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A British company has slapped advertisements over stretches of artwork that helped enliven city sidewalks over the past year, angering the Philly street art community. Repeating series of oat milk ads now cover original murals and wheatpastes promoting food justice, encouraging voting, and spreading the word about COVID safety. The posters also covered pieces commissioned by Mural Arts, Philadelphia’s citywide public art program.
“This business broke the unwritten rule, which is, don’t go over someone else’s work,” said Walls for Justice founder Samuel Rodriguez, whose collab with Amber Art was covered over the weekend.
“It may have worked in other cities,” Rodriguez said about the marketing campaign, “but in Philadelphia, a place that really loves murals [and] its artists, what we’d love to see is more collaborations that are directly for the community.”
The ads affect a minimalist artistic style. Intended as promotion for London-based brand Minor Figures, they’re white with an outline illustration of a person in shoulder-length hair, sunglasses and face tattoos. Beneath the portrait, text reads “Minor Figures Oat M*lk.”
They’ve popped up on boarded walls over the city, with the staccato pattern spotted on Spring Garden near Union Transfer, on South Street, in Rittenhouse, and on Washington Avenue. In Center City, the posters covered a few artworks that were part of the Storefront Windows project, commissioned by Mural Arts and the Center City District in May 2020. Executive Director Jane Golden said the organization is “quite disappointed.”
“Minor Figures is very presumptuous to come to our city and cover works of art in such an offensive manner,” Golden added.
Also pasted over was the South Broad Street installation of Fill the Walls With Hope, which has been respectfully left untouched since the early days of pandemic lockdowns. Project director Mark Strandquist was sad to see the year-old gallery disappear.
“As a public we’re already bombarded by so many messages from companies,” said Strandquist, who said he’s personally a fan of oat milk. “It’s just disappointing.”
Minor Figures defended itself on Monday, claiming it purposefully hired local artists to put up the ads. A spokesperson who identified themself only as Olivia declined to share any names, however, or provide details about other cities where the marketing campaign might have run.
After being bombarded by comments from angry Philadelphians for about 24 hours, Minor Figures posted a public response on Tuesday afternoon, saying they instructed the crew they hired to remove some of the ads and try to save the art underneath.
“It appears unfortunately some art has been pasted over and this has upset the community,” the Instagram post reads. “This is clearly a massive error — something which is out of our control — but a mistake and we take responsibility to make it right.”
Founded in 2014, Minor Figures sells oat milk in recyclable packaging. The brand is sold at Whole Foods, which has two Philadelphia locations. It’s also stocked at specialty retailers in California, Oregon, Washington, New York, New Jersey and Texas, per its website.
Oat milk has exploded in popularity in recent years. Considered the second most popular plant based milk, after almond, it’s now offered in Starbucks and other cafe chains. A local oat milk “creamery” opened on Headhouse Square in 2019, and last summer industry leader Oatly announced a forthcoming research and development lab in Bridesburg.
Minor Figures is not yet widely known in the region.
When the brand decided to put up ads over existing work on Philly walls, it appropriated valuable real estate, said public art advocate Conrad Benner, who runs the Streets Dept blog.
“It’s a real community thing,” Benner said. “In a city like Philadelphia where there aren’t any actual free wall spaces, these offer artists in the city an opportunity to put their art out there.”
Artists are calling for the company to kick in some funds that make an impact locally. Rodriguez, of Walls for Justice, recommended the brand partner with a local artist to create a mural that makes sense in Philly. “The disheartening part is there was no real intention,” he said.
Since you can’t really take down wheatpaste posters without shredding what’s beneath them, the ads aren’t really removable, despite the spokesperson’s comment, said Strandquist, of Fill the Walls With Hope. He suggested Minor Figures could kick in funds for Philly mutual aid organizations instead.
“If you’re going to co-opt these strategies and cover up important messages,” Strandquist said, “what are you doing to support those same radical spaces?”