Why QR code poems cause conflict in Philly’s Old City

For almost two years now, artist Judy Breslin has been placing hundreds of poems on buildings across Philadelphia.

There’s no paper, no paint, just stamp-sized stickers with a jumble of black and white blocks. When these QR codes are scanned with a smartphone app, they conjure a few lines of text on a screen. An example:

All too full of SpringTo do anything less thanFall in love with you.

“It’s there to be seen, but then not to be seen,” said Breslin, on a recent walk around Old City. “I’m placing art in the commercial world. Isn’t that a refreshing thought?”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

They may be small, but Breslin says the stickers are placed almost always without permission. They dot storefront windows, parking meters, newspaper boxes.

But what Breslin calls an “artistic gesture,” others in the neighborhood are calling vandalism.

“Any time you put something on someone else’s property without their permission — whether it’s a work of art or not — it’s graffiti,” said Arthur Meckler, the owner of a vintage furniture store on North Third Street.

He and a handful of nearby shop owners are angry. They’ve taken to removing many of the stickers and say they may even take legal action.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, I think it’s kinda cool.’ My response to them is, ‘Really? What is your address? Let me come over tonight and put some graffiti on your property,'” Meckler said. “And I have not had anybody volunteer their address to me.”

But not all Old City merchants are against Breslin’s poetry project.

“There are so many other things here within Old City that people could worry about,” said Mary Ann Ferrie, the owner of a restaurant near Third and Arch. “Like people not picking up their dog crap or people littering and things like that. I don’t see how a little sticker on a window affects anybody.”

A new gallery show of Breslin’s work has seemed to increase tensions in the neighborhood, often billed as Philadelphia’s art district.

The gallery owner, Luella Tripp, says more than one local shop owner has confronted her about Breslin’s QR codes.

Meckler, the furniture store owner, says he spoke at length with the gallery. “I think she came to see my point. Let’s just leave it at that,” he said.

Tripp declined to talk on tape.

As for the 69-year-old Breslin, she says she’s not worried about getting into trouble.

Before now, only friends knew she was behind the stickers. The original poems and haikus, all written by Breslin, feature no attribution.

She’s glad her work, an art/tech mashup, is provoking dialogue and debate.

“Art is supposed to do that,” said Breslin. “And if I have to suffer the consequences of that, so be it.”

Her gallery show is on display until July 7. Her stickers will be up for far longer.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal