Free the Billboards!
The Billboard Liberation Front's guerrilla campaign
By Kimberly Chun

From Gadfly July 1999


For 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 head.

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.

The Unusual Suspects
The 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."

The 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."

The 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."

Some 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 the Pain."

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 today?"

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."

Fortunately, 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 own."

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 (

The 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 billboards.

"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 field.

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 wit."

Billboard 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 thanking me."

San 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 community murals."

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."