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Billboard watchdogs clean up skylines

Aiming to clear out commercial clutter, billboard watchdogs from Rio to Toronto police outdoor ads.

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff Writer / September 22, 2009

Toronto activist Rami Tabello, coordinator of the website IllegalSigns.ca which tracks illegal billboards throughout the city, logs new billboards into his phone in Dundas Square. Tabello works with city council, reporting billboards that are built without meeting the specifications of their permits — or without permits at all.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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TORONTO

Standing amid the assortment of new and old buildings in downtown Toronto, Rami Tabello clearly relishes his role as crusader: “Take a look at my handiwork,” he boasts, pointing to a rectangle of discolored brick several stories high on the side of a building.

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There’s nothing there, nothing to see. And that’s the point. Mr. Tabello whips out his iPhone and calls up a photo of what once occupied the space: a giant vinyl Bleu Forêt billboard of women’s tights erected, he says, without a permit. That sign and more than 120 others in this city are gone now because Tabello successfully challenged their legality.

“Pretty cool, eh?” he says, continuing through his exhibit of absences on the sides of buildings – some older and lower, others newer, taller, shinier – where billboards once blared the messages of corporate giants.

Then it’s on to the signs his organization is challenging: “I filed against that one,” says the billboard watchdog, gesturing to a F.E.A.R. 2 video-game banner parallel to the street. (They’ve got to be perpendicular, he explains.) “It will come down eventually,” he says. Of two H&M ads side by side, he says only one has a permit. A pair of Guinness ads high on a five-story building, meanwhile, “are just illegal in a million ways,” he says.

Tabello considers outdoor advertising like this pollution of public space – space that should be reserved for the public good. And he’s turned that sentiment into a crusade. In 2006, the former pension-fund consultant founded the nonprofit Illegal Signs Canada (IllegalSigns.ca), the mission statement of which is: “Our hobby is destroying illegal billboards with the rule of law.” That means 11 volunteers trolling for billboard infractions and reporting them to city officials.

Billboards advertising nearby businesses, “on-site” advertising, are safe. But “off-site” billboards, ads by major companies that now paper cities everywhere, get no mercy. Tabello – who patrols in his red Mini Cooper, with Britney Spears blaring – has filed 700 complaints against billboards.

His campaign is partly about aesthetics: “I don’t want to live in a Disneyland where all I see is corporate messages. I want to live in a diverse city and you’re not getting diversity with what H&M wants to sell you that day,” he says.

But he’s perhaps more driven by a desire to see everyone comply with democratically enacted laws. The discovery that much of Toronto’s outdoor advertising violates city regulations spurred him to take action, he says. By his count, half of the 4,000 signs in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, are illegal. (The city says it’s probably fewer.) “It’s a matter of private interests invading public space,” he says.