Is this mural advertising or art?

A local Dairy Queen owner is in a hot mess with the City of Waterloo over the corporate slogan "Cool Treats," which is at the centre a graffiti mural he calls art but the city calls advertising.

Waterloo store owner caught in the middle of 'art or advertising' dispute with city

Shawn Carnahan stands in front of graffiti he commissioned for the side of his Dairy Queen restaurant on Weber St. The City of Waterloo says the work counts as advertising and must be taken down. ((John Rieti/CBC))

Shawn Carnahan wanted to serve up some art for customers at his Dairy Queen restaurant on Weber St. but it turns out, that the graffiti mural he commissioned on the side of his store is coming with a side of bureaucracy.

Carnahan hired five graffiti artists to paint the mural (pictured above) after overhearing one of the artists talking in an art supply store.

"They'll come and then they'll be sitting on the benches, eating their ice cream and then they'll stand up and walk over to the wall,"  said Carnahan when asked what customers think of the work. "People like art."

Carnahan says his aunt is the only person who has complained to him personally about the graffiti.

But then he got a visit from a City of Waterloo bylaw officer, who told him the work isn't considered a mural because of the ice cream cones and the words "Cool Treats", so it counts as advertising.

"There's a cone with melting sprinkles on it, like melting ice cream, then there's a sun shining through the whole thing with its sun rays across the top. And then they've got a Dairy Queen sandwich man whose got on big shoes and a big hat, and he's like a very funky character," said Carnahan of the work.

"And then it's got  "Cool Treats" that's probably four feet by four feet up, and that's midway throught the wall. And then there's a robot at the end that's got a backpack full of multi-colours and it's shooting out ice cream cones."

"I put it up as art, and then we wanted a bit of theme with some ice cream," he said.

Carnahan says those features aren't front and centre, but Mary George, the manager of licensing and standards for the City of Waterloo says that doesn't matter.

"I agree that it's a very nice looking piece of art," she said. "However, because it advertises a product or service that is located in that location, it would be considered a sign and any sign would require a sign permit in the City of Waterloo."

George said Carnahan is working with the city and must apply for a sign permit, which — if approved would require him to pay $1,000 fee to the city.

"The owner would also have to apply for a sign variance to enable [him] to put a mural on the wall. Murals are only allowed in the Uptown area," said George.

Carnahan can modify sections of the painting, so that it can't be interpreted as advertising. Then Carnahan will apply for a variance to get the work considered a mural. He hopes he'll be able to keep that up until next spring.

"If it's a matter of painting over some of the stuff that has our advertising on it, then we'll just do that," said Carnahan, noting that the artists were okay with covering up the disputed areas.