The branding of public space isn’t new and neither is writing about it, but the ramifications of the ways companies and people are allowed to inhabit space is as relevant as ever. In cities like New York and Chicago, writing graffiti can result in fines of hundreds or even thousands of dollars—a deterrent against individuals marking space that is supposedly meant for everyone. But is it? For years, cities have attempted to prevent homeless people from sleeping on benches and skaters from grinding on railings, among other “unwanted” citizens, with an assortment of structures such as armrests, guards, and spikes.
At the same time, the aforementioned cities solicit companies to advertise in public spaces—just look at their transportation “authorities,” the CTA and MTA, which have spent millions of dollars over the years to stop “vandals” from tagging train cars, while simultaneously making millions of dollars from corporate ads sold through advertising agencies. For example, the CTA makes tens of millions of dollars per year from advertising, while the MTA makes far, far more. And, while the MTA recently banned alcohol advertisements (it banned political ads in 2015 and tobacco ads in 1992), the service’s train cars showcase many other ethically questionable ads.
Why does this all matter? Because space that we often think of as public isn’t in its truest sense. Transportation services like the CTA and MTA force us to view ads we have no control over every single time we ride a bus or train or even walk by a station; social networking sites like Instagram and Facebook use algorithms to allow brands to bombard us with ads they think will appeal to us every time we log in. And, when we threaten to disrupt those spaces and the capital generated within them—be it through graffiti or “freeing the nipple”—we put ourselves in danger: of being banned, fined, sued, or even thrown in jail. Is a lamppost or parking meter bombed with fliers and stickers simply an example of people’s disregard for public property or is it a small attempt by individuals to share the same space that local, state, and national governments allow corporations to inhabit?
So, is an On TAPE Studio sticker on a signpost or bus stop ad merely a form of viral marketing in the vein of so many streetwear brands before me or is it something more? Can a brand disrupt public space in meaningful ways? On TAPE Studio may not be all that I am, but considering my face is literally and figuratively front and center (in the photos that drive the project), how does the brand reinforce and/or critique the hyper-visibility of whiteness and maleness? What is the power-safety dynamic between visibility and anonymity in the age of social media and what do I risk by exploring it?