The Writing's On The Wall

Art or advertising? Jim Johnstone's posters straddle the boundary

Almost everyone, as a child, had posters on their walls. Bedrooms today are more likely to be plastered with images of top bands like Razorlight rather than the tartan-clad Bay City Rollers, but what happens when the posters move from the bedrooms to the streets? They present more of a problem than blu-tack peeling the paint when they’re transferred to public spaces.

‘I can see that it is a problem. In London you get some areas which are covered everywhere and people are just sticking posters over posters and phoneboxes are covered in stickers. It becomes too much.’

Some posters, beyond the simpler ones which merely convey the ‘where, when and how much’ of a gig or event, are incredibly well designed.

‘At the same time, it’s part of ‘street culture’ so it’s a difficult one to tackle,’ Johnstone continues, considering the duality of their function. ‘I can appreciate that it has to be cleaned up, otherwise you end up inch-deep with posters covering everything you can see. People should exercise a little bit of discipline.’

Unfortunately, it’s a discipline which is rarely exercised, with posters and images left hanging long out of date, weather-beaten and peeling from walls. In NI, individuals or businesses persisting in fly posting can be fined up to £2,500 or face prosecution - which can result in imprisonment.

There is a blurred line between ideas of vandalism, graffitti and ‘art’ in the streets. Belfast recently held the Urban Eyes festival, a celebration of art that is unlikely to be seen in the gallery. In some cases, simple spray painting of stencilled images and slogans have come to be seen as some kind of subversion of institutionalised art forms, a reaction against notions of ‘high art’.

‘The stencilling thing just got completely out of control with every other person saying ‘I’m an artist’ or ‘I’m a street artist, I do stencilling.’ You get endless stencils, and it just becomes meaningless, really.’

Such stencils are evident in Belfast, and in Britain, the idea is one personified by the notorious artist Banksy. Beginning with stencils on the streets of Bristol, he recently opened his latest covert exhibition in LA with some of the world’s biggest celebrities.

The exhibition consisted of a live elephant, spray painted to match the wallpaper of an installed living room. Banksy was branded ‘an absolute thundering backside’ by the Guardian’s Charlie Brooker.

Johnstone disagrees, but maintains a balanced assessment on the worthiness of such activity.

‘Banksy is a special person. He’s got a lot of talent but he’s sparked a wave of people who are just basically copying him. The fact that it’s on the street makes it easy to do – anyone can cut out a stencil and buy a can of spray paint.’

‘It’s sparked a wave of imitators and it’s a shame that it’s permanently sprayed onto nice buildings and public spaces. You don’t want to see that stuff all the time, it just becomes overwhelming. Banksy is a genuine artist but all the imitators aren’t.’

The removal of posters is but one of the issues tackled by the £3.5m Brighter Belfast Initiative, designed to keep the city’s streets and public spaces clean and clear of exactly the kind of posters that Johnstone produces.

His work, like many others, occupies a grey area between aesthetic quality and function, attracting the eye to publicise an event. Are his posters art, or advertising?

‘They’re advertising, really,’ Johnstone admits. They can be art. It depends on how people treat them.’

Some people treat posters of this ilk very well. While remaining a niche market, top poster artists like Frank Kozik are able to charge as much as $600 for a single print. Johnstone isn’t quite operating at that level, but isn’t overly concerned when his posters are taken home or simply trodden underfoot at the end of a show.

‘It’s part of the territory, but also flattering – if you’ve got a good poster it’ll get taken down by people and they’ll take it home.’

His images do prove popular with more parsimonious collectors.'

‘Sometimes you’ll put your posters up, advertising the next gig and people are busy taking them off the walls. Sometimes the really good ones backfire. People are constantly stealing them.'