Antlerheads in Montreal

Earlier this week, while walking to a friend’s place on Coloniale Street on the Plateau, I came across an unusual piece of street art. Pasted on an abandoned mattress that was leaning against the side of a building, it depicted the body of a skinny-jeaned, cardiganed hipster topped by the head of a motorized scooter. Its position on the mattress created an interesting optical illusion that gave the scooter-man an extra sense of depth; looking at it head-on, it seemed to be standing up straight in front of me. Later that day, heading home on the 80 bus, I saw a few slightly different versions of the same paste-up on the papered-over windows of a vacant storefront on Park Avenue.

It turns out that the scooter-men, dubbed Antlerheads, are a guerilla marketing campaign for Vespa, which commissioned a well-known street artist, Fauxreel, to promote its new Vespa S scooter in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary. His work has already made a big splash in Toronto, where they appeared last month. “Guerilla marketing gone horribly right?” asked blogTO, which admired the fact that they are at once an advertisement and a parody of consumer culture — “the idea that we can exchange our faces and minds with a product.” Strategy Magazine reports that the posters are part of a much larger campaign that will include print advertisements, street teams distributing scooter-head buttons and a giant 40-foot projection.

As advertising in conventional media becomes less and less effective, marketers are turning to guerilla advertising to get the word out about new products. At its worst, guerilla marketing cynically co-opts street art and public space to sell us more crap we don’t really need. But, somehow, the Antlerheads seem different. They are a very oblique form of promotion, since they contain no obvious signs of being sponsored by Vespa. No logos, no web addresses; only someone who is already familiar with the company’s scooters would recognize them as advertising. Artistically speaking, they certainly hold their own against most of the graffiti, stencils and paste-ups found in our streets, and their cultural commentary gives them an added dimension.

None of that matters to public space activists. Last week, Patricia Simoes ripped into the Antlerheads on Spacing Toronto, decrying them as “socially irresponsible and an abuse of public space.” Although I can understand the sentiment, the arguments used to attack Fauxreel’s work are awfully tenuous. “Despite the creativity of the campaign, this form of guerrilla marketing is illegal,” notes Simoes. (Isn’t all street art illegal?) She then quotes Jonathan Goldsbie of the Toronto Public Space Committee, who describes the Antlerheads and similar camapigns as “corporations claiming public space as their own, engaging in vandalism for profit, and leaving it up to the City and perhaps citizens and business owners to clean up their mess.”

The irony of this argument is that it is exactly the same one used by many local politicians to condemn all forms of street art. When opponents of graffiti, stencils, posters and stickers explain why they dislike street art, they invariably decry it as unsightly vandalism and a burden on the public purse. They also point out, accurately enough, that it is illegal. So how can a distinction be made between “good” illegal street art and “bad” illegal street art? In the eyes of the law, it’s all the same, whether it is meant to promote a product or not. It’s hard to make a case for street art when legitimate work like the Antlerheads is attacked simply because it has a corporate patron.

This, of course, raises all sorts of questions about artistic integrity and so forth. They’ve been debated for decades and I’m certainly not the one to offer any sort of satisfactory answer. But I think it’s unreasonable to expect street artists to work entirely without self-interest: they need to make a living just like anyone, which means they need a reliable source of funding. Ultimately, what is the difference between good art funded by Vespa and good art funded by a government grant? It’s in the best interest of our cities to create an environment that is conducive to the creation of street art — and in order for that to happen, we need to judge street art according to its artistic merit, not its patrons.

20 comments

  1. If you’re suggesting that the graffiti now befouling every inch of Montreal private and public space is in any way, “art,” and is in any way anything other than vandalism — you just lost me.

    It isn’t just the “illegality” of spraypainting someone’s front door with gang-tags which people (or “many politicians”) object to. It is the fact that it is an aggressive, invasive act.

    99% of the graffiti is not art and has zero to do with any discussion of art.

    It is destruction, vandalism, intimidation, territorial pissing — not creation.

  2. There is no irony, no question: thankfully, advertisers are not allowed to plaster posters anywhere they want. Commercial communication is always trying to break into new spaces and there is a long history of abuses of public space by advertisers. This is why advertising is regulated. So there is no doubt that Vespa is pasting ads in public areas and should be heavily fined.

    The fact that they hired an urban artist to design their posters is irrelevant and has nothing to do with the artist himself. You are introducing “all sort of questions” that are interesting but don’t exist.

    A lot of great artists are hired and well paid by advertisers. Great. Fine. No question of integrity is involved. We know film directors who do tv ads, illustrators who do magazine or daily ads, musicians who do radio ads, etc. If advertisers then use this art in illegal ways, the artist is not at fault, only the advertiser is.

    Vespa could have used Fauxreel’s art in inventive legal ways (there are a lot of possibilities, they can phone me if their ad agency is too dumb). They have choosen instead to abuse public spaces and, I would add, to abuse the natural trust that we have for street artists.

    Even worse, I think such kind of guerilla advertising is detrimental to street art. I love urban art, and I can tell you most of it is already short lived. We don’t need to give another reason to home owners or law enforcement to have urban art scrapped from our city.

  3. For Bourdieu this is a classic example of market forces co-opting parts of the artistic field, which stands in opposition to market values.

    A visually-dizzying city full of (half-decomposed) posters and graffiti is incompatible with middle-class consumers who (are made to) value the safe, the monotonous, the visually unchallenging (notice the superbland textures of a lot of recent urban developments?).

    Street art also threatens the profitability of conventional advertising. Can’t sell us Koodo if the women in the ads have handlebar mustaches can they?

    I guess Montreal hasn’t gotten around to using its power for full-on middle-class reconquest. If NYC really does set the example for other cities to follow, we can expect a crackdown on street art, vespa or no.

    (ps. “Avenue du Parc”)

  4. I actually saw one today. Near Concordia, too bad I didn’t have my camera.

  5. I really think Bruno nailed. The objectionable part of this is that Vespa has the financial wherewithal to advertise their product in a way that no one else, besides large companies, can afford.

    Here in Toronto, The only real Vespa resller is part of a local BIA (biz association) that decries the spread of graffiti and street art. They pay people to tear down posters from the hydro poles. They appeal to city hall to ban postering and stiff vandalism penalties. They have anti-graffiti crews that scrubs alley walls.

    Then they use the same medium and method to promote their own product.
    2% of my problem with the campaign is whether the artist has sold out. Artists can debate that amongst themselves. My opposition is with the response from the powers that be: City Hall rarely, if ever, deals with corporations in the same manner as they do with prolific taggers.

  6. I saw one plastered to the side of Ben’s (on de Maisonneuve) the other day. They are much more brazen than street artists (I’m less than willing to call advertising of any form “art”) suggesting that because they have a corporate sponsor, they aren’t afraid of the authorities.

    The true genius of this ad campaign is that we are doing all the work for them. No where on their ads is the word “Vespa” written but in this post with its comments alone (not including mine) the word “Vespa” is written nine times. There are many other articles in the media and on the internet discussing this ad (two posts alone on this blog). They give us a posters plastered on a few walls in a couple cities and our arguments/discussions concerning them do the advertising for them.

  7. Well, it is illegal, but at least it looks much better than all the tasteless graffiti tags found on almost every wall (and every single piece of street furniture) around. By the way, you caught two behind the mattress.

    Chris, why would anyone refuse to call advertising of any form ‘art’? When you study and are paid to create something, does it make you less of an artist? Would this imply that tags are art but beautiful legal pieces of graffiti are not? Am I missing something here?

  8. I’d just like to point out that, strictly speaking, none of the Antlerheads I’ve seen in Montreal are illegal. It’s perfectly legal to paste something on a construction hoarding or boarded-up window (vacant windows that are papered over might be a grey area, but I don’t think they’re explicitly off-limits). That’s why you see so many Publicité sauvage posters on these particular places.

  9. Are you sure about that? I used to do postering. Costruction boards and boarded up windows are still private property and although its never enforced, I believe it is still illegal. Sort of the like the no-sitting-on-sculptures bylaw at Berri Square story you reported on earlier. On the books but rarely/never enforced?

  10. Street art is for many a place of resistance to, or refuge from, the commodification of art, space and culture. It’s a site for doing something because you love it, as a tribute to or critical response to space you inhabit. Campaigns like this one put a pall of suspicion over such acts, blunt the power street art can have by smearing it in to commercialism, and send a subtle message to anyone who considers expressing themselves artistically: there is nothing that won’t eventually be commodified, there is no expression you can think of that won’t eventually be used against you.

    This campaign represents blandness, it insults true artists (meaning anyone who seeks beauty through expression), and it insults people who care about their city by pretending to be a contribution to its texture. And worst of wall, it’s just tacky.

    Just look at the ads. If that isn’t an encouragement to completely identify with – identify *as* – the products I consume, I don’t know what it is. What can redeem that?

    But who cares whether this is legal or not? There are plenty of wonderful illegal things and horrible legal things – like pollution, which these ads qualify as.

  11. Why don’t we talk about the horrible tags that visually pollute every single neighborhood in the city (I am not talking about the nice graffiti, but about tags that are not meant to be art or mean anything), before bashing these ads that at least have a meaning?

    For some reason I think if these were not meant to be part of an advertising campaign, but simply illegal street art, you would all be praising them. Am I right?

  12. The point is that it cannot be acceptable to put any “art” of any kind on a building facade or piece of street furniture you do not own.
    I like some of the graffiti murals I have seen but cannot condone it being done to another’s property. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of the “blandness” of the urban structure there is no right to mar it.

    Would it be acceptable to any of the supporters of so-called “street art” like to have their cars be adorned with some punk’s “art” because the “artist” felt it looked banal, represented the commodification of culture or whatever other justification can be dreamed up for vandalism? Or would you like to have dudes hanging outside your house “beautifying” it with their “artistic interpretations” using spray paint on your front door while you slept?

    No one has the right in our society to ruin another’s property simply because they have something to say or sell.

    There is a slippery slope argument here. Either no unauthorized art is ok or all of it is otherwise who draws the line and with what rationale?

    I highly doubt Vespa stores will fancy it cool if someone were to use their structures for “guerilla advertising” of some other product.

  13. Thanks Andrew. I completely agree with your comment. People have their right to have their property look the way they want, and not the way some vandals want it to look. It is really insensitive from the so called street “artists” to impose their view of beauty on someone else’s property, considering the owner might have had to work very hard to get that property and to make it look the way he/she wanted.

    My comments were directed to the ones who defend vandalism, which for some reason I still don’t understand, seem to be the majority of the internet community. The “graffiti tagging” issue in Montreal is more serious than in almost any other city in North America. I think we would all agree that most tags we see on every downtown and le plateau building, lamp pole, mail box, etc are very polluting, and most of them are not meant to be art by their creators (I have confirmed this first hand). They considerably decrease the beauty of our neighborhoods and it takes a lot of money and effort from us tax-payers to remove them. Defending graffiti tags or other forms of vandalism under the name of “art” should be avoided, as it might contribute to strengthening the problem. There are plenty of legal ways to show your art, and if you are talented people are going to like it and support you. There is no reason for anybody to punish the city just because of their lack of talent.

    I do not condone any type of vandalism (in which this ad campaign is included), my point is that we should stop blindly labeling any kind of urban defacing as “street art,” and attacking these just because they are ads. Why would a blog that praises new urban developments and street furniture projects, would call “art” the scrawls that are not created with artistic purposes and that all they do is deface those same pieces of urban development and street furniture we like so much?

    Christopher, there is no irony to this argument because they simply understand, as Andrew pointed out, that a line cannot be drawn between good illegal street “art” and bad illegal street “art.” You cannot write in the law that beautiful or meaningful illegal “art” is allowed, but ugly or meaningless illegal “art” is not. It just cannot work that way. Most of what you call “street art” is polluting and not meant to be art, and the only way to stop the defacing of our city is to stop condoning any kind of illegal destruction, regardless of weather you think it’s beautiful or not.

  14. Nice stuff. A new way to reach the masses. Just goes to show that a typical ad is not always the way.

  15. Personally, I think this is an example of guerrilla marketing doing exactly what it is designed to do and doing it well. It’s stirring up “controversy” and making people talk. The saying “there’s no such thing as bad press” springs to mind. The campaign is getting tongues wagging and getting the brand noticed. The actual images being used and the way they are positioned and located, are well thought out and aesthetically pleasing. Of course it’s illegal, that’s the whole point. I salute Vespa for trying an alternative campaign method.

  16. I was in Montreal this past weekend & saw some of these. I didn’t actually associate them with a brand. I like the idea of brands supporting street artists. But, that said, it depends on the brand and the approach. I really don’t see the harm in this if it’s subtle and nicely executed (like I feel this is). I find those ugly band posters on street poles more offensive. At least these look good.

  17. I think it’s a very strong campaign, eye catching, attention grabbing, which is what good effective advertising is supposed to be.

  18. @Shawn: I recognize that a lot of graffiti is unsightly, but entirely dismissing the merits of an entire form of calligraphy simply because of the limited context in which you’ve thus far encountered it is excessive and unreasonable.

    If you don’t consider calligraphy art, think of Japanese or Arabic calligraphy, or even western medieval traditions. If you’re willing to accept that calligraphy can be an art form (you take a number of predefined elements and arrange them aesthetically to create flow, contrast, texture, and style), then you’d certainly be willing to accept that “tagging”, if it was done on paper, in notebooks, in public spaces provided for it, etc., can be appreciated as art.

    So the only remaining criticism is the illegality of appropriating public space for purposes of artistic expression, which is what Chris is talking about: it can be, at times, somewhat nebulous. Sure, someone spray painting a tag on the front door of your house is obviously vandalism, but what about the concrete wall of a highway overpass? I think an important aspect of art is that it challenges existing aesthetic notions: if you only present art in private to people who already like it, it’s essentially meaningless, right? I’m not necessarily trying to argue that graffiti is a “good thing”, I’m just trying to open up the discussion a little.

    And as for referring to graf tags as “gang-tags”, that’s just false. Tags are individual monikers that writers put up either to practice their style or to gain recognition. While their is some gang graffiti in large cities with significant gang activity, it’s generally simple letters or symbols meant to mark territory. The vast majority of tags that you see (with highly stylized letters) are not gang graffiti.

  19. I agree with Louis most tags are not gang graffiti. I do think tagging could be considered a form of art, if defined properly, but most of what we see every day everywhere in our city wouldn’t fall into any serious definition. I think tagging should never be allowed in private property without the consent of the owner and we should stop prising works of vandalism, for reasons already presented above in many of the comments, besides the obvious reasons that tags are highly polluting and all of us would agree they have become an eyesore in many of our neighborhoods, including some touristic areas.

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