Demand a Read/Write City

This is graffiti:

  • it’s spray paint
  • it’s done without permission on someone else’s property
  • it’s illegal
  • politicians hate it

It’s the expression of a citizen (or small group of citizens) in public space speaking to fellow citizens. Anyone, willing to take the legal risk, can do it.

This is advertising:

  • it’s printed vinyl
  • it’s done with permission from the city
  • it’s legal (When it’s not legal there’s often little to no consequence.)
  • legal or not, it makes money – though often not enough
  • politicians love it

It’s the expression of a corporate interest. A small number of people who have thousands of dollars, a specific and narrow interest and some influence can do it. They speak to people as consumers, not citizens.

For the first time, the MTA is turning the outside of their trains over to advertising company, Titan Outdoor. It will start with the Times Square shuttle in a test program. But with the potential for more (my emphasis added):

If this test at Grand Central/Times Square stations is successful, other high-traffic stations could easily be included for similar sales packages.

In addition to the above efforts in the GCT/Times Square Area, in the first quarter of 2009 Times Square Shuttle tunnel will also become the home of the first in-tunnel advertising installation. The shuttle riders will be able to view a full motion video presentation through the window of the shuttle car. The MTA is also planning to pilot test a digital dominated station concept at two of the NYCT stations, Grand Central Shuttle Station and 42nd and 6th Avenue Station mezzanine (Bryant Park).

To further expand the advertising revenue base, MTA in partnership with Titan Outdoor (its MTA bus and commuter rail advertising contractor), will be pilot testing digital advertising on one of its NYCT buses and, if successful, hope to expand the program to approximately 200 buses. In addition, a similar digital advertising pilot test is planned for in car commuter rail displays in the near future.

One thing I’m sure of – this install will be amazing. This will likely be bold, and inventive and incorporate amazing new technologies. It will be novel and smart, maybe funny. People will be impressed, if not wowed. And why wouldn’t they be? There will be some of the most creative people in the world working on it with years of research and experience and millions of dollars behind it.

So what’s wrong with this?

First, as usual, it’s not a worthwhile deal for the city. With an annual budget of 11.5 billion, the MTA hopes to bring in another 20 million in ad revenue with the program during the next year – a whopping total of .17% of their budget.

The MTA and New York City are becoming outdoor advertising companies themselves, turning over the captive eyes of commuters for a handful of revenue. Many don’t realize this conflict of interest is making it difficult for the city to regulate advertising, even when it’s clearly illegal.

Another point is that it creates a “read-only” culture. If you’re not familiar with the concept, Lawrence Lessig talks aboutread only culture” versus “read/write culture.” He uses this analogy to talk about copyright, but I’m going to radically extend his argument to the city.

Our city is read-only. You’re free to read advertising, business signs, and city signs. But dare you write or hang anything of your own; you will be labeled as a criminal – a graffiti vandal. In many cities it’s even illegal to hang a sign for a garage sale on a light pole. If you happen to have a several thousand dollars, you might be able to say what you want – as long as it’s not too political.

But this is public space. You’re free to say whatever you want in public space, but freedom of speech does not extend to the visual environment. The visual environment is pay to play. Public visual space has become commercial space.

The visual environment is read only.

Why is read/write better? Because you can consume, process, and respond. This is how we think critically. This is how we learn. You can talk back. You can express yourself. You don’t just consume expression, you create expression.

Read/write is how democracy works.

There’s a reason kids want to write their names on walls. There’s a reason why people take graffiti seriously. Granted, graffiti writers don’t always know how to direct this energy, but I’d argue there’s some overlap with the reasons one writes their name on a wall and the reasons one runs for the school board. Being able to write means being able to affect your environment. To change it. You exist in the world not as a consumer, but an active citizen.

Read only culture creates apathy.

So how could the MTA do it right? Strip all the advertising from the transit system. Demand more tax revenue for public transit. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of brilliant ways that to raise money that will also make the city more livable, like increasing parking meter rates to raise $5 billion dollars. Use the surplus money to fund better, more dynamic, and temporary art in transit programs. Create an open application process and let some of New York’s great artists and designers wrap a car. They’ll liven up the system and speak to riders as fellow citizens.

Yes it sounds impossible, but as the Situationists said, “Be realistic, demand the impossible!

To give more credit, beyond Larry Lessig, I’m also synthesizing some ideas from artist Brett Cook-Dizney and others I can’t think of right away.

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  1. Great post. While graffiti was demonized as the symbol of the city’s deterioration, corporate graffiti is nothing like that, because no one can measure the deterioration of a soul.

  2. Graham Green says:

    We should have legal graffiti areas like on ugly concrete/cinderblock walls, etc….

  3. Yuri says:

    I love graffiti. Not the “Steve hearts Lucy” but the kind that is really creative and colorful. There are cities that have legal designated areas for graffiti. I think more should follow that example.

  4. Amos says:

    Extending the idea of read/write to include public space is a really beautiful concept. Thank you for that. The situationist quote is also awesome. Five stars.

  5. gWallet says:

    Man, I can remember a time when NYC subways were plastered with some bad, but often quite expressive and interesting ‘mobile works of art’. Then the 90’s happened, Times Square was bought out by Disney, and all the trains got a massive cleanup. Whether it’s a good deal for NYC or not aside, I find it HIGHLY ironic that if this ‘art’ is done by enterprising youths with spray cans, it’s considered a crime, but if done by graphic artists and marketing departments, with vinyl, it’s completely legit. Grrrr. :|

  6. Erin says:

    @ Graham Green:

    Some cities have this. They are called “Free Walls.” My city has several. They are really great looking.

  7. darbtx says:

    Really smart fucking post. Nice connections.

  8. Isaac says:

    Excellent post. One question though:

    If you have such a program, with applications and a city board, then how do you prevent the same structures of authority and authorization that create a read-only culture? That is, if only certain artists are authorized by the city, how is this different from the passivity of being in an art gallery? How could you authorize certain artists while preserving dialog?

    To me, one of the great things about graffiti being un-authorized is that, as you say, “anyone willing to take the legal risk” can do it. When you authorize it, doesn’t the same limit apply? Wouldn’t the dialog be in un-authorized grafs?

  9. @Isaac – good question. I don’t think illegal graffiti will ever go away. But I do think creating authorized spaces for public expression and funding public art is a good idea. Yes, it’s not without it’s own problems, but they are not problems we can’t overcome. And it would create much better problems than the ones we have now.

  10. Great post, very direct and clear about the most pertinent issue of today dealing with urban visual collective (trying to be public) space.

    I suggest an enforce, in the fact that the graffiti/ street art/ sculptures/…/citizens who appropriate with sensibility are the fighters of needed relations systems between the human and it’s environment at a social level trough creation, only that way we could be sustainable, the participation it’s a key issue.

    I’m from and in Lisbon, and at this moment I’m developing a deep work precisely dealing with these issues, there are the high decision makers of the city council involved as well the soft, hard, trendy artists, among other studious.

    I hope to be in personal contact with Steve Lambert as soon as possible, maybe in some conference…

    I have some texts about the Lisbon project, if what to know more just contact: sevenpedro at

    Best regards
    Pedro Soares Neves

  11. […] Comparing ’80s subway graffiti to the new whole car advertisements. (Anti-Advertising Agency) […]

  12. Daveo says:

    I think the message here is:


    Don’t get me wrong, I love graffiti.

  13. @Daveo – that’s not my message.

  14. Reye says:

    I don’t agree with any premise that graffiti is acceptable in a public space. It’s applied to private property, therefore somebody other than the artist is picking up the tab and the hassle of dealing with the work/cleanup/whatever. Free speech is a privilege, but graffiti is rarely acceptable: mainly (in my view) because it’s affecting somebody’s private property.

    I have nothing against good advertising in any medium (whether it’s branded clothing or wrapped transit), whether or not I’m a part of a captive audience: I always can ignore the message. But most graffiti turns me off regardless of the message because it’s already an intrusion on somebody else’s rights to maintain their property.

  15. Ambrose says:

    How about neither?

  16. Amos says:

    @ Reye

    I think the general thrust of the article is to break away from the dichotomy of public and private space, and instead talk about what is actually happening in our lives: we’re being subjected to more and more messages which we have no control over. I’m personally much more offended by advertising than graffiti because advertising is fundamentally manipulative. It’s goals are to influence your decision making, and cause you to make associations whether you accept their message or not. If you are looking at it, you are absorbing their message. The only way to ignore advertising in a totally saturated urban space is to spend a lot of time staring at your feet.

  17. Mike says:

    D.C. already had this as early as July 08…at least the in tunnel video advertising. I remember seeing a commercial for the “Speed Racer” movie on my way to work for a while

  18. DJEB says:

    Graffiti I like, tagging I don’t. Graffiti is pure artistic expression of matters of substance. Graffiti artists has a code about what they put their art on. Tagging is criminals marking their turf while simultaneously defacing (tagging is so ugly that all it could ever do it deface) the property of others. The first photo has no graffiti; it only has tagging.

  19. […] and you are a criminal. Basically “Read, Don’t Write.”  Read more on “Read/Write Cities” on […]

  20. CRAAAAAZ says:

    Nope nope nope and double nope. Tags and “artistic graffiti” are the same, except one has taken more time. Very few tags or graffiti is gang related. Go here for the bible:

  21. MPPdotORG says:

    I can’t say I support the idea of these advertisements. It’s everywhere we look. Billboards, TV, magazines, newspapers, etc. . . You can’t turn around without seeing corporate advertising, just begging for more money from you.

    Also, this laminate advertising is limited to the select few rich people that can afford to do so. I guess that excludes the majority of us who will then have no say in the matter. All this comes down to is money and corporate greed. At least some of the illegal grafiti looks good.

  22. […] favorite blog post this year was Anti-advertising Agency’s call to “Demand a Read/Write City” Our city is read-only. You’re free to read advertising, business signs, and city signs. But dare […]

  23. maritn says:

    @ daveo

    why should someone have to go through formalised teaching to be qualified to express their views? thats sheer nonsense. would you make sure that the unknown protester at tienanmen square is qualified to stand against the tanks.

    you buffoon!

  24. […] should demand a read/write environment. Our city is read-only. You’re free to read advertising, business signs, and city signs. But dare […]

  25. […] Demanding a read/write city – why interactions such as graffiti should be encouraged (Anti-Advertising Agency) […]

  26. […] a Read/Write city in our collective future? (via Anti-Advertising […]

  27. […] The country’s economic woes were reported in the Sunday Times. Elsewhere might de facto “read/write cities” be the silver lining to the new […]

  28. […] Anti-Advertising wants you to understand this – […]

  29. Katie King says:

    I just became aware of your website through I remember being fascinated with magazines like adbusters, etc when I was in highschool. Years later I am forming my own small business and wondering how read/write advertising and anti-ad campaigns fit into all this. I respect it, but I don’t know why yet and am starting to muddle my way through the research. Basically, how can I be a successful & smart small business that cares about the individual yet does not adhere to corporate marketing? Any posts on your blog about this? Thanks for doing this.

    • That’s a good question. There’s a lot of companies that don’t advertise and do well, so there is hope. I think a sign on your building is great. And a web site, email list, social networking stuff, that communicates what you do is also great because people can seek it out and volunteer to receive it. Very simply it’s the saturation of public spaces and the underhanded and manipulative advertising that is a problem.

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