Sparks Street BIA shuts down artist's distribution of free shirts

Artist Andrew King had a plan to celebrate the sunny weather — hand out free Ottawa 2017 shirts he designed on Sparks Street for an hour on Friday afternoon — but he was told to leave by the BIA.

Sparks Street BIA defends decision despite online backlash

Andrew King hyped up the giveaway of his Ottawa 2017 party T-shirts with a series of notes on Twitter on Friday morning.

"We did it Ottawa. We survived another winter. It's now sunny and warm so let's party! Free shirts today 12 to 1 p.m.," he wrote in one message.

"Remember, these shirts are absolutely free. No questions, no survey to do, no donation. Just take it and have fun," he wrote in another.

But the Sparks Street Business Improvement Area was less enthusiastic about his celebration of the city — asking the artist to leave the pedestrian mall almost immediately after he arrived with his Adidas bag packed with 50 shirts for the taking, he told CBC News.

King said he tried to explain that he created "Ottawa party shirts" to give away as "a free, fun thing" but was still pointed away.

"I just wanted to hand them out as a gift to Ottawa. It gets a bad rap as a city that fun forgot, so I thought, why not make a fun shirt, hand them out free to whoever wants them. And I thought, 'What better place than Sparks Street?'" he said. 

"It seems ridiculous. But now that I think about it, I'm not surprised. They seem to be shooting themselves in the foot. I was just trying to bring some fun and life to Sparks Street, which is floundering and I guess we're not allowed to do that."

Committed to live up to his promise, King moved just a bit north of Sparks Street on O'Connor Street, and found a sunny distribution spot to stand. The T-shirts were gone in 20 minutes. 

No licence required for free items

Roger Chapman, the head of Ottawa's bylaw and regulatory services, said a person doesn't need a licence to hand out free items but must not "encumber the roadway," which would include a stand or box on the ground. A hand-held bag would not need a licence, he said.

But Kevin McHale of the Sparks Street BIA defended the decision to ask King to leave, saying the organization has the right to say who can and cannot "use the space within the mall." 

He said he would have been happy to allow King to distribute the T-shirts if he had called ahead for permission.

"We've had protesters and such come through, and we haven't impeded anyone's rights to do those kinds of things. We just ask that people respect the rights of those who are walking by."

He also said that the BIA doesn't "allow solicitation along the pedestrian promenade."

King apologized to the BIA on Twitter — prompting a flood of response from those who could not understand why he would be asked to move in the first place.

King thanked his supporters on Twitter for their words of encouragement, and promised to ask for permission before staging another give-away on Sparks Street.

King, known for his paintings of buildings featuring people flying off with umbrellas, has also created a line of T-shirts depicting iconic Ottawa signs, including the Civic Pharmacy sign.

with files from Joanne Chianello