Billboard improvement

by Garrison Frost

A few weeks ago, a local tagger put graffiti all over a billboard that hangs over a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway that I drive to work every day (He also tagged a bunch of freeway signs – so he's dead to me, regardless of anything else I say here). There are a lot of billboards on this particularly unattractive stretch of PCH, lots of run down buildings. So while some might consider the graffiti on the Verizon ad a blight, it?s actually a slight improvement to me. But not much of one. To me, the only way to improve a billboard is to take it down.

I've never liked billboards, or any man-made thing hung in my field of vision without my permission, even those seasonal banners that cities sometimes put up to mark the holidays or shop downtown or encourage people to go museums. I'd rather look at the sky, or at trees, or at nice buildings. I see billboards and all the other junk as the same unwelcome intrusion. I also see graffiti as an intrusion for a lot of the same reasons. It's junk added on top of junk.

But graffiti is still slightly better than ads. First of all, graffiti is usually local. The "artists" aren't people in some faraway place that come to my neighborhood to block out the sun. Also, your typical graffiti artist isn't asking me to buy anything, unlike the billboard advertiser. In fact, he's practicing the most basic form of advertising there is; he only wants to announce that he exists. I have much less of a problem with that than I do with a giant ad for Coors Light. Still, the graffiti artist isn't a hero to me. Far from it.

Some will say that the graffiti is ugly. And sure, being made with much less sophisticated tools than your typical national ad campaign, graffiti is bound to look pretty sloppy. And I can't argue that lots of graffiti piled together doesn't look like hell. It does. But so does a lot of advertising. In that sense, there's really no aesthetic difference between a neighborhood piled high with advertising and one covered with graffiti. The only difference is that the advertisers paid money to someone you'll never know and the graffiti artist didn't. There are those who will argue that the person who does graffiti indicates that he has no respect for the neighborhood. Well, I'd be surprised if that billboard owner hangs versions of his ads in his house. And I'd be equally surprised if he owns any billboards within sight of his living room window. Truth is, he doesn't give a crap about your neighborhood. The graffiti artist actually cares what people see or he wouldn't put it up there. And I say all this acknowledging that some graffiti is gang-related and promoting violence and all that. I have nothing nice to say about that kind of graffiti and don't really include it in these arguments.

Of course, the people who own the billboard – and certainly the Verizon people or their advertising consultants – don't share this view. They will no doubt view it as a property concern. How would I feel, they would ask, if someone came to my house and spray painted all over it? My response is that I would be quite angry about it, and demand full prosecution of the culprit. At the same time, my house isn't quite the same as their billboard. My house doesn't exist for the sole purpose of making money, i.e. selling advertising. It also doesn't make any demands on my neighbors that they look at it or that they buy things advertised on it. My house isn't placed so as to be noticed by the most number of people. Really, my house is a little more personal than the billboard. So don't ask me to cry a river for the billboard owner.

Frankly, I'm surprised the tagger's work has been on that billboard for this long. I would have thought that the Verizon folks would replace their ad right away. But no, it's been there for a while. It will be removed soon. It will have to be for the billboard owner to ever make any money. But this is a battle that has nothing to do with me, and in a way I don't care who wins. It's all the same to me. One person's ad is another person's graffiti.

(July 25, 2006)

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