Wheatpasting, flyering, public art, and other forms of communication that are illegal in Ypsilanti

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.

OrrPennyAs 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.

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  1. Posted September 8, 2013 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    I know we kind of covered it in the Hedger Breed anecdote above, but, to reiterate, Section 74-51’s mention of “permission of the owner” doesn’t really cary much weight. At least that was our experience when dealing with the City after our house was spraypainted. We were told by the City to remove the graffiti. We weren’t asked if we’d given our permission. We were told to either remove it, or be fined. And I suspect that’s how it usually goes.

  2. anonymous
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Ypsilanti: It’s like living in Singapore, but without the jobs.

  3. Teresa
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    A quick bit on murals.
    The City revised the sign ordinance a few years back specifically allowing murals (such as what’s on the side of the Corner Health building downtown). The reason the city requires a permit is to confirm that the property owner has provided consent, and to confirm that it’s not an advertisement. This summer a local artist came in requesting to paint a mural on the side of Dos Hermanos on Michigan Ave. In this case, the artist submitted a sketch, provided owner approval, and an application and was approved on the spot – no fee required. The mural is up.

  4. Edward
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    There used to be at least one kiosk in town. The one I’m thinking of was on Washington Street, in front of what was Club Divine. I believe it’s been gone for at least a decade now. I’m not sure what prompted its removal.

  5. Eel
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Free speech is for those who can afford billboards.


  6. Aaron
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    A sign kiosk would be a cool thing to have in Ypsi IMO.

  7. Lynne
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I like wheatpasting art too. I think it would be nice if the city designated places where such art could be allowed. It also would be nice to have a public kiosk for hand bills. I find them very informative. One suggested location would be the Ypsi Transit Center since a lot of people are often standing around there waiting for buses and might appreciate a public kiosk with community information and the occasional bit of wheatpasted art.

  8. John Galt
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    The poor, if they were responsible, would eat their wheat paste, and stop taking public handouts. Instead, though, they want to put up political artwork with it.

  9. Eel
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    If we do good work won’t gallery 555 come and take it anyway?

  10. Elliott
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I understand that you don’t want to live in a city where everything is tagged. At the same time though who wants to live in a city that wants to be a suburb? It’s not who we are. We need grit.

  11. Tommy
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Elliot – there is no shortage of grit in Ypsilanti. With or without graffiti, Ypsi has grit.

  12. G.G.
    Posted September 9, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    And with all those statutes people still litter like crazy. I’d rather look at flyers on buildings than fast food wrappers and plastic whiskey bottles.

  13. wobblie
    Posted September 10, 2013 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    How does the public art, such as the portrait on the side of the Food co-op fit in?

  14. Ryan
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Mark for looking into this! and I apologize for a long over due response. The beginning of the term blindsided me. Our adjunct instructor who I was helping research this for shifted his focus to Detroit as he managed to drum up some collaborations with the Lincoln Street Art Park. But this is really good to know about for the future.

    I know the City of Ypsi has been looking into developing some public art spaces, might be worthwhile for them to explore creating a space for potential wheatpasted public exhibitions/free speech sites. There is a former MCAD student in the Twin Cities who hosts wheatpasted exhibitions. If I can find a link to the work I’ll post it here.

  15. Posted September 19, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I was doing my best to protect your anonymity, Ryan, in hopes of keeping you out of jail. Let’s just hope that no one starts wheatpasting around town. If they do, the cops are going to come for you… In the meantime, we should talk with City Council about designating a wall. Maybe we could gather some artists to make a few pieces, to give folks a sense of what the art might look like. Maybe that would take some of the fun out of it, but my sense is that it would be a lot easier to sell as an experiment if we could alleviate some of their concerns up front. Or, maybe we could just build a wall in the woods, where City Council members aren’t likely to be found. However it happens, I think that this should move forward.

  16. Ryan
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the anonymity, because the instructor who I was asking for shifted the goals of their project I wasn’t too worried about the anonymity. Personally I feel as faculty we have a responsibility to our students and cannot require a student to do something illegal. Should a student do something on their own accord, we can’t control that. I think this information really enhances the discussion of how does one get a message out to the public. Especially the grey areas where one might even obtain permission but have to remove the work.

    Growing up in El Paso I had the opportunity to work on a graffiti mural for local business owners. These murals were great because they curbed graffiti on the building (I think mainly because they were created by graffiti artists/taggers). But these murals were also subject to signage and graffiti laws, I can recall a few that were required by the city to be painted over only to later be tagged.

    This has me curious about other mediums of mass communication/advertising such as flyer-ing (putting flyers in mailboxes, on car windsheilds, etc.) and what the legality of that may be.

    As for creating a wall somewhere, let’s chat further about that.

  17. Tony
    Posted September 17, 2015 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Putting up flyers ended in Ypsilanti because of a band that played at the Elbow Room years ago called the baby killers. Before the Garris era.

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