Toys 'Я' worse than Communism and murder?

What is art? What is speech? What is offensive speech?

Such questions leaped from the front page of today's Philadelphia Inquirer in an article about Sony's "Playstation kid" graffiti advertising campaign. Local activists who favor political murals but hate corporate ones are in a dither:

Sony has conceded that the graffiti ads are not spontaneous art, but contrived marketing for the handheld games.

That annoys Mary Tracy, a local watchdog against illegal billboards through her group, SCRUB - the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight.

"It's not mural art," Tracy said. "This is someone trying to sell a product. This is commercialism. You have a multi-conglomerate operation coming into the city and breaking our laws."

She added that if it is art, why not put it everywhere?

"They're not putting this on walls in Gladwyne or Ardmore," Tracy said. "These are poor neighborhoods. The whole notion that 'if it's urban, it's OK' is very arrogant and very disrespectful."

Philadelphia has strict billboard regulations. Companies have to get a permit from the city's Licenses and Inspections Department before putting up an advertisement.

Sony did not get permission ahead of time for its graffiti ads, the L&I office confirmed yesterday.

L&I intended to issue a violation to the property owner and inform Sony that such advertising required a permit, said a department official who asked not to be identified.

I know it's a simplistic question, but I'd like to know why a permit would be required for a Playstation kid, but not for Che Guevara, Rachel Corrie, or Tookie Williams? (In many cities, even building owners are prohibited from painting over what's called "mural art.")

Is the current uproar over the fact that someone wants to make money, and that's bad? Unlike the case of regular graffiti art, Sony is paying the owners of buildings to allow the art, and some of them like it. (A fact which appears not to matter at all.)

It strikes me that there is a serious philosophical question somewhere in all of this.

Dare I ask whether this question involves morality? Commercial graffiti is more immoral than graffiti glorifying murderers?

New York blogger (and "street-art aficionado") Jake Dobkin does not like Sony's Playstation graffiti (to say the least):

I've written about this so many times on Gothamist that I'm worried about sounding like a broken record-- but apparently the big corporations have not gotten the message. This week, Sony Playstation graffiti pieces have been popping up like cancer all over Manhattan. The pieces are sometimes drawn by hand-- others are wheat pasted to walls all over SoHo and NoLIta. It's clearly a large campaign, and deserves a thoughtful, measured response. Here's mine: corporate graffiti sucks. Sucks! Sucks! Sucks! It sucks for a variety of specific reasons....
He lists the reasons why it sucks (exploitive, fake, deceptive, illegal, hated by neighbors, bad PR, etc.), and I think he has some good points.

He also provides a photo of Sony's sucky-ass art:


I have to admit, I don't especially like Sony's graffiti art, but I think there's a huge double standard which isn't being acknowledged. Forgetting for a moment First Amendment concerns, I'd like to ask why there should be more of a moral right to deface buildings with pictures of a communist murderer than with pictures of the Playstation kids.

For example, Mr. Dobkin links to some of his own art, which features a picture of Che Guevara surrounded by BB King, Ernest Hemingway, and others. Many people wouldn't mind seeing Che Guevara, but many would. (I know it's just my own personal opinion, but may I be so bold as to venture that Communism sucks?)

While I'm not especially offended by Dobkin's work (because he's at least kind enough to also feature images of people I do like), here's an example (by another artist) which typifies the type of mural I don't like:


Again, why does the fact that this is not commercial make the above morally superior? Is it less offensive because it doesn't advertise a product? Isn't it advertising Communism and murder? Aren't Communism and murder at least as offensive as high tech toys?

Well, no!

That's because making money is immoral. Committing murder in the name of "social justice" is not. Whether anyone likes it or not, moral questions are won by those who scream the loudest.

(What, you're expecting I should scream more loudly? On behalf of the DRM-virus-spreading Sony?)

UPDATE (12/29/05): Yahoo has picked up the story, and links to a photo of Sony's actual Philadelphia, um, art.


The owner likes it, but the City says he has to get a license because he violates "zoning" or something.

(And of course, commies get to advertise free.)

Go figure.

posted by Eric on 12.28.05 at 07:55 AM


What if Sony changed it to having Che holding the PSP?

Adam   ·  December 28, 2005 12:00 PM


Eric Scheie   ·  December 28, 2005 12:05 PM

If you go into older cities and lo0k at the sides of buildings you'll often see faded painted ads from the 30s, 40s, 50s, etc. on the sides of buildings. It's neat to see such things making a comeback.

lindenen   ·  December 28, 2005 11:32 PM

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