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Billboard Liberation Front
By P. Segal
In this the latter half of the twentieth century, human life has been overrun with media of every stripe. Wherever media intrudes, advertising has been close at its heels, telling us what to buy, think and resemble. Even in the encapsulation of our cars, with the radio off, on uninhabited stretches of highway, the media reaches out in the monolithic form of billboards.
For the last twenty-one years, the Billboard Liberation Front has taken a good-natured swipe at the phenomena of outdoor advertising. Largely powerless to alter the messages of television, radio or the print media, they could, in the dead of night, apply improvements to the giant boards that tower over streets and highways. Their philosophy requires that improvements be professionally accurate and easily removed; they are not spray-paint renegades sans souci. This is their story, and only the names of the living have been altered, for all the obvious reasons.
In the closing years of the 1970s, while the rest of the world seemed busy with the work of regrouping and returning to so called normalcy, a small group of San Franciscans gathered to buck the tide. To this secret society, amusement and adventure were the cardinal values, the more outrageous the challenge, the better. An element of danger enhanced rather than diminished the fun, and their pranks and adventures challenged the creative energies of the disparate personalities of the group. The San Francisco Suicide Club spawned and influenced many subsequent creative groups, the BLF being one of the longest lived and most nefarious.
It was the restless brilliance of one man, Gary Warne, that brought them together and ignited the spark. Any member of the society could initiate an event, but it was Warne along with Suicide Club co-founder Adrienne Burk who, one night, invited the members to an evening entitled "Enter the Unknown." Participants met, were blindfolded, and led to an undisclosed destination. Once there, the dozens in attendance climbed a rope ladder to the roof of the building, upon which was mounted a doubled sided billboard. On both sides of the board, the same commercial message was visible to passers-by:
"WARNING: A pretty face isn't safe in the city: fight back with Self Defense, the NEW moisturizer by MAX FACTOR."
"Now," said Warne, "we're going to alter this billboard, and we'll decide what it should say." Warne was clear about this prank. They were not going to vandalize the board, merely add embellishments with rubber cement, easily removable and not damaging. He had brought paper, paint and adhesive, and they would provide the improved message. After some discussion, dozens of improvements were suggested and, in the best tradition of confused democracy two were chosen by vote. The society members painted and applied two different versions of the underlying ad. One side read:
and this, less concrete and far more amusing message adorned the 2nd formerly identical board:
Nineteen year old Jack Napier remained fascinated by this Suicide Club exploit. What a great idea, he thought, to challenge the fortune and power of corporate America by borrowing their spaces, if only temporarily, to publicize ideas of his own. He also had a teenagers fascination for the fantasy of a crack "ninja" style team to carry out clandestine operations ( the Max Factor "hit ", innovative as it was could have been much more tightly organized). One other Suicide Club member Irving Glikk, agreed with Napier wholeheartedly. The 43-year old Glikk, with one bad leg and a cane, took to cruising the streets of San Francisco with Napier in the wee hours searching for billboards that invited improvement.
In December of 1977, Napier met Glikk at an appointed spot in a S.F. Chinatown alley. Glikks late model Ford Galaxy 500, passenger seat replaced with a beanbag, sat waiting, a banquet-sized ration of Chinese food adorning its roof and trunk and dribbling down the sides. Glikk was having marital problems that Napier preferred not to hear, but he had to ask: "whats with the Chinese food?"
"A kid came out of this restaurant with a big tub of leftover food," Glikk explained, so I offered him five bucks for it."
"Oh," said Napier. Glikk flipped on the windshield wipers, scattering chow fun to the left and right, smearing a swath of oyster sauce across the field of vision. They took off into the night.
Napier and Glikk found their board, an ad for Fact cigarettes placed in nine locations throughout the city. It read, "I'm realistic. I only smoke Facts." The newly organized Billboard Liberation Front set to work on the improvement
Improving a billboard, as described in the Fronts 1990 pamphlet, "The Art and Science of Billboard Improvement," is a laborious task. In the introduction, the authors acknowledge that "in most instances, it should not be necessary to use the elaborate--even obsessive--precautions that the BLF has resorted to...a can of spray paint, a blithe spirit and a balmy night are all you really need." The BLF, however, inspired by Warne, insisted that their "corrections" must be temporary, removable, and not damage the property onto which they were affixed, and that they be as graphically integrated with the board as the underlying message.
The Front visited the Fact boards, checking for access, lighting, escape. They measured letters, took paint samples, compared type styles and fabricated the overlays that would be rubber-cemented to the boards.
They made their hits on Christmas day 1977, dressed in workman's overalls that had "Acme Sign" printed across the backs. It was late afternoon when they pasted up the improvements on the sixth board, which now read, "I'm real sick. I only smoke Facts." They also installed a large stylized arrow pointing from the word "Fact" down to the surgeon generals warning.
The board was on a rooftop at the corner of Mission & Army Streets. Napier and his team of liberators were just about to pick up their gear and go off to the next location when a police car was seen driving up to the building and stopping. The officer got out and looked up. Obscured by the roofs decorative facade, Napier and his assistant, Steve Johnson crawled to the other side of the roof to descend the ladder. A peek over that side revealed yet another peace officers vehicle pulling up.
Trapped and unable to safely join their ground crew, the two dispirited pranksters turned their energy to creating alibis. Then suddenly, the officers on the south side of the building jumped into their vehicle and sped off.. They tore off the coveralls and made a shaky escape. Down on the street, they ran into a smiling man in early middle age carrying a cane. As they melted inconspicuously into the growing crowd of gawkers, Mr. Glikk, for that's who the man was, beckoned them over. Behind Mr. Glikk they could see the cops who had by then returned and were climbing a fire dept. ladder truck ladder up onto the now vacant rooftop. "The cops?" Glikk responded to their question: 'They got an anonymous call to assist an officer in distress a few blocks away I guess it turned out to be a false alarm" he grinned, "and then they decided to return to where the action is.
By the time Simon Wagstaff, a professional gazebo painter, took on the job as spokesperson for the BLF, he claimed their ranks had swelled to about 350 conspirators. Wagstaff undertook the task of trying to get the attention of the press, making phone calls to the San Francisco Examiner and sending out press releases for each "hit". He had a particular interest in drawing notice to their new project, as he himself was the auteur.
The subject of their improvement, an ad for Camel cigarettes, depicted a swarthy, barechested man smoking, presumably, a Camel. By the time the BLF was done with the three boards, at the busy intersections around town the Camel "Turk" was wearing a pink brassiere.
On October 9, 1978, the Examiner columnist, Jeff Jarvis, ran an interview with Wagstaff that elucidated the hit. "You can't show a naked woman's chest. So why show a naked man's? It's unfair. It's a double standard. We don't want our bodies used as sex objects to sell cars or cigarettes or anything else." He went on to explain another unfair aspect of the Camel man: "Some of us are kind of wimpy. We don't have hair on our chests, and when we smoke, we cough."
Like all good reporters, Jarvis was compelled to ask the essential question, why? And, like all good subjects, Wagstaff had an answer: "because they are there."
Wagstaff continued that the goal of the organization was to improve the messages of billboards, taking care not to damage the original message beneath. 'The unprofessional groups use spray paint," he said, "but that's below our standards." "Billboards," he concluded, "are the only form of advertising the consumer can improve. You can't do it with radio or television ads or magazines. Here you can improve the message."
In April, 1980, the BLF took on the giant of the tobacco industry, Marlboro. The board at First and Bryant Streets now read "Marlbore" and a cartoon balloon from the cowboy's mouth said simply "yawn."
The BLF had acquired letterhead, and a barrage of press releases began, together with calls to the Examiner. The press release maintained that the BLF had nothing against cigarettes, in spite of their history of altering boards that touted tobacco. What the BLF hates, it said, is dull advertising.
"We felt that the whole Marlboro campaign using that macho cowboy is hackneyed and painfully dull," Wagstaff told the Examiner. "It's about time they got rid of it. We thought we'd help them along."
To join the Billboard Liberation Front, potential members must have a taste for adrenaline. While few members will ever climb onto the perilous heights of the billboards themselves, they will be pressed into service as ground crews, staked out in unfriendly corners of the late night urban jungle with walkie talkies, to warn comrades up above of potential interference from protectors of the advertisers' interests. Ground crews posing as staggering drunks, fighting couples, lost tourists or homeless persons camping in parks, among other covers, wait in doorways, bushes and cars while the painstaking aerial crews make their vandalism-free corrections, a process which might take many hours.
Before a hit is undertaken, a rehearsal will take place. The scene of the action will be impeccably combed for all details, including best means of quick escape, and the ideal positions for ground crews, to insure maximal early warning systems. In spite of all precautions, the free speech bandits have come close to being apprehended more than once.
"One time," Napier recalls, "we had a really narrow escape. Simon & I were up on one of the "Turk" boards over a parking lot off Market St. when an SFPD patrol car pulled into the lot and parked below us. In our haste to hide ourselves, Simon knocked over a bucket half full of rubber cement. This goo dripped onto the ground less than ten feet away from the cruiser as the officer sat doing paper work & drinking coffee for the next hour. We didn't move or breath the entire time."
The Billboard Liberation Front's media kit begins with a document entitled "Brief BLF History", a chronological description of actions since 1977. "May 31, 1980," it states, 'The Billboard Movement (BM), lead by Arnold Fleck, splits with the BLF. Massive competition in US market ensues; 1980-83, various actions occur in Europe, South America, and behind the Bamboo Curtain." Hmm.
"January 1984: BLF spokesperson Simon Wagstaff returns to his family's rendering business, prompting an amiable disolvement of the BLF. Other members return to their ancestral homes and tricky business concerns." In short, like most everyone who survived the '70s, they got degrees, opened businesses, became doctors, lawyers. bankers and all-around pillars of society.
As the Reagan-Bush dynasty climbed to new heights in their trashing of America the now-respectable members of the BLF felt the compulsion to regroup. In a press release issued on May 8, 1989, they announced their formal renaissance. "The Billboard Liberation Front, in a show of solidarity with our beleaguered and unjustly maligned corporate comrades at Exxon Corporation, have decided to dust off our coveralls and re-enter the vital field of outdoor advertising improvement."
A radio station billboard at six locations in California, two of them in the city, provided the canvas for the BLF. "HITS HAPPEN --NEW X- 100", with a bit of help, suddenly read "SHIT HAPPENS -- NEW EXXON."
Jack Napier's communiqué to the press applauded Exxon for expediting our ongoing evolutionary destiny, including "...the use of petrochemicals in the production of asphalt." The BLF's interest in asphalt is of course self-evident. "As we all know," Napier wrote in his preamble, "where there are roads, there are billboards." In conclusion, Napier voiced the BLF's stance: "Pave Alaska."
Back on a roll, the billboard liberators attempted the most obscure and intellectually subtle of their exploits. This time, Igor Pflicht, leader of the BLF's philosophical organ, IRANT (Institute for the Rational Analysis of National Trends), dreamed up the improvement for a huge board easily visible from San Francisco's main freeway.
Since most travelers on the central freeway have a scant knowledge of Kant, if any, Pflicht issued a press manifesto on July 15, 1989, "to edify and illuminate the commuting masses. IRANT, the Institute for Rational Analysis of National Trends, said Pflicht, "take it upon ourselves to reveal to humanity its true destiny."
"Kant's pathetic adulation of waking life, individual awareness and independent thought belong to an age long past and putrefying on the deathbed of its own naive ambition. Today, the wise choice is not freedom, but heteronomy." Heteronomy, the opposite of autonomy, proposes that all a person's decisions are made by someone else.
Pflicht's cant rubs it in further. "Who cares to be free anymore? The value of freedom has been rendered obsolete. There is no longer any need for individual choice in this age when all decisions can be left to a skilled professional who specializes in knowing our every desire and need: the Advertiser. Today only a sad hold-over of effete intellectual fossils cling to the tired idea of freedom. The people know better.. Let heteronomy reign!"
Who are these people, besides 350 Pantagruelian tongues in the Gargantuan cheek? According to their press materials, BLF was founded "at the Pacific Union Club in San Francisco by retired businessmen and civic leaders unhappy with the inferior state of billboard advertising." While it is unlikely that Napier, Glikk, Wagstaff and Pflicht had ever entered the Pacific Union Club in 1978, the grand irony is that they have become, with few exceptions, likely candidates for membership. (We turned 'em down -ED.)
New Year's Eve, 1989: The BLF had been busy for some months with preparations for their year-end celebration, a hit on the massive board for Harrahs casinos in California. The casino's name was centered at the top of the board, with a list on the left side of who was performing at their Reno location, and to the right, a list of who was appearing in Tahoe. At the dawn of the '90s. motorists eastbound on the Bay Bridge now saw this:
Harry Tuttle, Director of the BLF Holiday Preparedness Bureau, issued the BLF statement on this particular board. "We call for a return to the good old days," he wrote, "when uncontrolled disease, ugly poverty, and rampant substance abuse were safely restricted to the third world. We cannot abide the thought of fatal epidemics, starving families in the streets and armed gangs of drug-crazed youths deterring the American people from continuing the lifestyles promoted by the Reagan and Bush administrations.... DONT WORRY, BE HAPPY. If drugs, disease and poverty engulf our cities, you can always move to the suburbs. After all, it's a free country... See you at the shopping malls ."
Some members of the BLF work only on an occasional basis, or serve highly specific functions. Dogboy is one of them; his specialty is typography, and his contributions have centered around matching typefaces on targeted boards. "First we'd go out and take a look at the boards and determine what font they were in. Jack would go out and measure the letters, and maybe even take a tracing of one of them. If we were only going to replace one or two letters that already existed, we could just trace them. Otherwise, we had to create a copy of the font for missing letters, or in some cases, create whole alphabets. We didn't have access to computers in the beginning.., we could have done it a lot quicker and more easily."
Dogboy, together with an accomplice who is now such a pillar of the community that he wouldn't even mention his name, was piqued by a series of ads for the Hastings mens stores, featuring a succession of San Francisco notables dressed in their clothes. After a few years of various Hasting's Men, a board appeared with a dotted line around where the head of the figure should be. "Who will be the next Hasting's Man?" it read. Dogboy's partner fabricated a clown face and they put it on the board. It didn't take long before San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen caught it. He told his readers that the next Hasting's Man was a local politician who had managed to irritate him, and directed folks to Dogboy's board for confirmation.
Reporters see a lot of press releases, and most of them evoke that "yeah, yeah, yeah" reaction before they are jettisoned into the circular file. Of all the reporters who read the BLF's "Pave Alaska" bulletin, only one had the curiosity to ask "who ARE these people?" Tim Redmond, star reporter for the decidedly left-wing San Francisco Bay Guardian, ripped through the trash looking for a return address on an envelope, or any indication of a number to call. Searching again through the press release, he found this advice "to contact the BLF, place an ad in the Bay Guardian's spirituality classifieds. We will contact you.
Winslow Leach functions as technical advisor to the BLF, and is frequently in charge of security on hits. Once a well-functioning member of the computer industry, Leach found himself suddenly out of a job, due mainly to the advertising schemes of the company he was employed with. 'Since then," he avows, "I have devoted myself to truth in advertising."
Ethyl Keytone also felt compelled to join BLF because of negative attitudes towards the advertising industry and the mass market culture it commands. She worked in the industry itself, and like Leach, she was personally affected by it. For Ethyl, the changes made to existing boards are "beautification's, not just improvements."
Redmond's piece on the BLF attracted considerable attention. Among other notice, it got them on the Utne Reader list of "Ten Media Heroes for 1991". For these communications outlaws, the price of fame was another long period of temporary retirement, at least until they were more or less forgotten by the humorless authorities. Their forays were, for the moment, destined to be sporadic and relatively unlabored. One minor hit integrated the number of the beast onto a landmark advertising mural visible from San Francisco's main freeway
The six-six-six hit was the inspiration of L.L. Fauntleroy, one of the newer BLF recruits. Cruising down the freeway one day, she spotted the mural with the auto dealer flying through space in a Superman suit. "He looks like the Anti-Christ," she said, "he should have 666 on his twenty foot broad forehead." And so he did.
Fauntleroy isn't sure if everyone does it, but she says "1 think a lot of people look at advertising and think of some way to change it. they editorialize in their heads. It's a popular movement. I can't imagine anyone not liking it, except the corporations. It's a way of getting your word into the media, of talking back... and it's funny."
In 1993, the BLF ventured far from the urban setting to improve some advertising for the Hillsdale Mall which could be found on a freeway sign on US 101 about five miles from the mall. The board was adorned with huge neon letters spelling HILLSDALE. Beneath the neon, a painted board proudly announced "Something new is happening!" A nameless fellow traveler and former Suicide clubber, a man who among other exploits cofounded the Electronic Freedom Foundation suggested turning off the lights on the first three and last three letters. He passed by the board each day on his way to the office and told his friends at the BLF that the real message kept jumping out at him. Motorists on the highway were subsequently treated to an edifying new message: "LSD, The Beginning of Something Wonderful."
Over the next five years to the present day the BLF and various affiliates have been responsible for many advertising improvements. Zenith TV, Camel, Plymouth Neon, Levi's, Apple and many other worthy products have had their ad campaigns enhanced by the selfless efforts of the BLF. One of the things they have emphasized strongly throughout their twenty year career is the ease with which simple changes can so powerfully alter the integral meaning of an advertisement. Their core message; almost a mantra: that everyone who wants their own billboard should have one is a compelling message and by way of example quite possible. Any one who wants one bad enough can indeed have one.