many, billboards are simply another dreary fact of
life. They pollute the landscape with their blatant
pitches for cigarettes, suds and washed-up superstars
coming soon to a casino near you. They barely register
in a passing pedestrian's or motorist's imagination
until you see these:
An Apple computer billboard of Amelia Earhart changed
from "Think Different" to "Think Doomed."
A neon Joe Camel ad that once touted "Genuine
Taste" now asks "Am I Dead Yet?" with
a lit skull superimposed over the cartoon camel's
A billboard for a local radio station that once read
"Hits Happen—New X-100" now says "Shit
Happens—New Exxon," only a few months after
the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The San Francisco-based
Billboard Liberation Front has taken responsibility
for these double-take-inducing billboards for more
than twenty years.
Cigarette billboards may now be a thing of the past
as a result of the $206 billion settlement between
the tobacco industry and forty-six states. But back
when the BLF began, their modifications were some
of the only anti-smoking messages out there.
What BLF does can be called billboard modification
or alteration, improvement or beautification. Some
call it vandalism or defacing private property. Others
call it admirable; Utne Reader nominated
the BLF as one of its ten media heroes of 1991.
BLF founding member Jack Napier calls it art. His
group organized "The Art of Midnight Editing,"
a bicoastal exhibit of the group's last two decades
of "Culture Jamming and Drive-by Advertising
Improvement," which came to the Lab in San Francisco
in March and CBGB's 313 Gallery in New York in April.
For the first time, the show gathered together private
photographs and examples of work by various twilight
groups and fringe individuals around the country,
above ground and in the bright light of day.
newest works on display included the BLF's guerrilla-style
commentary on the "Think Different" campaign,
which Napier describes as "a great example of
how absolutely everything, no matter what it meant
in different circumstances, can be used as a sales
model." Obviously the images of Bob Dylan, the
Dalai Lama and John Lennon are "meant to be distilled
into a sales pitch."
BLF slapped another notable target, the psychedelic
swirl of a Levi's billboard, with the face of Charles
Manson two years ago in San Francisco. A hilarious
press release/communique followed: "The historic
collaboration between two of the most potent iconic
forces of the 1960s taps into a frothy zeitgeist
of manipulative nostalgia... Levi's and Charlie,
those two great success stories of pop mesmerism...
appear to us reborn as the Dank and Dope of the '90s...
Charlie was the '60s and now thanks to Levi's he
is the '90s."
possibility of Manson becoming the "spokesconvict"
for Levi's appears to be an all-too-real possibility
in today's advertising environment, theorizes Napier,
with tongue planted firmly in cheek. "Manson
does represent the prison population, one of the largest
populations in the world, and since Levi's is going
overseas, if they go to China, they could use prisoners
to manufacture Levi's," he says. "It's only
a matter of time before they start using Idi Amin
or Pol Pot to advertise shoes. It's so important to
sell things; anything that'll work they should use."
of the earliest billboard modifications in the exhibit
were made by Mark Pauline in the late 1970s, before
he began to wage wars with robots in his Survival
Research Laboratories. Clad in a painter's uniform
in broad daylight, he transformed a billboard depicting
the owner of Jeno's Pizza into an executioner dangling
a likeness of Pauline's head. In another of his greatest
hits, a billboard of Kojak's Telly Savalas
hawking Black Velvet whiskey was changed to "Feel
Also on exhibit were photos of hand-painted billboard
alterations by Ron English, one of the few BLF artists
who have been arrested for their trespasses. In vivid
colors and a hyper-realistic style, English painted
one Joe Camel asking another: "Hook any new kids
Another billboard, which depicts the New York-via-Texas
artist on a cross, with the caption "Let's get
drunk and kill God," was the subject of one of
English's few negative encounters with the public.
When he put it up with the help of members of the
New Jersey group Cicada Corps in a mainly Puerto Rican
neighborhood, the response was violent.
"I thought, it takes people just three seconds
before they pull their thoughts together and decide
to kill you," recalls English. "When they
saw the billboard, you could see them seething, all
these men sitting on porches and drinking beer. They
all went into their houses and brought out sticks
and baseball bats."
he managed to drive off in time, although Pedro Carvajal,
who was filming the modification for a documentary,
almost crashed into another car in his haste to escape.
Cicada Corps and its previous incarnation, Artfux,
also exhibited photos of billboards that ranged from
an image of Uncle Sam captioned with "I want
you to die a horrible meaningless death to sustain
a lifestyle that will ultimately destroy the earth"
to an altered Newport cigarette billboard of two women
laughing with a man in a leather jacket, reading "Rebel
without a Lung." The advertisement's Surgeon
General box also received a critical rewrite: "Warning:
Healthy profits don't always require living customers."
The corps has also modified bus shelter posters and
stop signs, which in the right light say "Stop
AIDS" or "Stop racism."
The exhibit included photographs detailing the handiwork
of anonymous underground groups such as the California
Department of Corrections, whose alterations include
a British Petroleum ad altered to say "SFPD/The
Sign of Brutality," and Hocus Focus, who staged
yet another "Think Different" campaign and
added the lines "Imagine lovers are not hucksters"
to the image of John Lennon and Yoko Ono and "He
not busy being born is busy buying" to the photograph
of Bob Dylan.
"Why Ask Why?"
The effect, according to Judith Coburn (writing
in the Village Voice), can be compared to the
actions and artwork of the Situationists in the late
1950s, who used existing mainstream channels of communication
to their own advantage and ultimately claimed responsibility
for the mass strikes in France in May 1968 that paralyzed
the entire country.
But the reasons for the BLF and other groups' modifications
of billboards are as varied and hard to pin down as
the groups themselves. The BLF—which at twenty-two
years is the oldest instigator of the "anti-advertising
movement" in the United States, according to
Adweek—has a forthright approach to "billboard
improvement," as they prefer to call it. They
believe all people should have their own billboards.
"We don't have anything against billboards at
all or the idea of advertising," says Napier.
"However, I'm miffed at the idea that wealthy
individuals and corporations have access to drive-by
media. These are very expensive to lease or rent or
As a sign of their benevolence, the BLF takes pains
to alter billboards without damaging property and
occasionally leaves a twelve-pack of beer for workers
assigned the unfortunate task of restoring the billboard.
And as a mark of their professionalism (legend has
it that members work in graphic design and advertising),
they also strive for pleasing layout and impeccably
matched fonts. "Spraypainting foul words is not
creative," says Napier.
The BLF also offers scruffy art students, would-be
pranksters and nascent billboard editors a guide to
"the Art and Science of Billboard Improvement,"
covering production, execution and escape methods
at its Web site (www.billboardliberation.com).
group began as little more than an elaborate stunt
concocted by the San Francisco Suicide Club, which
organized "marginally legal" urban adventures
such as wandering the sewers of Oakland and having
a meal with the Moonies. The nineteen-year-old Napier
and another BLF member were blindfolded, driven to
a downtown San Francisco freeway exchange and urged
to climb onto a factory roof and alter two Max Factor
"I was astonished to see you could climb up and
put whatever you wanted to say on it. That was a revelation
to me as a former juvenile delinquent," says
Napier, today a self-described businessman in an advertising-related
Others define billboard modification under the somewhat
more cerebral category of "culture jamming,"
a term popularized by Negativland.
As cultural critic Mark Dery defines it, "jamming"
started out as a "CB slang of interrupting radio
broadcasts or conversations with fellow hams with
lip farts, obscenities and other equally jejune hijinx.
Culture jamming, by contrast, is directed against
an ever more intrusive, instrumental technoculture
whose operant mode is the manufacture of consent through
the manipulation of symbols."
Others, like filmmaker Craig Baldwin—who is
known for his Negativland documentary, Sonic Outlaws,
and less known for the billboard alterations he carries
out with his own gang of pranksters, the Urban Rats—see
the act as a natural, almost folk art, response to
the pervasiveness of advertising in the urban environment.
He wishes billboards would be abolished, as they are
in Hawaii and Oregon, but "meanwhile I'll meet
advertising on its own terms. I don't have the luxury
of choosing my battlefield," says the frenetic
San Franciscan. "It may be more effective to
invert the received language of advertising, and that's
a challenge and measure of your ingenuity, pluck and
modification is in keeping with a Northern Californian
tradition of communitarian ideals, which involves
people communicating among themselves and not through
banks, networks or producers of mass media, Baldwin
believes. Its predecessors and successors were the
street theater activists the Diggers, '70s-era East
Bay anarchists such as Point Blank! and later the
Silicon Valley hackers.
Others, such as Carvajal and his mainly Latino group,
are motivated by the disproportionate amount of billboard
advertising in low-income black and Latino neighborhoods.
"All these communities are saturated and bombarded
with negative ads—tobacco ads and alcohol ads.
We started to transform those negative messages into
positive messages by defacing them, by using humor
and the same aesthetics as Madison Avenue, matching
the font, changing the text so that it looks like
it belongs there. That is the characteristic of the
Cicada billboard—they're very subtle, so they
stay longer," says Carvajal, who has documented
Cicada and Artfux's work in the documentaries Citizen
Art/Culture Jamming (1995) and Art Pushes:
Art Provokes: Artfux (1991).
The members of Cicada and Artfux got started on their
life of billboard banditry with the help of English,
who taught them overlay techniques. Now Cicada is
so familiar in New York's Alphabet City that residents
offer the members water to mix their wheat paste or
lend an extra ladder, says Carvajal. "They know
us and what we're about and that we're just trying
to diminish the negative imagery," he explains.
"They enjoy it."
English started out making billboards to entertain
his girlfriend; he would drive her by them in Dallas
and Austin, Texas, where he attended college and majored
in art. They were such a hit, he decided to continue.
After all, he thought, he probably wouldn't be able
to show in a gallery, so it seemed like a good way
to have his own art exhibit. He and his friends would
get a keg of beer, go to a park down the streets from
the billboards and have an art opening.
Since he was arrested and charged with a second-degree
felony in 1984 with a group altering thirty-eight
billboards in downtown Dallas, English has become
an established artist with Ozone Gallery in New York
and has tried therapy to kick his billboard habit.
It hasn't worked. English continues his beautification
projects—as he speaks on the phone he has two
"Think Different" posters ready, depicting
Charles Manson and Bill Gates. "I think a funny
thing happens when you enter the art system. The only
art you sell is art to really, really rich people.
You think, 'I'm from a trailer park in the Midwest
and those people will never get to see the art,'"
he says. "So I get off on going to poor neighborhoods
and doing stuff and having people get off on it and
Francisco State University instructor Timothy Drescher
understands that interplay between art and the community.
He draws parallels between billboard alterations and
the early community murals from the mid-'60s to the
mid-'70s. "The early phases of community murals
were much more politically incisive than they have
become in the '80s and '90s. They're now another form
of public art; they're completely bureaucratized,"
he says, adding that early murals used to tackle controversial
issues such as racism and housing. "I see in
billboard correction some of the excitement and incisiveness
and response to major issues in the early years of
Although Mad Magazine had done spoofs of advertisements
in the early 1960s, Drescher says the earliest mention
of targeted billboards on record that he has found
was in Edward Abbey's novel, The Monkey Wrench
Gang, in which environmental saboteurs
cut down billboards in the middle of the night.
Working with the Enemy
High-minded monkey-wrenching aside, Napier believes
that, inevitably, advertising will also appropriate
the appropriators. In recent years, an ad campaign
for Amstel beer seemed to be culture jammed by a fictitious
group, Americans for Disciplined Behavior. Sun Microsystems
billboards adopted the appearance of Unabomber-style
manifestos. The California Department of Health Services'
anti-smoking campaign depicted Marlboro cowboys with
captions that read "Bob, I've got emphysema,"
and Plymouth Neon's "Hi" billboards appeared
to get hit by taggers that changed it to "Hip."
Napier thinks the direction advertising is taking
is predictable. "Eventually advertising will
consume all methods and modes of communication, and
they'll regurgitate it like a rat consuming its own
bowels," he says.
So what does an anarchist do in response to the backhanded
compliment of being copied? Strike back, as the BLF
did against the Plymouth Neon campaign, swapping "Hi"
to "Hype 666."
Or join 'em. Napier says the creators of the Apple
campaign recently tried to hire the group as copywriters.
"We're probably not going to take the bait. They're
going to have to pay a lot, because I'm making a lot
of money now," he says wryly. "We're actually
considering back-charging and invoicing them for our
previous campaigns. Anytime a product gets into print,
regardless of the context, it sells more units. Considering
that, we're quite owed it."