Ever chuckled at Bill Cosby, Bill Gates, Bill Murray, and Bill Clinton’s rule-flouting faces on Toronto construction hoarding? Meet the street artists who put them there.
It’s a joke that probably doesn’t need much in the way of explanation, but here goes: When real-estate developers put up a building, they’ll surround the construction site with hoarding (in Toronto, it costs them $477.04, plus $16.13 per metre, plus HST), and along it, they’ll sometimes stencil the words “POST NO BILLS.” That means no posters, no ads, and no placards, please, a warning that, to no-one’s surprise, isn’t always heeded. A funny thing started happening here back in 2002, though, when Bills—not posters, ads, or placards, but stencils of Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Bill Gates, and Bill Murray—started showing up where they were decidedly unwelcome, flanking the “POST NO BILLS” signs.
The two street artists responsible, who go by hool and Things, have never spoken together publicly about their work before, but The Grid finally cornered them to find out what got them started ten years ago, and what’s kept them going since.
How’d you first come up with the idea to stencil famous Bills around “POST NO BILLS” warnings?
HOOL: It started as a dumb joke—imagine if we did post bills? Hilarious. Then Things and I kicked around the idea by considering what kind of bills would be most recognizable. Dollar bills? Duck bills? Nope. People Bills? Yes—facial recognition is built into us. After that, we thought about which Bills would be universal, and we came up with Clinton, Cosby, Murray, and Gates.
THINGS: We have a history of working together on other projects. Hool bugged me for a while before we sat down together, made the stencils, and put them up all in one night. [The very first one] was on construction hoarding at the southwest corner of the Atrium on Bay, at Bay and Dundas. They were my first stencils after doing all sorts of creative things, and I was immediately hooked.
HOOL: First time spray-painting for me, too. I inhaled way too many fumes.
And what’s the reaction been to them since?
THINGS: Overwhelmingly positive, but much more sustained than I expected at first. I agree with the idea that the internet and digital cameras are key developments for graffiti—they allow things like the “Post No Bills” stencils to be seen by so many people who would not have seen them otherwise—but you can still trace it all back to the person on the ground and their initial reaction.
HOOL: Every time I pass a Bills install, I see people look at them, pause, then smile or laugh. They solve the riddle and get a laugh from it. If you laugh at the Bills, it makes you a bit complicit in the vandalism, and I like that. The best reaction was at one of the first installations, at Yonge and Dundas. The construction workers rebuilt the boards for a new phase of construction and replaced all the hoarding, except for the one panel that had the Bills on it. It was obvious that they’d taken pains to remount the board with the Bills, and they’d repainted over everything else.
Since these are almost always on temporary structures like hoarding, the damage is pretty minor and harmless compared to, say, tagging someone’s garage. Do you think that makes it easier for people to laugh along with you?
THINGS: I think it helps, but I’ve done pieces on permanent structures that still get a positive response. I leave it to you to weigh the artistic merit against the damage to private property, but I don’t feel too sorry for most property owners downtown.
HOOL: It certainly makes it easier for the average person to enjoy graffiti when the apparent damage is comparatively small. No upstanding citizen wants to be complicit in something as vilified as graffiti. Tagging, to me, is very different than something like the Bills, though.
When you started in 2002, did either of you know about Toronto Public Space Committee founder Dave Meslin’s project back in 1999, where he spent a night wheatpasting big posters of different Bills around Toronto?
THINGS: Not me. I think it’s cool that he did it, too, but there was no connection. I’ve seen people from other cities who also did very similar things; I claim no ownership of the idea at all. “Post No Bills” graffiti and the U.K. counterpart, “Bill Stickers Will Be Prosecuted,” have been around for over a hundred years.
HOOL: I didn’t know anything about the posters but, as Things said, there have been many unconnected incarnations over the years. [In an email, Meslin told The Grid that he didn't mind: "I'm glad to see these stencils around town. I don't really care if they were inspired by my project in 1999, or not … I'm just glad to see creativity alive on our streets."]
Do you see your Bills as a kind of tongue-in-cheek protest, as Meslin did?
HOOL: I’m not protesting with the Bills—that’s too strong. It’s a playful act of resistance.
THINGS: Protest might be too strong a word for me, too, because it implies that I wanted to change the world with the Bills. Painting them is more like a simple act of disobedience, a thumb in the eye that says: “Do what you will with public space, but so will I.”
How many different places do you think you’ve you put up the Bills since you started?
HOOL: That’s really hard to say. It would have to be over a hundred by now, but it’s been so long and we often work late at night in semi-lucid states, so it’s difficult to remember. We’ve never really stopped with them; we refresh them every year or so. They make so many people smile that it feels like a public service to get them up again every so often. One thing that’s changed in Toronto is an increase in condo development, hence even more construction cladding to work on.
THINGS: Doing the Bills has gotten easier on our end, though there seems to be a move away from the classic “Post No Bills” construction hoardings. Lots of other things have changed in terms of the popularity of graffiti, and Toronto as a city. That’s good in terms of the artistic bar being raised for a wider audience, but bad in terms of the profusion of faux-graffiti marketing shit like “edgy” condos. Fortunately, the war on graffiti is hilarious.
So there’s more construction, but fewer “POST NO BILLS” signs from the people doing the building? What happens when, one day, there’s nothing left to stencil your Bills alongside?
THINGS: Then our work will be done—I kid. I respond to my environment, so if the “Post No Bills” signs are gone, I’ll just paint other things.
HOOL: I do a lot of work in public other than the Bills, so if the signs disappear I’ll still keep busy. I don’t think the signs or the Bills are going to go away any time soon.