Crowds fill the Ben Franklin Parkway for Made in America each Labor Day weekend Credit: Photo A. Ricketts / VISIT PHIL

Updated 9:35 a.m.

Philadelphia creatives beware: If you’ve considered accepting cash for your craft on public property without getting a permit, be prepared to get slapped on the wrist. Hard.

Accepting any money at all could turn an act as simple as painting or playing an instrument outside into something illegal. Without a proper vending license, you’re liable to have all your wares confiscated — and it could cost you almost $500 to get them back.

That’s what Francisville resident Cait Stewart said happened last weekend when she brought face paint to the perimeter of the Made in America festival. The teacher and neuroscience grad student said she didn’t intend to sell anything, so she didn’t think she’d need a permit.

But officers from the Department of Licenses and Inspections ticketed Stewart anyway. Why? L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said Stewart brought out a tip jar, which is enough to warrant total confiscation.

It’s not about setting specific prices for your services, Gus said. “Taking what is offered is still vending.”

Lucky for Stewart, some kindness at the L&I office in the Municipal Services Building granted her a total fee waiver. But not everyone faces such good fortune.

Cait Stewart does bodypainting as a side hustle Credit: Courtesy Cait Stewart

Something ‘fun to do’ turns intimidating

Here’s what Stewart said went down:

On Saturday, she and a fellow face-painting friend brought out their art supplies, plus a table and chairs and a tip jar. They set them up around 19th and the Parkway, intending to decorate faces of festival-goers free of charge.

“If people want to tip us that’s cool, but it’s just something fun for us to do,” Stewart told Billy Penn. “The intention is that we’re not going to charge.”

They had only been there for about 15 minutes — and only painted themselves — when suddenly, Stewart said she and her friend were surrounded by five L&I inspectors. They demanded that the artists fork over their merch immediately.

“Honestly it was pretty jarring and intimidating,” Stewart said. “So we just slowly gave them our stuff and then left.”

Stewart is among at least 35 people who got citations outside the Made in America festival last weekend, per Guss. The L&I spokesperson said that’s pretty typical for a major two-day event like the annual music fest.

When inspectors find someone selling merch without a license, they’re authorized by Philadelphia Code to make immediate confiscations. That includes folks who are just accepting tips.

If people want to get their stuff back, they’ve got to pony up $150 for the ticket — plus another $330 to obtain a vending license.

Cait Stewart managed to get her stuff back for free on Thursday Credit: Courtesy Cait Stewart

It’s up to inspectors’ ‘professional judgement’

Anyone who’s walked the streets of Center City will recognize that creatives who ask for tips in public are sometimes left alone. Buskers and street performers are all over the blocks and street corners, opening their hats or guitar cases for coins and crumpled bills

In disputed situations like the one Stewart faced, Guss said that inspectors are allowed to use their “professional judgment” to determine whether people are unlawfully vending.

“Vending inspectors at events are often accompanied by police officers due to the abuse and threats of violence they regularly encounter in the course of doing their jobs,” Guss said. “They are not required to stand there on the street to look into all possible scenarios and they don’t have to take every excuse offered at face value.”

There’s sometimes a way out. If people feel they’ve been unfairly cited, they can appeal within 30 days.

And on Thursday afternoon, Stewart said an understanding L&I clerk dissolved the fees when Stewart explained the situation, but with a caveat in the form of a firm warning. They informed her that in the future, she’s got to be more careful.

Face painting is a regular activity for Stewart, who splits her time teaching, making art and studying neuroscience. Added together, she said that everything she had confiscated — three palettes, brushes, several containers of paint and body glitter, the table — cost her roughly $1,000.

Luckily she found financial resolution. Still, this incident weighs heavy on Stewart. After her supplies were taken, she said she connected with others who experienced the same thing,including a violinist whose instrument was carted off to L&I jail.

“I actually do have several friends who’ve had run ins with L&I,” she said. “The community that I’m in, my friends, we’re just very upset with the city not supporting art.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...