A city without billboards
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The largest city in all of South America with over 12 million people, São Paulo is a city of contrasts, marked by dizzying diversity and energy. Because of its mostly tropical climate and multicultural vibe, Filipinos can feel at home here despite being on the other side of the world.
Indeed, one can wake up in São Paulo thinking that one were in Quezon City; even the beautiful campus of the University of São Paulo reminds me of UP Diliman. Yet, at some point, after exploring more of the city and seeing its neighborhoods from rooftops, windows and sidewalks, one realizes a major difference between Brazil’s economic center and most Philippine cities: There are no billboards in São Paulo.
Not a single one. No tarpaulins or oversized signs. No larger-than-life images. No face of Neymar endorsing an energy drink, or of Gisele Bündchen endorsing a cosmetics clinic. No Bible verse from one of the city’s megachurches. No political ads. You can wander around the city without having a clue how the mayor or the governor looks like.
This is not accidental. In 2006, the city passed a “Lei Cidade Limpa” (Clean City Law) that forbade outdoor advertisements; the following year, over 15,000 billboards and hundreds of thousands of signages were taken down. The mayor at the time, Gilberto Kassab, successfully convinced the people that all those ads constituted “visual pollution.”
Alongside billboards, graffiti and murals were also covered by the law, but there was pushback from the public and much of the street art was preserved. Today, that street art remains not just a famous attraction, but a also defining characteristic of the city, and people go to places like Vila Madalena’s Beco do Batman and Cruzeiro do Sul Avenue to view colorful walls, fences and even subway columns.
I am reminded of São Paulo’s policies on billboards and graffiti in light of Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s crusade against vandalism, even to the point of declaring Panday Sining — a group of artist-activists responsible for some recent slogan-painting on a Manila underpass — “persona non grata.”
His stance would not have looked out of place here. In 2017, newly elected mayor João Doria embarked on a new “beautiful city” campaign. “We will support and value the grafiteiros and the muralistas, but the pichadores will not have peace,” Doria declared, tapping into the popularly shared distinction between the mostly-black, mostly-calligraphic, mostly-antiestablishment pixaçao and the more colorful, pictographic and less-overtly political graffiti.
As in a decade ago, there was resistance to his move, and debate over graffiti and what constitutes street art rages on. Meanwhile, the ban on billboards remains, allowing visitors like me to reimagine our own cities.
Come to think of it, given their sheer size and placement, billboards pollute our view of the city much more than graffiti does. Just as Torre de Manila blocks the view of the Jose Rizal shrine, billboards block the view of the mountains, the architecture and even the sky. Does the overwhelming textual and visual imagery not contribute to the stress we feel in the city? And what of the consumerism and other toxic messages they foist upon everyone caught in traffic?
(Incidentally, some of those billboards nowadays feature Isko Moreno himself, endorsing a clothing brand.)
Besides questions of aesthetics and discourse, billboards are also distractions for drivers — and literal physical hazards. In 2006, one person was killed and dozens injured when several billboards in Metro Manila were felled by Typhoon “Milenyo.” More billboard-related deaths and injuries have been reported since.
Of course, people will say that the major difference between billboards and graffiti is that one is legal and the other illegal, but as the São Paulo example reminds us, the enactment and implementation of laws are a function of politics. The “Clean City” movement prevailed because it had popular support and its effects were ultimately beneficial, restoring importance to urban architecture, revealing some of the city’s problems (such as neglected neighborhoods previously hidden from view)—and yes, giving more space to street art.
How would Metro Manila look like if it were a city without billboards?
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