How TOSAT Took Over Toronto's Street Ad Space

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How TOSAT Took Over Toronto’s Street Ad Space

A few days before the action, some of the Toronto Street Advertising Takeover’s participants met in the living room of an apartment in a home in the west end. Posterchild, the pseudonymous Toronto street artist (and Torontoist contributor), and Sean Martindale, another Toronto street artist (whose work we’ve seen before) were playing host, as we all waited for Jordan Seiler, a New York City–based street artist who was going to lead the project, to arrive.
Posterchild is something of a renaissance man, with slightly geeky tendencies. He offered us home-brewed beer out of a two-litre plastic soda bottle, and then lectured us on the chemistry of DIY alcohol production (it’s complicated). Martindale has a more contemplative personality, and when he spoke it was always after deliberation. But Seiler, when he arrived (an hour late), came on like a tornado of febrile mannerisms, messy hair, and rapid-fire ideology.

“Instead of this being a destruction of private property, it’s an intervention,” said Seiler, halfway through an explanation of his attitude toward street advertising, a pet peeve of such long standing that it’s not even really a “pet” for him anymore; it’s a monster.
Seiler has been performing his own street advertising hacks for nearly a decade. Nine people were arrested over the course of the two street advertising takeovers he organized and led in New York City in 2009, but all charges were dropped after ninety days. Was he concerned about the legal ramifications of interfering with private property in a foreign country, without the protection of a false name? “I haven’t thought too hard about the international issues, but in regards to using my real name, this is not a joke,” he said.
“They know we have a bizarre sense of duty to this,” said Martindale, “and that this is not something where we would fold under a legal threat.”
For its organizers and many of its participants, the Toronto Street Advertising Takeover, or TOSAT, represented an opportunity to reclaim Toronto’s streets from what they saw (and continue to see) as the deadening effect of corporate art on the public realm.
“When you walk through the city and you know you have no control over that space, it’s like walking through a mall,” said Posterchild. “It’s more about feeling at home. And it’s impossible for me to feel at home in my city if I don’t feel I’m a part of it.”
“They’ve already reaped quite a bit of profit off the city illegally, with impunity,” said Seiler, referring to the fact that street advertisements are sometimes erected in violation of municipal law, both in New York and Toronto. For TOSAT’s organizers and many of its participants, this was the original impetus for the project.
But Seiler, and Seiler alone, takes a hard-line stance: “As far as I’m concerned, I could give a fuck if they’re legal or not,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned as an artist and an activist, outdoor advertising has no place in public space.”
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TOSAT was hatched in October, after the successful completion of the second of Seiler’s New York Street Advertising Takeovers, or NYSATs. Some Toronto artists, including Martindale, participated, and became interested in doing something similar closer to home. Over a period of months, Seiler, Martindale, Posterchild, and a woman named Vanessa (who didn’t want her last name printed) slowly brought other participants into the fold, secretly enlisting volunteers to scout locations and later install the artwork, which had been solicited not only from Toronto, but from places as far away as New York, Madrid, and Moscow.
TOSAT also needed a target. Pattison Outdoor Advertising was selected, both because of the ubiquity of their street ads, and because, TOSAT organizers allege, Pattison’s ads frequently violate municipal billboard laws. (We don’t actually know for certain whether or not the targeted ads were illegal, for reasons we’ll get into shortly.)
The action would focus on twenty to twenty-five 10’ x 20’ Pattison billboards (and also an assortment of billboards belonging to other companies), and forty-one street-level Pattison “pillar” ad columns, which are those four-sided illuminated columns that sprout from parking lots and other street-side locales all across the city. The pillars, in particular, have been a bone of contention for activists.
“The Pattison pillars were identified as illegal by the City after my organization filed complaints against them. They were built without permits mostly in the middle of the night,” Rami Tabello, the public space activist behind IllegalSigns.ca, told us. Tabello says he had no involvement in TOSAT, though the project’s organizers used Tabello’s site to determine which Pattison signs were in violation of Toronto law. Randy Otto, president of Pattison, declined to comment for this article.
(At publication time, IllegalSigns.ca’s homepage had been taken over by hackers, so we’re not linking it here. Tabello is in the process of bringing the site back online.)
The City has had billboard regulations on the books since long before amalgamation, but enforcement has historically been lax. Post-amalgamation, enforcement problems were exacerbated by the fact that each former municipality had its own regulations. Anyone interested in policing sign placement in Toronto had to be conversant with six bylaws, instead of one.
Earlier this year, City Council passed a harmonized bylaw that finally established a single set of rules for billboards and signage in Toronto. Any ads that were legal under the former set of laws but illegal under the new regime were grandfathered, and some of the pillars could fall into this category, which would make them legal to maintain, but illegal to replace. Signs that are completely illegal can be that way for any number of reasons, including having too many display faces, being too big, or even being too close to other ads. The rules are different depending upon how the ad’s installation site is zoned.
In part because of those complexities, we are as yet unable to confirm that all of the ads targeted by TOSAT were illegal. What’s certain, though, is that Pattison and several other advertising companies have erected illegal ads in the past. Before the new bylaw came into force, these companies flooded the City with variance applications in an attempt to grandfather their ads (a “variance” is a form of official permission from the City to violate a bylaw in a minor way), mostly to no avail. These same companies, including Pattison, also promptly sued the City over the “billboard tax” established along with the new bylaw, part of the purpose of which was (and is) to fund enforcement.
When the bylaw passed, the City pledged to create a dedicated enforcement unit for signage infractions, but the unit isn’t yet fully in place, and many illegal ads remain on the streets.

On Saturday, we arrive on the second floor of a downtown bar, where an assortment of fifteen or so artists and activists sits in a circle of chairs around an LCD projector, waiting for the briefing to begin. Posterchild arrives, and we ask how participants will go about defeating the locks on the Pattison pillars.
“It’s actually rather poetic,” he says. “You use a doorknob.”
Seiler calls the room to attention and loads up a slideshow. He begins to impart his expert knowledge. It’s like a university lecture: Special Topics in How to Fuck With Street Advertisements.
As it turns out, there are only four items one needs in order to hack a Pattison pillar: the doorknob, naturally, but also duct tape, a step ladder, and a Phillips head screwdriver. Participants, Seiler said, would meet at a house somewhere downtown and pick up all these items, along with a phony letter of permission, which would say: “Pattison Outdoor has graciously donated over 20 Core Media Pillars to the Municipal Landscape Control Committee public arts program division,” among other completely fictional things.
Seiler said participants would split into teams of two or three and pile into cars—some borrowed, some rented—and do the deed throughout downtown, over the course of about two hours on Sunday afternoon.
At midnight, a second team, led by Vanessa, would go out into the city under cover of darkness and hit twenty to twenty-five 10’ x 20’ Pattison billboards.
“I don’t necessarily want to say exactly what we’re doing. But I can say that we’ve strategically planned how to get up there and how to effectively beautify billboards,” Vanessa told us.
“The tactics that we use are creative and they’re peaceful. And who can fuck with that?”
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Sunday is the day. We get into a car with Steve C. and Alex, two TOSAT participants, and ride deep into Cabbagetown, where a pair of Pattison pillars stand in a Beer Store parking lot.
Steve and Alex go to work. An ad for Amsterdam beer is replaced by a painting of a silhouetted woman leaping through space. A Koodo ad is subbed out for an enormous stylized bird creature, done up in dazzling bright colours. TOSAT stickers are placed over Pattison logos. Most people pass right by, seemingly oblivious. But Richard Bingham and his young son, Liam, stop to look.
“Is this guerilla?” Bingham asks Steve, and Steve shows him the letter. Bingham nods. He has no reason to disbelieve the cover story.
“I love it. Absolutely love it,” he tells us. “Public visual space is a little too owned by companies like Viacom and CBS, so it’s refreshing to see this.”
Liam, who is perhaps eight years old, spends some time looking over the artwork with his dad. Then, after everything has had time to sink in, he points at a side of one of the pillars that Steve and Alex haven’t gotten around to, yet. “That’s an advertisement,” he says, matter-of-factly, as though the idea of a distinction between art and salesmanship has occurred to him in concrete form for the very first time in his life.
Photos by D.A. Cooper/Torontoist.
More photos of the new pieces are collected in our report from earlier today.

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