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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.
“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.
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.
“If we have covered any artist work, that was not already covered, we’ll happily remove ours,” Olivia wrote on social media, responding to some of the backlash.
A spokesperson for Mural Arts told Billy Penn the program hasn’t yet heard about any of the ads covering its collection of public art.
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?”