Last August, original street art replaced ads on 18 Bigbellies in Center City

Updated 11:40 a.m.

One of the things that distinguishes Center City is its lack of invasive advertising. Where NYC’s downtown has ads plastered everywhere, shouting at passersby from every direction, there are relatively few public surface-turned-commercials in the heart of Philadelphia. Instead of ads on our buildings, they’re mostly covered in murals.

As development ramps up in Philly, that balance is changing — but a new street art project called “Trashcan Takeover” aims to prove the shift toward commerce doesn’t have to be garish.

Garish is the word that came to mind when, in June, new ads took over the city’s newest advertising space, the sides of Bigbelly trash cans. Barbera’s Autoland bought 200 of the garbage facades and plastered them with loud red and yellow lettering touting “300 JEEPS CHEAP!”

The move sparked major backlash from the community.

“We can not let this bullshit stand,” wrote Philly street art guru Conrad Benner on his popular blog, Streets Dept. “There’s nothing cheap about our public spaces,” he said.

Instead of just complaining, Benner joined forces with a group of Philadelphians who decided to put their money where their mouth was and do something about it.

As of Sunday, Aug. 19, a dozen and a half of the Bigbellies formerly covered with Barbera ads now show something different: original artworks by 18 different local artists.

Now, when you pass a trash can in Center City, you might glimpse a brightly-colored Marge Simpson holding a “Girl Power” protest sign. A dramatic photograph of ballet dancers practicing a duet. A stenciled bird, perched among pastel flowers, or a cartoon depicting a woman of color standing in William Penn’s place atop City Hall.

Dubbed #TrashcanTakeover, the initiative was curated by Brendan Lowry, the person behind Peopledelphia and founder of unorthodox marketing firm Rory Creative. He was approached by Tom Wingert of City Fitness, which wanted to finance a better use of the ad space, and along with Benner, they brainstormed this solution. Lowry then put out the call on Instagram for participants.

The art will be up for a full month — that’s the amount of advertising time purchased so far — but organizers are open to growing or extending the project if public response is positive.

“Partnering with local artists and City Fitness to replace these Cheap Jeep ads with artwork that contributes to public space, as opposed to competing with it,” Lowry said in a statement, “will hopefully inspire brands to be more creative and collaborative with their advertising.”

City Fitness, which paid for the whole thing, is totally on board with the concept, per Wingert, who is VP of marketing. “[We] see this as an opportunity to challenge all brands to be more conscious of not only WHAT their message is, but HOW that message finds its way into the public eye,” he said.

Barbera’s Autoland, which did not return a request for comment Monday morning, had apparently already gotten that memo.

Last month, several of the Bigbellies on which it purchased space were spruced up with a different ad, one more visually friendly than its original newspaper-circular-esque design. “Keep Philadelphia beautiful,” reads the new ad copy, “because Barbera cares.”

The auto dealership’s effort has been noted by the Trashcan Takeover crew, but it’s somewhat a case of too little, too late.

“The updated designs are a small step in the right direction,” Lowry told Billy Penn, “but it’s clear they were made in response to public backlash.”

For now, you can check out all the artwork on the temporary Instagram account @TrashcanTakeover, and find it yourself on the interactive Google map.

The artists featured in the project are:

  1. Marisa Velázquez-Rivas (@marisa.vr): Digital illustration, 19th & Rittenhouse Square
  2. Gianni Lee (@giannilee): Acrylic on oriented strand board, 18th & Locust
  3. Saeed Ferguson (@saeedferguson): Mixed media, 18th & Walnut
  4. Aubrie Costello (@xoaubriecostello): Silk graffiti, 18th & Walnut
  5. Santiago Galeas (@santiagogaleas): Oil painting, 18th & Walnut
  6. Sheldon Abba (@sheldon_incollabwith): Photography, 18th & Chestnut
  7. Nilé Livingston (@nilelivingston): Mixed media, 18th & Chestnut
  8. Najeeb Sheikh (@dasheikee): Illustration, 17th & Chestnut
  9. Alloyius Mcilwaine (@culturesclothing): Spray paint and acrylic, 17th & Sansom
  10. Conrad Benner (@streetsdept): Photography, 17th & Walnut
  11. Vi Vu (@veeeevooo): Mixed media, 17th & Walnut
  12. Amberella (@amberellaxo): Mixed media, 17th & Locust
  13. Brendan Lowry (@brendanlowry): Digital, 17th & Locust
  14. Alex Kuhn (@alexkuhnart): Paint and pyrography,16th & Walnut
  15. Iris Barbee Bonner (@thesepinklips): Acrylic on canvas, Sydenham & Walnut
  16. Kelly Smith (@kellysmithphoto): Photography, 15th & Walnut
  17. Sean Martorana (@seanmartorana): Acrylic, gold enamel and mixed media, 15th & Chestnut
  18. Stefan Suchanec ( Photography, 16th & Chestnut

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...