A 2003 article for Juxtapoz Art and Culture Magazine.
The Billboard Liberation Front
BY AL RIDENOUR
You’ll have to imagine Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man, or the Macintosh Apple so big and dumb and devoid of meaning that it literally blurs into a buzz of off-register pointillism — mere noise except for the adrenaline rush that sharpens your perception and speeds your body through risky maneuvers at 4 am on the catwalk of a billboard hundreds of feet in the air.
“People can’t conceive of the scale down on the ground, but when you get up there, you’re like a fly on the picture. That little detail we pasted in may look small, but that face of Charlie Manson is as tall as your mom.”
The fly on the picture is Jack Napier of San Francisco’s Billboard Liberation Front. Along with a crew of about 30 co-conspirators he’s responsible for wrangling the face of Charlie Manson into the “psychedelic” vortex of a prominent billboard hawking Levis jeans. They’ve also altered the billboard’s only text, livening up the insipid www.levis.com to a more robust “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
It’s only two minor changes in the overall scale of the 30 x 90 foot image, but it’s thrown the advertiser’s blurry suggestions of techno-cool consumerism into an entirely new focus.
Founded in 1977 by Irving Glikk and Napier, this secretive cabal revels in a sort of paramilitary mystique, planning hits weeks in advance beginning with reconnaissance outings to assess modes, escape routes, traffic patterns, and police and security presence. They surreptitiously photograph and measure their targets to insure accurate colors and typography in the paste-ups they create. On the night of the hit, members of a ground crew in communication via CB are posted at key corners to keep watch. Alterations are done in as little as five minutes by one or two artists using vinyl overlays applied with rubber cement. Occasionally rappelling skills are called for as well as an understanding of the board’s lighting system, which may need to be temporarily disabled.
The final step is the press release submitted immediately after the hit. Because some of the “improvements” may be stripped down within the hour, this step is particularly important. It is also the point at which the group’s humor blazes most brightly. It’s this irony, according to BLF minister of propaganda Blank DeCoverly, that “makes BLF hits so unique, and so unlike other billboard manipulations. It adds a dash of dada — an unexpected, pull-the-rug-out element to what might otherwise be mistaken for a flat-footed political statement.”
In a release issued after their 1996 alteration of a neon billboard for Camel cigarettes in which type was reconfigured to read “Am I dead yet?” and the figure of Joe Camel was fitted out with a custom neon death’s head, the group defies expectation (and the Surgeon General) justifying the attack as a display of support for the cartoon huckster, whose existence was threatened at the time by anti-tobacco lobbyists. The release ends, significantly, with BLF commandos pledging to defend Joe “until we draw our last breath.”
Napier takes umbrage at accusations of “vandalism.” From the beginning BLF has remained scrupulous in using easily removable adhesives, leaving instructions on how best to undo alterations, and even a 6-pack as consolation for the worker who’s called out at odd hours to undo their work. “We don’t want to take what’s already a rotten fucked-up rat race and make it worse.” Though he’s personally observed hundreds of amused reactions to BLF work, he’s also been threatened with bodily violence.
Positive or negative, Napier is delighted provoke response. The goal of the BLF is, after all, to break a corporate monopoly on expression. “A big part of my personal philosophy is that everyone should have their own billboard or at least be able to borrow one.” The BLF is encouraged to see other groups like Artfux and Ron English in New York, Cicada Corp in Texas, and local BLF splinter group Billboard Management (BM) pursuing similar programs. He also admires the alterations of another San Francisco based group, The Department of Corrections, and regrets that he has never had the opportunity to meet them. “Of course, I understand keeping the low profile, but if they’re out there reading this article,” he says, “I’d like to ask them to get in touch so we can buy them all drinks.”