Paste-Ups, People and Profits

The endless search for space on the city’s walls…

by Hayden Currie
Photo credits: Cashflo Dollar

If you want to use street postering to promote a cause, product, or event in Wellington, there are at least three ways to go about it. You can do it yourself, you can pay Phantom to do it, or you can get someone else to do it. Over the past five years I’ve been personally involved with aspects of each; from pasting up my own art, to designing band posters pasted by others, to postering for my comedy-rap group RICHE$, to paying Phantom (with a Creative Communities grant) to paste posters that people were encouraged to draw on, to placing thousands of posters, for everything from ANZ Bank to Anti Fluoridation meetings, while working as a Phantom billsticker between November 2010 and March 2011.

Phantom Billstickers is Wellington’s only billsticking company. Founded in Christchurch in 1982, Phantom bought out Wellington’s Sticky Fingers in 2001 and in 2002 it entered into a lease agreement with the Wellington City Council to regulate and maintain the city’s poster poles and bollards. There are now 57 of these – and in total, Phantom has over 200 sites around the city, from as far north as Taita, down to Island Bay. These include sites in Lower Hutt, Petone, Aotea Quay, Mount Cook, Mount Victoria, Massey and Victoria Universities, Aro Valley, Newtown, Kilbirnie, Berhampore, Hataitai and Miramar, though the majority of sites are in the central city, Phantom said. Besides the poles and bollards, Phantom maintains a number of hoardings built and rented through lease agreements with property owners, unframed sites maintained with the property owner’s agreement, and unframed sites maintained without the property owner’s agreement.

The last kind – ‘rogue,’ ‘renegade,’ or ‘freehold’ sites as they are sometimes known – are the least common but the most controversial, used mostly by Do It Yourself posterers. ‘There are very few sites where we haven’t been able to find or get a response from the owner, that every man and his dog has used for years and we do, too. Phantom has done a huge amount to clean up the system so that property owners get paid for the use of their property,’ says Phantom Billstickers General Manager Jamey Holloway

Some property owners, though not concerned by the postering, were unaware of any agreement. ‘Not that I’m aware of. Everybody’s just been putting up what they feel,’ says Emmanouel Giannakakis, the owner of the Peaches and Cream building on the corner of Cuba and Vivian Street. One Cuba Street property owner, who did not want to be named, said: ‘[They] should not be postering stickers all over the place. Ask them to go to Singapore and they’ll be put in jail. They should follow some regulations, have some due diligence on where they put them, not just paste them all over the place.’ This comment applied not only to Phantom, but to anyone postering on his property.

‘Under property law, posting of notices without permission is a trespass to property and property owners can take steps to seek compensation or remove posters,’ senior Victoria University law lecturer Dean Knight says. ‘But these offences and rules are generally small-fry and depend on the willingness of the property owner and/or police to pursue them. At times, the Bill of Rights might also come into play and soften the extent of the restrictions. For example, the Council, Police, and/or property owners might need to be more tolerant of bill-sticking relating to electioneering or other important speech.”

Local musician and community activist Benjamin Knight (no relation to Dean) says that Phantom’s increasing dominance of the City has made DIY poster space scarce: ‘Aro, Cuba Street, Courtenay place. There are only a few spots left on each. And there’s such intense competition for the few spots remaining that the unwritten rules of conduct are starting to break down. People are more ruthless, postering over events that haven’t happened yet. It’s not because they want to, it’s because they’re desperate. The places that people without a budget can poster for a community event are marginalised. So as a result of Phantom monopolising all of these traditional public poster spots, people are really pushed out.’

‘To me there’s a difference,’ Knight continues, ‘between an individual doing something that’s illegal but has social benefit, and a profit-making company breaking the law to benefit themselves and other profit-making companies.’ He’s currently preparing a Council-funded project aimed at ‘building emergency preparedness and neighbourhood resilience’ in a ‘traditionally quite disjointed’ Central City area, and says that Phantom had ‘privatised all the space we might be able to advertise the event in, and I feel like contributing to Phantom would be taking away from other non-profit community based organisations.’ Knight has been postering on average a show a fortnight in Wellington for the last three years – mostly fundraisers for community organisations, promoted by an average poster run of 100-150 A3s. Sometimes bandmates put these out, but about once a month he did it himself.

‘Phantom are absolutely merciless in ripping these posters down. Posters for events that are raising money for child poverty action, for Women’s Refuge, even earthquake relief benefit concerts. So not only do they privatise and monopolise these spaces, but they also rip down posters around these spots,’ Knight maintains.

Phantom Billstickers Wellington Area Manager Ben Stonyer says he didn’t think Phantom monopolised public space. ‘If it’s near one of our wall sites we’ll clear it off the wall, because we pay money to lease that and part of the deal is to keep it clean. If it’s on a bollard and it’s put there nicely we leave it there, as long as it’s not advertising a product. I guess a lot of people perceive us as just putting up posters for McDonald’s or Coca Cola and we don’t give a shit about the little guy, which is total bullshit. I mean I’ve had lots of emails from small bands like “thanks for helping us out, you guys are great.”’

Phantom offers a discount to unsigned bands. ‘20% off placement or 25 free A3 posters, whatever’s greater… There are community discounts for charity groups as well. We do a lot of that stuff for free or cheap. Like Greenpeace [Rena’s Ghost Birds], which we did heavily discounted. We did free posters for Wellington Rape Crisis. We did an offer where Christchurch businesses could do a hundred A3s for free after the quake. I would have done 6 or 7 free campaigns to promote Christchurch fundraising in Wellington… We actually do care about the public, as opposed to some perception out there that we’re only in it to make money. We benefit the community by putting out hundreds and thousands of posters for arts and events in this City and around New Zealand.’

Phantom does more poster campaigns in Wellington than any other city. ‘At least 70 a week,’ Stonyer says, ‘and the majority of these are for arts and events. Especially in Wellington, street postering is seen as a birthright. I’m not arguing for or against that. I’m sure a lot of people have been putting posters up in this City for years and have their own views… A lot of the ones that do their own postering, they’re not the ones who clean up their mess. Their posters fall off and look ratty and dirty on the street. That’s visual pollution. It just pollutes the city. But people are gonna do their own thing. They always have and always will’.

Matt, who has a background in Art History and didn’t want to give his last name, has been playing in (and postering for) a number of Wellington bands for around 7 years, and for the past 10 months he’s also done a weekly poster run for clients including a local art gallery and a popular music venue, both of which he didn’t want named. He says he takes a ‘curatorial’ approach to DIY postering, and tries to make neglected spaces look better by turning them into ‘mini galleries.’ ‘I see where Phantom’s coming from but I think we can co-exist. If they saw what I do they’d see I maintain my sites. If it’s been raining I spend as much time taking down old wet posters as I do putting them up. I don’t get paid for that but I feel like it’s a responsibility.’

Matt said he follows certain ‘conventions that people don’t usually break,’ such as respecting ‘Post No Bills’ signs, avoiding garbage bins, electrical boxes and ‘messy’ sites where posters were often ripped and property owners clearly didn’t want them, taking note of how many posters others had put out and not going over small community campaigns. He also uses wallpaper glue, which despite being more expensive than flour paste, was tidier.

‘There’s almost this contract with the city. You get away with a certain amount of postering but not too much. And that line is always moving. And Phantom is always negotiating that line, and everyone who’s postering, whether they realise it or not, is always negotiating that line.’ Some posterers, such as promoter and festival organiser LaDeDa, had in the past crossed that line, Matt says.

‘I think because they poster intermittently they don’t get a feel for it and don’t necessarily maintain it. And they poster over a lot of shows that are upcoming. Like they’re not thinking: “I won’t go over that cause it hasn’t been yet.” They’re just thinking: “How can I promote my gig?” Saying that, there has been an improvement, with the Ghostface and Pharcyde shows. I suspect they started to get a bit of a backlash against what they were doing.’

‘I don’t understand why people would criticize our marketing methods,’ LaDeDa promoter and festival organiser Josh Mossman says. ‘We are just trying to promote our concerts like they are. I instruct my postering team to only ever put posters over “past gigs.” Does this always happen? No. But it is a revolving process and often our posters get covered as well. With limited free space on the city streets it is inevitable that this will happen sometimes.’

Local musician Sam Thurston has been postering in Wellington for the past 9 years, promoting ‘hundreds’ of shows, including punk and activist events. He said lately he’s been doing bigger runs because they get posted over or taken down quicker. ‘As opposed to spending 10 bucks on posters and doing one run, I spend 20 [dollars, on a 150 A3s] and do three runs. I don’t notice a big difference in ruthlessness,’ Thurston says. ‘Just sometimes people go over you, sometimes they don’t. But there’s definitely more posters going up, and less space. The etiquette I follow is dates, so if the show hasn’t been I won’t go over it. Or if they’re using Phantom as well as DIY spots. And if they’ve got lots of sponsorship I’ll go over them.’

Only once had he been approached by an unhappy property owner, while postering for a recent show. The owner of the Cuba Street building told him he didn’t want posters on his property. ‘I managed to turn it ‘round a little bit by pointing out that not having the money or sponsorship, it costs too much to go with Phantom, so we had to go on these spots. And I apologised, and he was real reasonable. I said to him: “We won’t poster here any more. I just thought it was up for grabs because it’s been like this so long,”’ Thurston says.

t time of writing, the Council’s ‘Postering’ web page has Phantom’s former address and the email and cell-phone number for Area Manager Matthew Smith, who left Phantom three years ago. However, the Phantom office phone numbers (0800 PHANTOM or 0800 742 686, and 04 382 9199) are current, and Phantom is required to display this number on poles and bollards. ‘If people want to access the bollards, just come in or send us an email. Pick up the phone,’ Stonyer says.

Phantom’s contract with the Council requires that poles and bollards be reserved for community arts and events, and ‘events or issues by persons where there is no commercial outcome intended.’ Phantom must make quarterly progress reports and report all illegal advertising to the Council, which audits Phantom’s services at least once a year.

Phantom only puts new bollards in if there is a need for them, Stonyer says. ‘Such as if the council sees a lot of renegade postering. The solution is to put a bollard next to that place and offer cheap postering for those bands, which we do anyway. The 10% community allowance on bollards is done through a 20% discount, giving you a number of free posters which add up to about 20% of the bollard space. That 10% space would be taken up by the first person to roll in, so we’ve got to spread it out for everyone.’

Framed sites are also regulated under the Public Places Bylaw, which states that ‘Council approval is required for hoardings in public places.’ This ‘depends on whether the place is open to or being used by the public,’ Dean Knight says. If people were concerned with Phantom’s dominance of billsticking, or with their regulation of the bollards, Knight suggests, they could ‘lobby councillors to change any policy about postering, by making a compelling case about the unintended consequences of the commercial outsourcing of billsticking. Ultimately it is local politicians who control where and when postering is allowed. And they should recognise the importance of billsticking – both legitimate and renegade – in the community for a vibrant democracy. Concerns about visual amenity and character are important too – but not so important so as to override expressive rights of the community in all cases.’

Thurston says: ‘If people started talking to business owners and putting up their own spots, that’s one way of doing it. It wouldn’t even need to be many, just a few boards.’

Matt believes there’s been a commercial shift into DIY postering due to the economy, with businesses such as Heaven’s Pizza restaurant, and Streetsoundz car stereo store, recently using renegade spots. ‘Streetsoundz went everywhere. And the way they did it was really huge, and not showing an awareness of the conventions of postering. And also purely commercial in its intent. You could say bands are commercial but they’re also promoting something good for the city in terms of a vibrant art scene or music scene.’

So how important is postering? Jerram sees it as ‘a less visible or relevant part of the mix with electronic and social media. Isn’t postering similar to retail and corporate advertising in that you are aiming to draw people to an event or an action or another site? And isn’t a business advertiser just a larger version of a gig organiser? It’s about fighting your way through for attention, and if you’re unique you’re more likely to get through all the visual and audio pollution. Maybe there’ll be a renaissance. Postering might have a future as part of an art project. A way to claim artistic space. For instance, approaching empty shops and displaying art posters as a form of public communication and connection in their own right, not just communication about another gig,’ Jerram says.

Matt sees an ongoing need for postering : ‘People get conditioned to knowing about events through postering, not just Facebook events and things. It’s inconceivable to me that people would stop using posters. It would take quite a change before people did that. From a band point of view, it’s often a key strategy, not just to promote a gig but to get the name of an act out there. But the more it’s done the less impact it has. Walking through the street, you’re exposed to it all the time.’

To others, it is a necessity. ‘Not having [resource to] Facebook,” says Thurston, “I tend to put a lot more onus on postering than maybe other people do. But posters makes a definite difference. That’s the way I find out about shows. And a lot of the older people, especially vinyl collectors, older punks and stuff, they’re all about posters.’ To Benjamin Knight, postering is a ‘really important’ way of contacting a wide cross section of the community. “And it reaches people who aren’t reached by Internet promotion or even radio and TV promotion. Being able to advertise community events within the community is really important.’

Though Phantom now have banners on some popular music websites where they put clients’ posters, Stonyer can’t see digital promotion replacing posters any time soon: ‘You can’t really ever see the street poster going away, can you?’