If Belfast is a beautiful city, then why plague it with a black sticker pox?

A nasty disease is spreading across Belfast. The Assembly Rooms – which nestle at the intersection of Donegall Street, North Street and Waring Street – have recently been the victim of the ugly pox which can is identifiable by its black triangular stickers bearing three letters and a tag which refers to an Instagram account, a hashtag and a website. It seems to be contagious and has spread to other disused premises, noticeably in and around property that is connected with Castlebrook Investment’s Royal Exchange development.

Belfast City Council’s website explains that “fly-posting is the illegal posting of adverts or posters to any structure”. Low level fines of £80 can be handed out to graffiti and fly-posting offenders.

In my mind’s sliding scale of infraction – and this definitely isn’t a legally tested spectrum – it’s one thing to paste a poster or two* for a gig or campaign, but quite another to deface and degrade the streetscape with a blight of triangles. (For those wondering, election posters in NI are covered under planning legislation and can go up in advance of an election and must come down within two weeks of polling day.)

When is a marketing campaign an act of corporate vandalism, and when is it ok to plaster the outside of disused buildings with stickers advertising something that will open in 55 days time? Guerrilla marketing suits small businesses and grass roots campaigning. Unless it’s classy, it runs the risk of blackening the commercial venture that is being advertised.

And that risk must be multiplied if your strapline is ‘This Beautiful City’ and you’re placing thousands of black triangular stickers over other people’s buildings, something that is making the city less beautiful with every new sticker affixed to a public wall. The Assembly Rooms mark the spot from which all milestones out of Belfast were once measured. The first building on the site opened in 1769 and Sir Charles Lanyon ‘Italianised’ the exterior in 1845, by which time it had gained a second storey.

The offending stickers bear the marks ‘T B C’ and ‘tbcbelfast’.

The tbcbelfast Instagram account has photos that refer to dreamers and chefs – which suggests that the ultimate brand being promoted is a high class hotel or quality catering enterprise – and also includes a video that shows someone sticking triangles to Belfast buildings. The tbcbelfast.com URL mentions ‘This Beautiful City’ and has a countdown clock that is ticking down to 8pm on Thursday 9 November 2017.

The ownership of the tbcbelfast.com domain is disguised in WHOIS. However, the related tbcbelfast.co.uk (registered the same day as tbcbelfast.com) and the alphabetically similar tribeca-belfast.co.uk domains have both been reserved by Stepladder Communications Ltd, a London-based branding firm who work with the property sector. Stepladder appear to be behind the brand campaign and seem to be using a local branding agency to place the stickers on the walls.

A message to the tbcbelfast Instagram account earlier this week has not been answered. I’ll update this post if Stepladder Communications reply to my email enquiry about this campaign.

I removed about a quarter of the stickers from the Assembly Rooms earlier this week, and some other kind souls who care about the city have removed significantly more today. Someone was also photographed sticking more of the pesky triangles over a building this morning.

There’s an awful possibility that highlighting the scourge of the black triangle pox will give the campaign publicity and this post is falling into the hands of the branding/marketing genius behind #tbcbelfast. There’s also the possibility that Belfast City Council will step in and flex its £80 muscle – or at least name and shame – if it can identify who is behind the defacement of buildings. Update – The guidance to councils is clear that a fixed penalty notice can only be given to “the person who personally affixed or placed the advertisement” and not the beneficiary of the fly-posting. However, the beneficiary may be prosecuted by a council.

In a city that has a history of being uncomfortable with people writing chalk messages on the roads and footpaths – that wash away first time it rains** – some consistency would be good to challenge more permanent defacement of people’s property that does not vanish without human effort.

If you spot any next Friday on Culture Night Belfast, feel free to peel them off and stick them in the bin. Consider it an act of cultural conservation to counter the vandalism and defacement.

* I have to admit that I walked around Ballymena late one night in 1998 with a colleague, a bucket of wallpaper paste, a thick brush and a roll of posters to advertise a gig that was probably doomed before we panicked and decided some marketing was required.

** it rains a lot in Belfast

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