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Beyond the Impossible


Welcome to Chicago’s tiniest art gallery. 

I legally sold a painting on the streets of Chicago yesterday.  I still almost can’t believe that actually happened.  I decided to pick up where Chris Drew and I left off.  Instead of protesting city laws from the outside like Chris was, I wanted to attempt to follow proper procedures and look for reform from within the system  I started navigating the state and city business licensing process back on May 22, 2013 and achieved success on June 13, 2013.  All of the research, contacts and communication I have done took hour after hour to complete going from from lead or from one piece of information to the next.  The Chicago Peddler’s License is currently $100 for two years, but unlike the busking permit for musicians, people selling items are banned from a majority of the city – really any place that a person, especially an artist, could expect to make any money.  Dealing with the regulations and bureaucracy in all of that time has made me feel like I have been beating my head against a brick wall.  Dealing with City of Chicago authority figures is so much like being in a live action version of a Sara Paretsky novel that is is bizarre!  I finally figured out how to get where I wanted without breaking the law: hello loophole.

I have three month’s access to the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue at Washington Street using the Speech Peddler’s Permit which is an additional permit applied for on top of the Peddler’s Permit that allows me downtown but restricts me solely to that one location with the permission of the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department in Chicago City Hall.  This puts me in the unique situation of being the one and only artist legally street vending work downtown.  As much as I wanted to celebrate it as a personal coup: no high costs of art fairs or street festivals, a prime location and heavy foot traffic; my real feelings are that I need to reach down and bring up other people.  The primary legal purpose of the Speech Peddler’s purpose is for what they city legally construes in the Municipal Code 4-244-141 as:

 (a)     Definitions.  For purposes of this section, “speech peddling” shall mean where a licensed peddler sells or exchanges for value anything containing words, printing or pictures that predominantly communicates a non-commercial message.

For purposes of this section, a “non-commercial message” may include, without limitation, a message relating to political, religious, artistic, and/or any other non-commercial idea(s). Where the words, printing and/or pictures do nothing more than identify a product, such as a brand name or logo, or identify the peddled item’s origin or place of manufacture, or otherwise do nothing more than advertise or promote the product itself, the item shall be not be deemed to communicate a “non-commercial message”.

For purposes of this section, “predominately communicates” shall mean that the non-commercial message is the primary purpose of the item which is being sold. Factors that should be considered in determining whether an item predominantly communicates a non-commercial message include: (i) the percentage of the item containing non-commercial printing and/or pictures, (ii) the size of the lettering or pictures, and (iii) any other factor otherwise indicating that the primary purpose of the item being sold is to communicate a non-commercial message. In no event may there be any commercial message which occupies more space on the item than does the non-commercial message.

For purposes of this section, items that may, under the relevant criteria, predominantly communicate a non-commercial message may include T-shirts, books, audiotapes, videotapes, compact disks, posters, flags, banners, signs, buttons, toys, balloons or any other item.

What this more or less breaks down to in plain English is that people can get get a permit to legally hawk things for political or religious purposes.  Just because I feel my artistic expression and sales is protected free speech does not have much practical backing or legal precedent, even though corporate donations of millions to billions of dollars to political campaigns is protected “free speech”.  Begging is legally protected free speech; selling things is not.  I went to art school and am not a good candidate to debate the convoluted warping of logic and the English language for legal uses.  What I am bright enough to have figured out is that sales of my art are now politicized as a) examples of unique items specifically made here in Chicago, and more importantly b) to bring awareness to the bans of the Peddler’s License and to direct people to a petition to remove the bans, making the entire city accessible to people who buy the proper license.  Also, having had people in art school to tell me to be less political, here is the ironic reversal where any personal political art I have laying around now has an outlet.

violin savoirfaire sketch 300

Samuel Savoirfaire Williams provided me with hours of live music while he was in the same location.

It looks like getting signatures for my petition and communicating with the public about reforming the restrictions on the Peddler’s Permit will yield slow progress.  About 98% of the passing public studiously ignored me although yelling out like a sports stadium beer seller actually works.  I wrung the most of out the day.  I got my first page of signatures, sold one small painting and a zine for a total of $21 and mooched free live music from a violinist who was my street neighbor for the day.  I hired a panhandler to give me a break which enabled me to be out for five hours; I told her she would get $5 for 15 minutes if she would just watch my stuff and tell anyone I would be back soon. This enabled me to sprint to a restroom and run a comb through my hair.  The breeze and wind downtown is constant.  This dropped my take down to $16 or a total of  $3.20 an hour for five hours.  Then I realized that this grand income did not  account for either the time or cost of materials invested in making the art sold and contemplated on how thoroughly Wal-Mart is kicking my ass.  On the other hand, I employed a panhandler and she earned money from a small job and probably got a greater amount than she would have gotten from begging.  Good Karma: priceless.

  1. Dave
    July 16, 2013 at 1:01 am

    You are now a job creator! Your one of them. 😉 Good job. Hope things pick up.

    • July 17, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      I am putting a petition up today, please sign to help!

  2. Silent Cicada
    July 16, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    As I said on dA: Congrats! Good luck on this.

    • July 17, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      I am rolling out a petition online in just a minute! Thanks for reading. ♥ Keep in touch.

  3. July 17, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    I’m very proud of you for having the gumption and perseverance to see this through! Keep it up!

    • July 17, 2013 at 11:09 pm

      It is going to take a time investment. ☺ At least I’m trying! Please sign the petition and pass it on.

  4. r4v5
    July 18, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Congratulations on your loophole and your sales, Shellie! I have a question about the wording of that law.

    > For purposes of this section, a “non-commercial message” may include, without limitation, a message relating to political, religious, artistic, and/or any other non-commercial idea(s).

    Doesn’t that include artistic ideas pretty clearly, regardless of if they’re political or religious?

    I agree that the whole situation is stupid and needs fixing, but I find it interesting that literally no one else has thought to do this. (The economics of it, perhaps, may be a contributing factor.)

    Good luck on your quest; I’m signing the petition now!

    • August 5, 2013 at 4:43 pm

      Thank you! Please ask friends and others to sign the petition. I put months of research into doing this and I am trying to share the information I discover.

      My consultation with an attorney and experience from speaking with city officials is that government has the power to regulate commerce however it sees fit. There are no Constitutional rights for making a living even if you want to access the public way to do so, there is no legal basis to access the streets or public way for economic purposes. Therefore, even though our tax monies go into the streets, sidewalks, beaches, parks, etc. we have no rights to use them for commerce. The Business Administration & Consumer Protection office in combination with the city Municipal Code define my selling art as commerce and not as free speech. Even if the art is political or religious, its existence as a commodity / commerce supersedes and cancels out any protected free speech content. There is no upheld case I know of where art for sale has been defined as protected free speech.

      Musicians and performers that are busking are not defined as commerce, which is why the Performer’s License has completely different rules from the Peddler’s License. Performers are not defined as “commerce” even though money is earned from their playing or performances, many offer CD sales and residual financial benefits, like being hired in the future. I am not out to throw musicians and performers under the bus, I think they make the city better; the separate systems of laws for performers and artists / peddlers illustrate how the English language is used to fit a legal power structure as suits its creators intentions. I would have previously understood “commerce” to mean “making money, earning money.” Dictionary.com defines it as:

      com·merce [kom-ers]
      an interchange of goods or commodities, especially on a large scale between different countries (foreign commerce) or between different parts of the same country (domestic commerce) trade; business.
      social relations, especially the exchange of views, attitudes, etc.
      sexual intercourse.
      intellectual or spiritual interchange; communion.
      ( initial capital letter ) . Also called Commerce Department. Informal. the Department of Commerce.

      Therefore street performance and playing music is not a “commodity” under the first definition:

      com·mod·i·ty [kuh-mod-i-tee]
      noun, plural com·mod·i·ties.
      an article of trade or commerce, especially a product as distinguished from a service.
      something of use, advantage, or value.
      Stock Exchange. any unprocessed or partially processed good, as grain, fruits, and vegetables, or precious metals.
      Obsolete . a quantity of goods.

      The bottom line is that money is changing hands with performers and musicians, but money is not changing hands in return for a tangible object such as if I were to sell a banana, a t-shirt or a painting.

      The end result is that this section of laws has left begging as the most viable economic alternative to get economic gain on the streets downtown for a majority of people. My counting of people begging versus performers has thus far put 2/3 or higher the number of people in the begging category. Performers and musicians are more likely to be out on the weekend by my experience, so I am sure those numbers would show begging at an even higher ratio during the week. It would be interesting if someone with a better background in research counted the same sections of the streets daily, maybe taking a count two or three times a day, to get quantitative analysis of beggars versus the number of licensed performers. I am only one person doing casual counts while I am lugging stuff to my authorized corner.

  5. Greg McCubbin....zamora64socorro
    July 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Great story Shellie….

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