materials. If there’s a feeling that such a space is necessary, there’s no reason we couldn’t go to City Council and request that space be made available for this purpose.
So, to recap, there’s essentially no way to share public information legally inside the City of Ypsilanti, unless you either convince a building owner to put something in one of his or her windows, or make use of one of the information kiosks, which don’t exist.
The good news is, there’s been talk recently of constructing either a kiosk or a graffiti wall. Perhaps, depending on how this conversation evolves, we could get together with the DDA to discuss our options. (I suspect we could raise at least $1,000 without too much trouble, and sign up quite a few people who’d be willing to help with the construction.)
Before closing this post, I should say that my house was tagged earlier this year, and it’s not something that I was thrilled to have happen. Had it been even remotely interesting, I might have felt differently, but it just kind of sucked. So, I’m not suggesting that we all go out and start wheatpasting posters onto the sides of our neighbors’ homes. I do think, however, that we need to do a better job of facilitating conversations between people in our community, and encouraging creativity… and I don’t see how the current system does either.
One last thought… I’m wondering if the temptation to spraypaint might be less if wheatpasting were more accepted.
Now, with all of that said, here’s Shepard Fairey with a tutorial on wheatpasting. (Just do me a favor, and, if you’re caught, don’t say that I encouraged you.)
update: I apparently posted something pretty similar four years ago, urging the powers that be to construct a kiosk. Apparently, nothing came of it.