Vandalism, Art, and Advertising
By Crispin Sartwell
Graffiti and advertising have many things in common. Both convey messages by occupying
public space; indeed, both are omnipresent and unavoidable. At the upper reaches of excellence,
both are arts, though they are more often merely puerile and annoying noise.
But there are some key differences as well. Advertising is designed to manipulate people,
whereas graffiti is essentially a pure mode of self-expression. Advertising is encouraged or
courted by the authorities. Graffiti is illegal. And here is the difference that makes sense of all
the others: money. All the legitimacy of advertising derives from the money that is paid to post it
and the revenue it generates, whereas graffiti is in every sense free, and hence criminal. In fact,
law enforcement is often called upon to defend advertisements from graffiti.
Hence, advertising is the public expression of wealthy people and organizations, whereas
graffiti is the public expression of people who are more or less broke. And that is exactly why
advertising is authorized, and graffiti is eradicated.
The relations of graffiti and advertising, art and vandalism, expression and manipulation,
freedom and money, have been explored systematically since the mid-1980s by the artist Ron
English. His chosen medium is the billboard: he and his assistants, in broad daylight, repaint
public billboards with subversive messages, a procedure for which they have faced arrest several
times. English, who started making this sort of work in Texas and later moved to New York,
makes use of graffiti styles, as well as the basic spirit of art as vandalism, or the politics of
Some examples of English's work: a smiling Jesus holding a bottle of Budweiser, with the
slogan "The King of the Jews for the King of Beers"; "Forever Kool," a toe-tagged corpse over a
Kool cigarette logo; a series involving the "Camel Kids," child versions of the Joe Camel
character; a scary pig-clown under the golden arches with the slogan "MacDonald's, Better
Living Through Chemistry"; and "Jesus Drove an SUV, Mohammed pumped his gas. Hummer:
Not Your Daddy's War Wagon." [note to eds: spellings are verbatim]
Art of this kind has been called "culture jamming," and it is designed not only to convey a
message critical of existing advertisements, but to make people see advertising differently, to
think about the fact that advertising systematically distorts the nature and effects of the products
it promotes. Once you drive by one of English's signs, you are going to start seeing conventional
"Advertising agencies are mercenaries," English told me via e-mail from his home in New
York. "It's about profit. Is the product good for the environment? society? the individual
consumer? We employ the same techniques and pirate the same spaces as the advertisers but to
different ends. Our efforts are a pure expression of free speech.
"I consider my work content. Think of TV. You have to endure a few commercials, sure, but
that's not why you watch. You watch for the content. I'm creating the same concept with
English also makes more conventional easel paintings: one of the most notorious is an
American flag assembled out of dollar bills. Others make strange and subversive use of cultural
icons such as the Teletubbies, Mickey Mouse, Kiss, Marilyn Monroe, and Teddy Kennedy
I don't completely endorse English's politics - which strike me as fundamentally
conventional - and for what it's worth, I myself smoke and own a Dodge Durango. And I am not
proposing, for example, state restrictions on advertising. But what I do endorse is the art of
graffiti and the concept of culture jamming. If advertisers feel free to monopolize public space -
from highways to the airwaves to the internet - with their messages, we ought to feel free deface
these messages, critique them, and replace them with our own.
The tags that appear everywhere all the time are themselves forms of culture jamming: a
seizure of space for art and a demonstration that public expression is illegal when it's free..
Crispin Sartwell's book "Extreme Virtue: Leadership and Truth in Five Great American Lives"
will be published in the fall by the State University of New York Press.
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