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‘Reclaiming public space’: How Philadelphians turned ads into art

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Trash cans decked out with loud yellow ads have been turned into art pieces by local artists, thanks to a group of Philadelphians.

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Almost two months ago, the ads came.

“300 jeeps cheap!” the words in bright yellow lettering blared from nearly 400 Big Belly trash cans around Center City. It’s followed by a 1-800 number for an auto dealership.

Immediately, Philadelphians took notice. Journalist Stephanie Farr tweeted that the ads looked terrible, journalist Jim MacMillan called them hideous. The words “eye sore” were thrown around on Twitter, and within days one can lay in a melted pile on the ground (though it’s unclear whether that was linked to outrage over the ads).

For Conrad Benner, who runs the popular blog Philly Streets, and was one of the first outspoken critics of the ad campaign, the loud yellow messages all over Philly’s most popular haunts were an indication something had to be done.

That’s how #TrashcanTakeover was born.

Last week, 18 trashcans in Center City that previously displayed the bright yellow Jeep ads, were unveiled, redecorated with art from Philadelphia-based artists. They range in design and style. “The future is female” one reads in pink lettering, along with painting of Marge Simpson. Another depicts a woman of color atop City Hall, taking the place of the William Penn statue. “You belong,” her shirt says.

“It’s taking back public space,” Benner said, adding that he writes a lot on his blog about the value of public space, and about whether Philadelphians should have more say and control over what their spaces look like. This project, he said, returns these spaces to the public.

The effort is the result of a partnership between Brennan and Brendan Lowry, an artist and founder of Rory Creative, who met earlier this summer to discuss the idea of giving that ad space back to local artists. In June, the city had approved ad space on 375 of its Big Belly trash cans around the city, which would eventually all be turned into the jeep ads, according to an article from Philly.com.

Lowry suggested buying some of that ad space and turning it into art instead. However, funding the project themselves—or even crowdsourcing it—was difficult and expensive, Brennan said. That’s where City Fitness came in.

Tom Wingert, vice president of marketing at City Fitness and a friend of Lowry’s, who said he had disliked the jeep ads ever since they went up in June, decided to hop on board with Lowry’s plan and buy some of that ad space for art. City Fitness put $10,500 toward purchasing ad space on 18 trash cans around Rittenhouse Square until mid September.

Wingert said they settled on the Rittenhouse Square location for the art installations because of the amount of foot traffic it gets, as well as its position as an iconic Philly public space.

As City Fitness took care of the money, Lowry put out a call to local artists, specifically those who were born in, and currently live in, Philly.

“We weren’t expecting this response,” Brennan said, adding that many artists wrote back, eager for a chance to be part of the project.

They unveiled the new art pieces last week, and Brennan said the response has already been overwhelmingly supportive.

The images will stay up until mid-September—City Fitness has only leased the space for a month—and after that, Wingert said he hopes someone will keep the project going.

“We’re a small company. We can’t sustain this every month,” Wingert said of the $10,000 rental cost, adding that he would love to see larger advertisers step up and rent the space for local art. “I challenge my contemporaries to be a little more aggressive with the kind of creativity they’re developing,” he said.

Brennan said he doesn’t know what the next step is in terms of funding, and whether they’ll be able to keep the project going, but he’s eager for input from the public on the project.

You can check out the pieces around Rittenhouse Square until September 18, or check them out below:

TRASHCAN 13: Brendan Lowry @brendanlowry, digital 17th & Locust #TrashcanTakeover

A post shared by Trashcan Takeover (@trashcantakeover) on

TRASHCAN 11: Vi Vu @veeeevooo, mixed media 17th & Walnut #TrashcanTakeover

A post shared by Trashcan Takeover (@trashcantakeover) on

TRASHCAN 10: Conrad Benner @streetsdept, photography 17th & Walnut #TrashcanTakeover

A post shared by Trashcan Takeover (@trashcantakeover) on

TRASHCAN 8: Najeeb Sheikh @dasheikee, illustration 17th & Chestnut #TrashcanTakeover

A post shared by Trashcan Takeover (@trashcantakeover) on

  • What the heck happened to this center city trash can? [PhillyVoice]
  • Center City turned into one big ad for Garry Barbara Autoland [Streets Dept]
  • #TrashcanTakeover [Googlemaps]
  • Trashy ads? Philly approves ads on 375 trash cans [Philly.com]