Behind Signage, City Code, Street Art, and the Banana House

The bananahouse.
The “banana house” in question.

At question this month in West Lafayette is the sudden presence of the “banana house” and whether or not it should be allowed to stay or if it must go. Many locals in local media turned out with lots of opinions about the banana house: some grumbled about graffiti and street art in highly visible areas, some grumbled about slick advertising and marketing schemes from local management companies, and some defended the banana house as a defensible piece of local art, and some just let the puns, Arrested Development jokes, and animated gifs fly.

There are a lot of issues at play, including the local signage wars in West Lafayette, a city government with a stuffy reputation, a misunderstanding of the place of advertising in art, and a recently completed study on local culture that told us to get a little crazy or suffocate. For a great run-down of the story behind the banana house and the personalities involved, the first place to go is Dave Bangert’s J&C editorial from this weekend. The short version: WL government threatened to crack down on local property managers for increasingly putting up larger and larger signage in student neighborhoods that did not adhere to zoning laws, further exacerbating the tensions between local government, the campus neighborhood associations, and landlords. Lo, Granite Management paints a huge banana (their logo) on the side of a property on a prominent corner, and denies it’s branding, marketing, or advertising. “It’s just a banana.” Hilarity ensues.

On the question of whether this is art or signage, I spoke to Tetia Lee, executive director of the Tippecanoe Arts Federation. She says it is both. “The first time that I saw it was, hey, they’re using the design Warhol did for the Velvet Underground album, nice.” While Lee understands this as a marketing and branding technique for Granite, “if anything, they’re just ripping off an idea from an artist, so I would call it artwork because it was [art] first. I guess that [Andy Warhol] would be in support of using the banana to brand a business. After all, his roots were in graphic design and marketing.”

The city says they are not interested in determining whether or not the banana house is art, but does want to determine whether this is a sign, so that it can determine whether it’s up to sign code.

I could not find anywhere in the city code where “sign” was clearly defined. Is there a clear definition of what a “sign” is? What is the city’s real investment in this issue? I spoke with WL city councilmen Eddie VanBogaert and Peter Bunder for a better understanding of the issues and opinions represented.

Eddie VanBogaert: Signage is treated as a zoning distinction, and because we have cooperative area planning, you’ll find the regulations in the Tippecanoe County Unified Zoning Ordinance (UZO). UZO Section 4-8 (pages 178-193) outlines which types of signs are permitted for each zone. The code broadly categorizes signs as “freestanding,” “event oriented,” “building,” and “outdoor advertising.” Because it’s affixed/painted onto the house, the banana mural can’t qualify as freestanding or event oriented. But when you dig into the other classifications, you find that it isn’t really clearly defined within those distinctions either. That’s bad for the banana: UZO prohibits all signs that it doesn’t classify.

In my opinion, the mural’s status as art is an important question. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” This has been applied through incorporation to state and local jurisdictions. Precedent favors regulating signage, but I view the First Amendment expansively, and have some serious philosophical reservations about shutting this down.

The infamous pink house. Near the corner of Salisbury and State Street, WL.
The infamous pink house. Near the corner of Salisbury and State Street, WL.

Do you see a connection between this issue and the old “pink house” issue?

Peter Bunder: Back then the Buzz Grady and the city repeatedly said “Paint this house, it’s a mess.” It was next to a house recently rehabbed with city money. The owners, then B&K rentals, the owners or their manager decided to “flip off” the city by painting it pink. It was a childish response to a reasonable request based on a city ordinance to clean up an eyesore. No art or political statement was involved.

Here, there has been a steady ratcheting up of the sign wars. It’s getting harder to rent poorer quality housing, so more and bigger signs. Tom Mustillo says Morris Rentals started it. I think the city would say Granite started it by moving to giant Robbie Hummels [pictured below]. Livesay and the others competed with large signs of their own. In March the city, under the Mayor’s signature, sent out a carefully worded letter saying “fella’s, knock it off, the voters are coming to council meetings and complaining.” Then the banana. Cute. But like the Nike Swoosh, it’s a sign. I believe the city engineer is right about that. I believe he’s annoyed that they won’t step back. He’s annoyed because when the rental code was changed to include occupancy stickers (little white squares in the rental window) the landlords screamed that signs would increase theft and vandalism by calling attention to a property as a rental, and so unlikely to be occupied during a holiday. Irony is not a Hoosier value.

EV: The issues are connected in my mind because they involve the relationships between established resident neighbors, rental operators, and local government. The more direct contrast actually relates to a debate earlier this year about rental signage in New Chauncey. Neighbors brought complaints to the city council meeting in March and prompted a renewed signage enforcement push from the Mayor’s office. The signs in question certainly weren’t funky, which makes me think that we need some greater specificity our regulation, either geographically or definitively, to allow for a codified distinction between something like the banana mural and an aluminium, all-caps signboard. Right now they’re treated in a similar fashion.

Like the “just a banana” defense that Granite gave this week, the property managers of the pink house played dumb and said that pink was just the cheapest paint for sale.

So what if I decided to paint a mural on the side of my house?

PB: I don’t think murals are prohibited. BUT if in a historic district, they would need a certificate of appropriateness.

Remember the 2010 dust up in Lafayette regarding the Black Sparrow? There are lots of murals in Lafayette, lots of murals in their historic districts, but you need to run them by your neighbors on the preservation commission. No porn, blood, or Nike swooshes. Probably no Iranian flags. The first crummy mural in West Lafayette would lead to an ordinance revision that would run all murals through the Public Art Commission; they are responsible for the murals/sculpture we do have . . .

What’s your opinion on “funkifying” student rentals? How about other properties in Lafayette?

EV: I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do, and I commend Granite for putting this kind of effort into a property south of State Street. I think this sort of project lends a uniqueness to a specific property, and that builds identity. Granting identity to ordinarily generic, faceless housing creates stakeholders out of student residents who are given more of a reason to care about where they live. It’s a conversation point that gets people talking about otherwise unremarkable structures, and I think that’s needed for promoting strong landscapes and city systems.

PB: I would rather improve the properties. I would want a plan for a mural zone; someplace to take bus loads of  out of city tourists. Perhaps an expiration date. Loren Olsen and Al Pounder as curators. If a wall of daylilies, then also a mural of young adults fleeing Indiana pursued by the hounds of convention, the leashes held by white middle aged politicians wearing crosses and flag pins.

The “Community of Choice” study clearly recommended that the city governments “let a few freak flags fly.” In your opinion, is this one worth keeping?

EV: City governments don’t usually have a great eye for this sort of thing; they are inherently older and slower as institutions. But effectively managed cities are self-aware enough to know when to step back and let something happen. The best ones create policies that encourage the behavior in the first place.

The banana mural doesn’t suit my personal tastes, but I’d like to see it stay. I think we’d live in a more beautiful urban environment if more enterprises strived to represent themselves with that level of creativity and effort.

PB: Nope, It’s a sign. A part of a battle over the city’s attempt to regulate signs. (Remember, West Lafayette has no billboards.) My daughter works for the Heidelberg Project in Detroit. She sneaks out into urban Detroit with her bodyguard setting up plywood for up and coming graffiti artists to show their work. GREAT story. I understand the meaning and power of art. I love political art, protest art, public art. I like the sculpture we do. The piece in front of Greyhouse, the farmers at the farmer’s market. I like Neil Armstrong. They fit us. […] But I really don’t want commercials.

So, clearly there some people who see this as an escalation of the signage wars regarding rental properties, and are concerned about what next maneuvers landlords might take. @Dashdrum on Twitter was joking yesterday that “next there will be a giant painting of John Basham’s tan, bald head at NW and Grant.” 

EV: Maybe it’s because I’m a Millennial. Or because I’m a renter, or because I own a business that works with marketing agencies, but I’ve just never been able to get worked up about the “Signage Wars.” If they start becoming destructive or something, they’ll either incur demand destruction that discourages their use, or we can adopt language in city government to scale them back. Until then, I don’t find slippery slopes very compelling, especially not those that make such generous assumptions.

That kind of pre-emptive action is a form of caution. Maybe they will paint Basham’s head on the side of a house. I know some young people who’d think that was awesome and they’d love to live there. I also know a few art students who would love to make some extra money painting it.

This afternoon I took a twenty minute drive hilltop to hilltop and took as many pictures of interesting signage as I could from the driver’s seat of my car. I took pictures of Robbie and the banana, the “just a banana” banana house, the pink house and surrounding signage in campus neighborhoods, then lots of pretty, artistic and historically relevant signage through campus and downtown. Click the images below.

Several people mused that they are happy to live in a place where “where you paint your banana” is the biggest item for local government. I say if it’s an improvement on the property, if it adds to the character of the community, if it’s creative and interesting, let it stay. On the question of whether signage can be art, I encourage anyone to take a stroll down a historic main street or local antique mall and get back with me. Look at some of the great pieces pictured above.

Either way, this is definitely one for local lore.

Follow the discussion: #bananahouse on Twitter, and on our Facebook page.

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5 comments on “Behind Signage, City Code, Street Art, and the Banana House

  1. So because Granite put the banana on their own property, it is a sign. What if that banana were painted on a piece of property owned by someone else? Hope it can stay as it is certainly a conversation starter!

  2. Very nice article. I enjoyed the interviews with Peter and Eddie, along with the pictures around town of other public art displays.

    I still think the framing of the question is off. As a community, we should be more concerned with the message of the public art. What does the art say? This house is owned by Granite? This neighborhood belongs to a certain tagger? Purdue Pete drinks Coke?

    What messages do we want the public to garner from these public art displays?

    Not an easy question to answer, but one that is sure fun to explore.

    Thank you again for this article, this web site, and all that you and your team do.

    1. I’m of two minds here. On the one hand the “just a banana” defense is annoying. Just cop to it being an ad. On the other hand, I wish more property owners cared enough to slap some paint on their houses every few years, fruit or no. Some of the rental properties on either side of State St. are dismal.

      I almost feel like the sweet spot is a mural district like Bunder suggested — the best way to take steam out of Granite’s stunt is more murals. What’s the banana about if there is a rooster house, a shoe house, and a strawberry house on the same block? What if the city said that all houses between West Wood, River Road, Williams, and South Grant were open for mural paintings, should the owners desire, with certain limitations? What if instead of “signage war” we had “the art wars?”

      Just an idea. I think the city should get a little creative instead of squashing current and future developments.

  3. This would be great on a business in a business district. My concern is that it is on a rental property. If the landlords over here are big enough idiots to slap huge eyesore signs on the faces of houses in a historic district (with their name in all caps to make sure their homeowner neighbors know the jerk landlord by name), they are certainly dumb enough to dream up a bigger and stupider eyesore to annoy their neighbors.

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