Diary of an Urban Guerrilla
February 15th, 1998
Mon. Jan. 26, 1998
We are producing a new poster to hang all over San Francisco in a few weeks in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. About-Face began in 1995 with a poster campaign when we hung the Kate Moss “Emaciation Stinks” poster, but back then I had to con friends and family into helping me plaster the city. Now About-Face has a core staff and a team of volunteers to call on. This poster has been a long time coming because even though we have a lot of ideas for posters, it takes so much work, and time and money to produce one. But it’s in the works now and it feels great to be thinking about another urban assault!
Mon. Feb. 2
I just shipped the film to southern California to have 1500 posters printed. The new poster has a brightly colored circus cage and in it are fashion models lounging about in various poses. It says “Please Don’t Feed The Models!” The proof looks great. Margaret Banda and Becky Holder, other About-Face “members”, did all the design and production on it which took hours and hours. This poster was a true collaboration and I think it’s going to be very powerful. Thursday, February 19 will be poster night. We are on a very tight schedule to get them printed and back up here by then. And then the main worry is rain…San Francisco has had 30 inches of rain already this year.
Sat. Feb. 7
I’m in South Carolina on a business trip (for my day job) and will be here for FIVE precious days. Things are rolling smoothly now for the poster following a few panic days. We had some trouble because the printing is being donated to us through a trade with someone else. Basically a friend of mine donated his prepress services to a printer if the printer donated their services to us. The printers wouldn’t start the job until my friend gave the appropriate information to them. Days were ticking by and they hadn’t started the job yet! We’re in a weird position asking for and getting this “in-kind” donation so we can’t be too pesky or demanding. It’s a crappy situation to be in actually, but we never could have afforded the $2862 printing price. Ah, the price of activism.
Tues. Feb. 10
Still in South Carolina and pondering all the minutia of upcoming poster night. I believe it is illegal to poster the streets. I am not absolutely positive about this because I didn’t come right out and ask the police department about it. “Excuse me officer, I wonder if you would help me with something…if someone were to, hypothetically, hang posters in city streets with wallpaper paste…” Someone did tell me that in San Francisco postering is vandalism. Others have told me it’s not illegal at all. Living in a city, it’s normal to see posters plastered all over pedestrian walkways. Everything from “B” movies to anti-war rallies are advertised through posters pasted to construction sites. We have postered San Francisco twice and I have been tracked down and screamed at by construction managers both times. “We have 17 posters on our brand new pedestrian walkway,” one man rightfully yelled. “Ugh,” I thought as a knot formed in my stomach.
I am a hyper-responsible person, the classic “good girl”. Postering has presented quite a conundrum for me. I struggle between not wanting to get in trouble and my compulsion to battle what seems unfair to me. You see, I believe every American ought to have the right to create imagery and put their ideas out in the public sphere, but without the money to do it, you can’t reach many people. Without a lot of money for your own “advertising”, your ideas and images are relegated to Xeroxes stuck under windshield wipers and passed out at parades. Hardly, the great societal impact you were hoping for! (Besides, Xeroxes seem to annoy people far more than the constant barrage of glossy advertising inundating our lives!) Unfortunately, while we each may indeed have the “right to free speech,” and may perhaps even succeed in creating messages alternative to the mass media, it is the large companies that ultimately drive the images and the messages of a culture. Through advertising in particular it is the Gap and Disney and Nike who seep into every person’s consciousness encouraging and reinforcing their visions. (We individuals are not innocent victims; we collude with them, absorbing the messages and regurgitating them back as if our own.)
When we poster the streets, I have no control over where the individual teams put the posters. I give strict instructions that the posters go up on plywood construction sites and other temporary structures only. I really don’t want to create work for other people. We also respect “Post No Bills” signs. Only one person has ever insisted that the posters be taken down and thankfully there were only three on this guy’s site. He said if I didn’t get over there and clean them off he was calling the city’s vandalism truck. Apparently this truck come out and cleans up graffiti or posters and then charges you for it. I understood why the guy was frustrated. His was a fence that should never have been postered in the first place. I think I got years of his stored up frustration (we had included our phone number for like-minded people to contact us and the down side was that angry fence owners could find us!). I’ll tell you one thing: posters go up way easier than they come down. It took me hours to scrape the posters off and even after I had finished, the man called and said I hadn’t done a good enough job. There are pros and cons to including contact information on the poster. This time we are not printing our address or phone number, and even our name is encoded into the message: “Create an About-Face…”
Sat, Feb. 14
We put press kits together today. Each press release has a little box of animal crackers with the image of our poster wrapped around it. They look great and our hope is they’ll attract attention and get us some media coverage. We bought wallpaper paste, pails and rollers. Everything is ready for Thursday.
Monday, Feb. 16
My column is late. Shit. Thursday is slated for a big storm. We really can’t go out in the rain, but I have 35 volunteers coming!!
Tues. Feb. 17
The posters arrived today and they look fabulous!
Wed. Feb. 18
All the press releases went out today. Got a call from a local television station that wants to interview me Monday morning for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Also an East Bay columnist named Martin Snapp wants to write about us. Very cool. All the weather forecasts predict rain tomorrow. I’ve sent the volunteers back-up instructions, but if it’s raining tomorrow, we risk getting only half of them for back-up night.
Thurs. Feb. 19
8:00am – I took the day off today. It’s raining like a son of a bitch. The forecast says we’re in the middle of a big storm with rain all day and 70mph winds. 100% chance of rain in all areas. Great. At least some forecasters are predicting scattered showers by evening.
11:00am – Drove to work in a torrential downpour to check my email. Coworkers are giving me the ole “guess you can’t do it tonight, huh?” with concerned eyebrows and squinched up mouths. “Scattered showers by evening,” I tell them. I am in a total panic. If we cancel, we won’t have the number of people to really cover the city. If we don’t cancel, we risk people coming out and being sent home if its still too wet. My fiance, Frank is a weather fanatic and is checking the on-line weather maps every hour. Our meeting time is 6:30. We’ll make the decision at 5:30.
1:00pm – Big break in the rain right now, but more to come. I fear that volunteers are already jumping ship psychologically and making other plans: “Well, looks like it’s probably canceled…think I’ll call Sue to see if she wants to catch a movie tonight…” Today San Francisco broke the record for February rainfall. 12.7 inches.
3:30pm – I have such a nervous stomach. I am always nervous on poster night, but the rain is making me crazy! I’ve got to try and eat something.
4:30pm – We’re going to go for it. I called KT the webmistress for a pep talk and she thinks we should do it. So does Frank. We figure we’ll just do as much as we can.
6:00pm – I got a milkshake for my nervous stomach on the way to the meeting place, a warehouse in an alley in San Francisco’s South of Market district. Miftah and Marcella, two About-Face members, arrive first and we stand aghast as hail thunders down. A few other volunteers arrive. We are all feeling excited and are determined to go regardless of the weather. There is something so thrilling about preparing to go out postering. The whole idea gets your adrenaline pumping.
7:00pm – All told, 23 people showed up. We divide into nine teams. Each team gets a map with a specific section of the city, a can of paste, two rollers, and a damp rag. It is lightly drizzling as we set out.
9:00pm – The teams each come back with paste on their clothes and in their hair and stories to tell. “We totally plastered this site near the park.” “People were stopping and asking about the posters so we gave them some!” Margaret’s team ran out of paste, bought some flour to make more! Frank and I collect all the goopy rollers, rags and cans and load up the cars. By tomorrow, many of the posters will already be torn down by annoyed construction workers, but some will stay up for months. In total, we hung about 500 posters throughout the city and while they won’t be as noticed as a Calvin Klein billboard, they may still produce a reaction in people. Some will miss the point, others will totally get it, and some may even be inspired to perpetrate an urban assault of their own. For those of us who went out postering tonight there is an amazing experience to come. In a few weeks, you may find yourself riding a bus through town. Glancing lazily out the window you’ll see one of the posters hanging on a plywood wall. You won’t be able to resist a smile then and will fight the urge to tell the person next to you, “I did that.”
Kathy Bruin is the founder of About-Face. With pasty fingers she struggles to finish the column. Sorry it’s so late.