Ice House

Those Inflatable Tube Men That You See In Front Of Houston Businesses Are Illegal. Why?

And why are they still everywhere?

By Morgan Kinney December 4, 2017 Published in the December 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Amy Kinkead

You have surely spotted Houston’s Public Enemy Number One. He tilts left and right, up and down, around and back, rebelliously boogying at traffic on street corners near the Galleria, in Third Ward strip malls, and outside cell phone shops along Harwin and Antoine. Wild-eyed and lanky, Mr. Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man—as dubbed by a Family Guy episode—pays no mind to the 17 city inspectors tracking his whereabouts, who could deliver a whopping fine to those who play host to him.

Sec. 28-37 of the Houston City Code has prohibited Mr. Tube Man’s existence since 2010, along with a whole slew of other “attention-getting devices” used by businesses. This category includes, but is not limited to, streamers, whirligigs, 11 categories of lights, steam- or smoke-producing devices, and something called “festooning.” Of course, there are notable exceptions, such as governmental flags or holiday decorations, which means that football-field-sized Texas flag at the car dealership and the inflatable Christmas tree at the furniture store remain kosher.

Misael Benitez, the city’s acting manager for sign administration, oversees the daunting game of Whack-A-Mole that is enforcing the ban across Houston’s 627 square miles. Yes, he acknowledges Mr. Tube Man has stuck around, but that’s only because many people remain unaware of the ordinance. If there is a violation, business owners get a stern warning and a 10-day grace period to either remove the device or gird their loins for a fine of up to $500 per day. Benitez finds this a persuasive policy with “practically 100 percent compliance” after the warning; his department hasn’t issued a citation in three years.

Mr. Tube Man’s life as an outlaw began in 2008, when City Council debated the issue for four hours, hearing from more than two dozen members of the public, including ban supporters who argued the devices were tacky and distracting. Ban opponents such as Dallas and Lori Foster, co-owners of Cypress-based Texas Boys Balloons, prepared informational videos and lobbied councilmembers for an alternative solution that would spare their business. The ordinance passed 9-2.

Texas Boys Balloons still exists, although its market is largely outside Houston. When Houstonia caught up with him recently, Dallas Foster continued to make the case for devices like Mr. Tube Man, lamenting the loss of an affordable advertising method—about $33 per day for one of his balloons versus a pricey TV spot. He further balked at the premise that banning attention-getting devices would beautify Houston. “Lo and behold, it’s still not beautiful,” Foster says.

Scenic Houston, one of the groups that lobbied for the ordinance, still views the policy as a long-term success, a victory on its path to remove anything “adversely affecting the city’s image.” For the organization, the Mr. Tube Man debate is black-and-white: Members point to studies that correlate decreased visual clutter with improved economic development, civic pride, quality of life, and visual character.

Interestingly enough, an informal poll of Houstonia employees found that at least a few are fans of Mr. Tube Man and his hard-to-look-away-from dancing, which always seems timed to the beat of whatever song’s on the radio.

Scenic Houston President Anne Culver, of course, could not disagree more. “We thought they were unsightly and unsafe, and now they’re banned,” she says with satisfaction. These days, she only thinks about them when she spots one on the side of the road—in which case she promptly reports it to Benitez via 311.

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