Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
A graffiti advertising campaign to promote the singer’s new album provokes hot, hot hate in the Golden City.
Justin Bieber has been found guilty of assault and careless driving, broken Selena Gomez’s heart, and gotten caught telling a super racist joke on camera. But all it took to get San Francisco to straight up declare war on the Biebs was some misplaced guerrilla advertising for his new album.
The stenciled and sprayed ads promoting Biebs’s new release, Purpose, appeared silently across city streets during November and December. People post advertisements—legally and otherwise—around cities all the time, and often without inciting outrage. The issue here, wrote San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera in Monday’s irate letter to Bieber label Def Jam Records and Universal Music Group, is that this graffiti “appears to have been applied with permanent spray paint.” Rain, Herrera writes, has not helped.
The San Francisco Public Works Department says it spends more than $20 million each year to clean up graffiti, and the city expects the Bieber team’s work to add to the bill.
Worse than the graffiti, though, seems to be the distasteful commercial aspect to the whole thing, which the city says has colored San Franciscans’ virulent responses to it.
“Our sidewalks in San Francisco are not canvasses for corporate advertising, and we have made that clear,” San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru said in a statement. “Yet these guerrilla marketers believe they are above the law when it comes to blighting our city. … The definition of graffiti is tagging someone else’s property without permission, and they certainly did not have our permission to do this to our sidewalks.”
The city has yet to receive a response from Team Bieber/Def Jam/Universal, but says that state and local laws allow it to pursue litigation that could force the marketing maniacs to pay up to $2,500 per spray job. Herrera’s letter also says San Francisco is pursuing more significant penalties for Bieber and other guerrilla advertisers, who have included IBM, NBC Universal, Turner Broadcasting, and Zynga. Yes, the city is a hotbed of sneaky marketing activity.
It’s interesting to note, however, that San Francisco has actually gotten more chill about street art of the non-commercial variety in the past decade or so. In 2009, the city Graffiti Advisory Board began coordinating with citizen and youth groups to use beautiful murals as a tagging abatement strategy. (A local arts organization told SF Weekly that just two in ten murals are graffitied over.)
True, a graffiti ordinance passed in 2012 actually raised the tagging penalty to a misdemeanor, with first-time offenders facing a fine up to $1,000 and one year of jail time. But advocacy and youth groups on the ground in San Francisco and in nearby Oakland are also working on “restorative justice” measures, which handle the tagging problem outside the criminal justice system. These programs invite (often teenage) offenders to work with property owners to cover up their unsanctioned handiwork with mutually agreed-upon, permanent street art.
“The ubiquity of murals shows the city's evolving acceptance of street art as creative expression and a reflection of a place's past,” wrote SF Weekly’s Melissa Hellmann in a 2014 piece on the Bay Area’s shifting attitudes toward graffiti. She continued:
The corridor of murals in the Mission's Clarion Alley is a nod to the area's history as a creative hub for artists and musicians. Now it's a tourist attraction, the latter-day version of one of San Francisco's more traditional landmarks—a Lombard Street with spray paint rather than flowers. Balmy Alley in the Inner Mission, meanwhile, is the city's most concentrated collection of murals. Its ode to Chicano art is a way for indigenous communities to celebrate their culture and to reclaim an area where they have felt disenfranchised.
Chuck the stencil and make some thoughtful art, Biebs, and maybe San Francisco will go easier on you next time.