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Sticker Shock

Photo by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

This may sound crazy, but pasting thousands of ads for bargain divorce services all over hydro poles and the backs of road signs is illegal. You’d never know it, because these cheap-looking stickers seem to propagate throughout the GTA like wet Mogwais. Even worse, the fact that their contact information and provenance are so clearly displayed shows how incompetent the city is at enforcing its postering bylaw—it’s not like we can’t tell who’s responsible, after all.
We’re not talking about community event notices or lost pets (which are permitted); these are the cheap, ubiquitous commercial placards advertising painters, duct cleaning services, moving companies, debt counselling, or even the sign manufacturing companies themselves. They’re often affixed, out of reach and very permanently, on the backs of public street signs, but can also be found in less enduring configurations, strapped to utility poles at major intersections or hammered indiscriminately into grass medians and private lawns.

Because of such a wide range of applications, the signage bylaw can get pretty complicated [PDF], with the challenge being to maintain a balance between aesthetics, the rights of advertisers, community notification, and the freedom of expression. What’s not up for contention, however, is the legal permissibility of these omnipresent eyesores.
We asked the city’s Municipal Licensing & Standards Division what the penalty was for postering, and it basically boils down to this: the sign might get removed during periodic cleaning or maintenance. And that’s pretty much it.

Left photo by jasonainsworth75 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool; right photo by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

Technically, there is a $100-per-sign removal fee permitted in the municipal code [PDF], but the resources don’t exist to properly enforce that penalty (even though the city reserves the right to add it to the offending organization’s municipal taxes and despite the organization’s phone number being printed in enormous type on every sign). While we’ve seen some signs remain in place for years, we’ve also seen city staff scraping others off—but not keeping track of how many get removed or to which entity they belong.
City Hall couldn’t tell us how many staff members are allocated to this task or how much it costs the city per year, but a representative mentioned that the removal of posters on private property (mailboxes, telephone utility panels, garbage cans, bus shelters) is the responsibility of the owners, who are empowered to recover their own cleaning expenses. Astral Media, for example, often removes rogue advertising pasteups within twenty-four hours so that they don’t cover up the advertising someone actually paid for. Neighbourhood BIAs hire crews to scrape the loathsome signage from sight, only to see it replaced by morning.
Combating aesthetic blight is low on the funding scale and priority list for City Hall, so—once again—the onus falls on fed-up citizens. The Toronto Advertising Hall of Shame maintains an index of the city’s worst sign polluters, currently naming a whopping 207 offenders, with dishonourable mentions to 310-DUMP and Alpine Roofing. City Asphalt Sealing got the site’s top dishonour of being voted the worst street spammer in TAHS’s 2008 SPAMMY awards (online voting for the 2009 version begins on September 1). S & Sons Moving, another top offender, even has replacement phone number stickers to slap over any original ads that have had the number obfuscated by spray paint or a chisel.
The anonymous proprietor of the TAHS, known by the moniker Ville Propre de Toronto, is so passionate about ridding the city of “litter on a stick” that free wire snips are being given out to anyone who volunteers for the cause. Attempts are made to identify individuals with the signs, but it’s a moving target, as a single entity is often listed under multiple names and phone numbers. S & Sons Moving, for example, also disguises itself as Thrifty Moving or just by phone number only, according to “Ville.”

Photo by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

Feedback on the TAHS site from the typo-prone, pro-signage crowd is remarkably delusional: “Your eyesore junk web-site does not represent Canadians and Torontonians in particular…you know, just a piece of thought, at fist people did not like Pablo Picasso too,” reads one from Vectus Moving.
“There is no law which stats that we as a company can not advertise. We can see that you hate Canada and Toronto in particular because YOU are against its economy,” the Vectus rep continues. “Why do YOU think you have health care, police, firefighters, and other free services?”
“If anything these people spend more to overcompensate for assholes like yourself who remove their signs,” huffs “Chris Testa,” another defender. “Many of these signs come from small businesses cutting their teeth and need every advantage possible to survive amongst huge corporations. To add to their troubles assholes like you are trying to drag their names through the mud in your little .org.”
There is a great irony in that so many of these bottom-feeding litterbugs are advertising junk-removal services, but they work in the same way that email spam does: since bylaw enforcement is woefully lax, all it takes is a few people to bite and the whole exercise is worth it. And we realize that the TAHS site is mainly a means of increasing awareness, but we need not point out the futility of awarding shame awards to companies that are proudly insolent.
Ridding Toronto of this trash signage seems like a trifling hope—at least for now. Still, it’s hard to believe that there are people out there looking to consolidate their debt or dissolve their marriage who willingly choose to patronize these trashy entities, and that’s the saddest part of all.


  • http://undefined mister j

    I worked (paid by the hour) for a postering company here in TO during the summer of 2004. It was a pretty fun job putting up posters for bands and events on Queen, College – sometimes Bloor. According to my boss, it was legal to put posters on hydro poles, street light poles and, my favourite, parking meters. These things were considered ‘public property’ and thus legal to put a poster on. Illegal was anything considered ‘private property’: newspaper boxes, the Astral garbage bins or, of course, storefronts. (I never put a poster on anything like a stop sign.) I used wheat-paste, tape or staples. We never did stickers since I’m pretty sure it’s illegal since they can’t be ‘easily removed.’ I tried to respect the other posters already up – not covering ones that were just put up or were for events yet to happen. Other posterers were often similarly repectful of my ‘work’ too… sort of an unwritten code.
    Interesting was that I started my shifts in early afternoon because ‘the city’ would be out in the morning cleaning off the poles and meters of posters. So, they’d clear it all up in the AM and then I’d go put a fresh layer on in the PM. I often thought I should’ve got a job with ‘the city’ to clean up in the morning, then change uniforms and put up posters in the afternoon! But it was known that a poster had a short life span.
    It seems, though, that things are much different now in the postering world. My old boss is no where to be found and I’ve heard that the Guvernment has taken over, and when I take notice their stuff is everywhere!

  • http://undefined atomeyes

    perhaps feature these in Vandalist?

  • http://undefined Waterfront

    The City of Toronto is never going to have the political will or resources to keep up with these litterbugs. Our neighbourhood has a number of residents (myself included) who go out several times a week and remove, or render unreadable, this trash. Since we began removing posters within 12 hours of them going up, the amount of vertical litter has decreased dramatically over the past three years. If everyone ‘adopted’ a utility pole then our city would be a much better-looking place to live.

  • http://undefined jesuschristopher

    Bravo! Torontoist has just touched on an issue that’s bothered me for years. For starters, the companies that employ these types of tactics need to be held accountable (bestwaytomove, 310-dump etc..). That they’re supposedly young, fledgling companies trying to eke out a living amidst corporate giants, is an asinine excuse for what amounts to vandalism. The same can be said of sidewalk advertising. If you want to generate exposure for your business, exercise some creativity and give the defacement of public property a rest.

  • http://undefined 24601

    The City is strapped for cash, why don’t they start fining them? It could be as big a cash cow as parking fines.
    Some resident near Yonge & St. Clair has taken to writing “Spam” on the posters and covering or tearing off the phone numbers. I highly approve of this behaviour.

  • http://undefined Lu Galasso

    I think it’s disgusting how these posters litter our city. Why don’t these companies invest a little more money into their advertising and become more legitimate and have commercials on say, the TV listings channel or use the billboards provided.
    Lu Galasso

  • http://undefined friend68

    I think this bylaw, and many others, should be revised so that the fine more than pays for the cost of enforcement.

  • http://undefined Svend

    The city should go after all these companies, the fines would easily cover the costs involved.
    I can’t imagine a single councillor who would object, they don’t see eye to eye on many issues but everyone agrees these make the city look shoddy.

  • http://undefined rek

    When Torontoist posts a photo of a picture someone drew on a wall the comments explode with the butthurt of a thousand concerned citizens, but when an illegal defacement is the fault of a company, those same voices fall silent on the issues of property rights and who-owns-what.

  • http://undefined lee

    It seems Torontoist has publicized the use of illegal signs for years. I think the only real crime these companies have committed is that they don’t have an office on Ossington. Close your eyes and imagine the roofing company guys are all twenty-something hipsters. Make it more palatable yet? Who care that the Vandalist encourages “art” on my garage door.
    Stop being part of the problem Torontoist.

  • http://undefined Ben

    I’m also appalled by the graffiti. Torontoist should be ashamed of themselves for this paint plague they’ve brought down on our fair city.

  • http://undefined torontothegreat

    I also have wondered the same thing over this vs graffiti, but never really get a solid response from the supporters.
    A good example is posterchild or anser. Their styles are unique enough that it may as well be a phone number and is no different then marketing themselves the way these companies do. Vespa tracked down posterchild and Anser’s work was featured at a gallery.
    Seems to accomplish the same thing in the end.
    If the argument is aesthetics, then I’d retort that the ‘beauty’ of the work is subjective to the observer. If one can find graffiti to be pleasing perhaps others find stickers appealing to. What makes one better then the other?

  • rek

    Vespa recruited Fauxreel, not Poster Child.
    Companies are given plenty of legal ways to spam their phone numbers and services, no matter their budget.

  • http://undefined torontothegreat

    fauxreel/posterchild = semantics
    stickering is illegal so is spam, not sure what you’re getting at.
    You’ve provided nothing of use to this discussion. FAIL.

  • http://undefined rek

    Distinguishing different people by nom de rue isn’t “semantics”. You claimed his style is unique enough to serve as an identifier for marketing himself, but then you misidentified him.
    Since you seem to be having an ADD episode, the rest of my reply was (part of) my reason for not supporting illegal signage though I support most graffiti and street art.

  • http://undefined torontothegreat

    >Distinguishing different people by nom de rue isn’t “semantics”. You claimed his style is unique enough to serve as an identifier for marketing himself, but then you misidentified him
    I made a mistake. My apologies. I’m not as versed in graffiti fan-boy-ism as you. So it’s semantics on your part, still. Back to you.
    Don’t sway from the point. Using a straw man argument doesn’t make your point more valid.
    hI, i’M 30 nOt 12.
    Artists have the exact same opportunities as Frank’s Driveway Paving Service here. It’s unfair to lump a small-business in with multi-million dollar businesses buying television and billboard campaigns.
    My lack of reply isn’t my ADD, it’s a lack of patience for people who have the communication equivalent to cryptic ciphers. Just be clear in your point. Is it really that hard? Misnomers do not help you get your point across.
    Say no to spam.

  • lee

    Artists are also given plenty of legal ways to spam their art (and make a buck). I guess some people want to be the deciders of what is “street art” and what isn’t.

  • http://undefined rek

    “hI, i’M 30 nOt 12.”
    Really? “FAIL” is so mature. So is calling someone a fanboy for correcting you. And accusing them of “cryptic cyphers” just because you misread what was written.
    I’m not sure what your issue is, but I’m not inclined to care.

  • http://undefined rek

    “Artists are also given plenty of legal ways to spam their art (and make a buck).”
    Not even remotely as many ways as businesses.
    “I guess some people want to be the deciders of what is “street art” and what isn’t.”
    An ad for roof repairs is not street art.

  • http://undefined torontothegreat

    oh god. troll.
    care to discuss or you just want to stay all emo on me?
    I have no “issue”, however I am sick of your replies which are more concerned about tearing people down then you are about tearing their points down.
    If you want to debate/discuss the issue, I’m here for you. If all you want to do is diss me, throw straw men at me and overload this comment section with your anecdotal mantra’s then so be it…
    “You say you got a real solution
    Well, you know
    We’d all love to see the plan”

  • http://undefined torontothegreat

    >Not even remotely as many ways as businesses.
    Elaborate, please. It helps the rest of us understand your point. Otherwise it’s just verbal masturbation.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Almost prophetic, given the shitstorm below…but it should have been, “When Torontoist doesn’t post a photo of a picture someone drew on a wall the comments explode with the butthurt of a thousand concerned citizens.”

  • http://undefined cbeach40

    I worked for a GTA municipality in the transportation department offices, and it definitely is an uphill battle to try to stay on top of that. I only ever do anything if it’s on a stop sign, what with the safety issue and all. Other than that, I just didn’t have the time to go to our road crews and tell them to take car of it.

  • http://undefined sprung

    I take down these signs whenever I see them and make sure to photograph them to send along to the TAHS website. In most cases, the Spammers have been ok when I contact them asking to stop fouling up my neighbourhood. It is definitely a persistent problem in Toronto.

  • Bob_The_Bear

    It’s about time the offenders were charged the $100 fee per sign. Our city looks like a dump with all these signs and they now have overtaken every street corner in the city. I am sure it could generate more dollars than parking tickets for a year or so, so why not hire temps to do the enforcement.