“Studies have shown that in nearly 100% of the cases, a given agent of the public will willing participate in high profile acts of vandalism, given the opportunity to do so via mediated tele-robotic technology.”

— The Institute for Applied Autonomy

Vandalism is a bit of a loaded term; people tend to think of the most brainless and ugly examples of the appropriated canvas and then extrapolate from there to condemn the entire genre. But vandalism can be beautiful, especially when what is being vandalized starts out ugly.

In Nazi-occupied Poland, a group of Warsaw youths known as the “Little Wolves” painted the slogan “Poland Fights On” on buildings, vehicles and even personnel of the invaders — on a regular basis. They also made mimics of the “For Germans Only” signs that the Nazis used to enforce their privileges — and attached them to lamp posts and other potential gallows-sites.

A protest group in Zimbabwe calling itself “zvakwana” (“enough”) is using graffiti to make its presence felt:

A black Z on a bright yellow handprint is appearing mysteriously on the walls of bus stations, on busy streets and over billboards across Harare and other cities. Thousands of “revolutionary condoms” have been distributed, emblazoned with the letter Z and the double-entendre message “Get up! Stand Up!”…

Zvakwana carried out one of its trademark “non-violent civic actions” in Harare just before Zimbabwe’s Independence Day events on 18 April. Activists spray-painted lampposts and the large pipes next to the main Tongogara Avenue, used by Mugabe’s 27-vehicle motorcade when he travels to the National Sports Stadium, and “Get UP Stand UP” appeared on stadium turnstiles and walls. “There was so much graffiti,” crows the group, “the regime couldn’t repaint it before Mugabe’s trip, so he had to take a different route.”

In Berlin in the early years of the 21st century, pranksters have been sticking miniature American flags into random piles of dog shit found around the city.

The Freeway Blogger has been posting signs up along the freeways of Southern California with on-going commentary about current events. “We’re all wearing the blue dress now,” one sign says. “Dulce et Decorum est por Halliburton Mori,” quoth another.

And now he’s starting to franchise his operation — freeway bloggers are showing up everywhere.

Check out these delightful “Chickenhawk Roosting Area” signs posted on lamp posts near the White House.

In Seattle, official-looking signs appeared announcing that the city parks department was planning on constructing a habitat-restoration project for the sewer rat.

In Montreal, an artist called Roadsworth is adding a touch of the whimsical to the paint jobs that adorn the asphalt of city streets and parking lots.

Another artist has been busy dressing up the “Walk” man icon on the lighted signs that tell you when to cross the street.

In the Los Angeles area, artist Jason Eppink made amusing modifications to the instructions for that little button you push when you want the light to change to help you cross the street.

And Mark Jenkins turned a bunch of parking meters near San Francisco’s city hall into lollypops.

Some students at First Coast High School in Jacksonville, Florida, managed to shake things up a bit by gluing all 120 doors on campus shut.

You know those plant racks out in front of supermarkets? What if you showed up one day and found “Heinous Welsh Squash”, “Benign Fungal Loaf” and “Common Dickweed” for sale? Luther Blissett and Lester Green of San Luis Obispo, California conspired to invent some exotic plants and put them up for sale at the local Scolari’s and Thrifty’s.

Not satisfied, they also changed around the letters on a local feed store’s marquee, making spendid anagrams like “Phone That Tip: Watch 14 Dog Rapes” out of more ordinary bargain announcements.

There’s a loosely-organized group of smog-haters who are doing their part by printing up cheerful-looking bumperstickers that read “I’m Changing the Climate! Ask me how!” I’m guessing that they aren’t putting these stickers on their own S.U.V.s.

Street signs, particularly “official” traffic signs, are splendid foci for enigmatic artwork (such as these examples from the Interdimensional Pixie Broadcast Network show, or these from Lyon, France) or for protest (for instance this modified sign from Brigham Young University).

They also work for political art. Rent one of those electronic sign boards that normally flashes things like “SLOW — ROAD WORK AHEAD” and program it to say “PREPARE TO STOP … CORPORATE CONTROL OF THE MEDIA” instead. That’s how Together We Can Stop Capitalism met the National Association of Broadcasters at their convention.

And one more-spontaneous hacker noticed that the password to one of those signs was cleverly written in magic marker right above the keypad, so he reprogrammed it to read “Klaatu Barada Nikto”.

In Toronto, someone hacked into the electronic sign boards on city trains to display the message “[Prime Minister] Steven Harper eats babies.”

In San Francisco, 65 volunteers changed the street signs all along Bush street to read Puppet Street.

Other times unauthorized signage comes merely in the form of useful supplements to the official signs.

In Brooklyn, a group of artists created some official-looking street signs that announced NO SUV PARKING — and then they gave out official-looking parking tickets to sport utility vehicle drivers who violated the new rules!

Another group took the vandalism directly to the SUVs themselves — spraypainting slogans onto 45 new behemoths right at the dealership and another twenty or so in surrounding neighborhoods.

Before I hit the offramp, let me mention the vigilante speed camera destroyers who are settling a score or two with our emerging robot overlords.

The folks at the Institute for Applied Autonomy have created a cargo van that works like the head of a dot-matrix printer — applying huge block-letter graffiti to the road as it drives along.

Joshua Kinberg ran with that idea and created a bicycle-mounted version that is able to have paintable-messages beamed to it over a wireless connection as he rides along. He gave it a field test in a Bikes Against Bush action at the 2004 Republican Convention in New York and set up a web page where people could submit slogans to him as he rode along.

In the United States, potential draft dodgers can try to take advantage of the official superstition that bans open homosexuals from the military — in South Korea, the taboo to exploit is the tattoo. At least until the crackdown. South Korea has arrested about 170 men who have been charged with “willfully tampering with their bodies to avoid military duty.”

Don’t be daunted by signs that say “Post No Bills.” You can adopt it as a genre, and create your own stencils that read “Pay No Bills”. This reminds me of the British graffiti that responded to the frequently-encountered warning “Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted” with “Bill Posters is Innocent!”

In the U.S., people who want to avoid being part of the experiment on the safety of genetically engineered food don’t have it easy. There’s no requirement to indicate genetically engineered ingredients on a product’s label. A group called Label This is taking matters into its own hands – they do research to find out which products have genetically engineered ingredients, print up appropriate informative labels, and go to the grocery stores and apply the labels themselves.

The really destructive vandalism, alas, is usually bought and paid-for, and protected by the powers-that-be. But if you want to interrupt pathological, media-simulated social interaction, you’ve come to the right place.

One way to reclaim private advertising in public places is to Convert Billboards to Chalkboards. This is one you can do in your spare time — hop to it!

And if you like that, you’ll probably like speech bubble stickers too.

The French group Résistance à l’Agression Publicitaire is aggressively targeting — through destruction and defacement — print advertisements posted in Paris. “We are not terrorists, we are not vandals, but there is no legal way of fighting back. I feel like I’ve been taken hostage by advertising, and this is the only way I can make my voice heard.”

A project called ReTag uses stencils to aggressively graffiti-tag buildings with the logos of the very companies that inhabit them. For example, tagging the “Gap” clothing store with “Gap” logos.

“At a certain point, market saturation becomes redundant. The McDonald arch is the same as the crucifix,” one ReTagger said, “In a sense, we turn their own logo on them. They call it vandalism, but it’s their own logo they have to clean up.”

And if graffiti artists can repurpose corporate logos, certainly corporations can deliver advertising disguised as graffiti.

A couple of Intel engineers managed to etch some graffiti directly onto the surface of one of the Pentium microprocessors. Takes a scanning electron microscope to catch sight of the message (“biLL Sux”), but that was enough to get the engineers canned. (Whoops! Turns out this was all a hoax — nice one though!)

The Australian group Ethical Foreign Policy is Possible pulled off an audacious tagging — they hit the warship HMAS Success, spraypainting the phrase [Australian Prime Minister] “John Howard, US bootlicker” along the hull.

Vandalism can be used to make something ugly, but it can also be used to point out ugliness, or to replace it with art. The archetypical vandalism is the spraypainted graffiti, which at its best is very beautiful form of Art Sabotage indeed, and ought to be seen as a generous act of civic beautification when it occurs.

One graffiti artist, not satisfied to wait for the art world to posthumously acknowledge his genre, glued one of his works to the wall in one of Great Britain’s best-known art galleries in 2003.

A year and a half later, Banksy was at it again: this time placing his art on the walls in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History — all on the same day!

He hit the British Museum in 2005 with fake prehistoric rock art that “depicted a caveman pushing a shopping trolley.”

Banksy has also covertly cemented a 20-foot-tall, three-and-a-half ton bronze statue of Justice as a prostitute with leather boots and a thong into a central London square as a protest against the British legal system.

When the wall went up in Palestine, Banksy was theredissolving the barrier into dreams.

Many people have the mistaken impression that the the runoff that flows into the storm drains of city streets is magically filtered and purified by, I dunno, the government or God or Santa Claus or something, before it flows into whatever body of water is downstream. So, to remind people that this isn’t so, people have begun painting stencils above storm drains that read “No Dumping! Flows to bay” or similar messages.

Other folks have gotten a little more creative. Their stencils instead have messages like No Dumping! Flows to Starbucks!

A while back they put up an anti-vandalism billboard on a street near my home. Of course, the cause of civic uglification is promoted no better than by billboards themselves — advertising supplements that drop into the landscape like the cards that fall out of magazines. It’s no surprise that vandals consider them fair game; I’ve never seen an even amateurly vandalized billboard that didn’t look better than the original.

Billboard Liberation, as it’s being called, is attracting dedicated practitioners — “real art heroes in a world of mewling, puking, sucking, boot-licking gallery commerce” — it’s a fine way to serve man. And we highlight some great examples in our scrapbook.

The Billboard Liberation Front publishes some handy guides and helpful tutorials to help practitioners of their art form from time to time:

You could spray-paint “Fuck McDonalds” on a billboard, and people who are already Greenpeace or Adbusters or anti-globalist types will nod their heads in agreement. But that’s like preaching to the choir. It’s the people who don’t necessarily think that way that I want to get to. I like it when people pause and look, especially if it’s confusing. There’ll be that second when they’re thinking, “What the hell does that mean?” … a little glitch that makes people think about where they are, and question what advertising really is.

There is a ubiquitous, non-stop barrage of corporate advertising and imagery everywhere we go, and we need to yell back at ’em! There are many groups around the country who alter billboards, and we’re all just telling people, “Advertising is a language. You’re being spoken to constantly through these ads. But you can talk back to them! You can make it a dialogue.”

Adbusters has put together a brief guide for the prospective billboard improver that they call “Adding the Blemish of Truth.” (Earth First! calls it monkeywrenching.) And, on a related note, Elvis Schmiedekamp Has a Posse.

The folks at Baby Smasher Industries will sell you some amended “instructions for use” stickers that show how restroom baby-changing stations are really meant to be population control devices.

Stickers make vandalism easy, don’t they?

Why wait for the department of public transportation to get around to putting in bike lanes?

The folks at KASTsystem are exploring the cutting edge of vandalism and interactive public sculpture.

The folks at Fortean Times have kept their fingers on the pulse of curious vandalism: Authorities in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were called to the scene to investigate when fifteen trees in a city park were fitted with doorknobs and locks. Residents of a Rio de Janeiro slum painted all of the buildings in their neighborhood a uniform pale green, perhaps to confuse police.

A similar stunt was pulled by residents of Prague, Czechoslovakia during the Soviet occupation of 1968. Vandals tore up or painted over street signs and highway markers so that only locals could find their way around.

In 1982, during the USSR-supported anti-Solidarity crackdown by the government in Poland, someone changed all of the signs at the “Stalingrad” metro station in Paris to read, instead, “Gdansk” (the city where the Solidarity movement was founded).

In August of 1968, when troops from the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact nations occupied Czechoslovakia, the destination signs on city buses in Prague were changed to read “U.N.: S.O.S.

Protesters in Vienna, Austria symbolized their opinion that the Soviets should go away and leave them alone by affixing a suitcase to the hand of a statue of Stalin.

Plaques are popping up all over Paris commemorating various absurdities. Some note that on a particular date, nothing happened. Others merely memorialize the date on which the plaque was set.

An unusual case of widespread and engimatic asphalt embellishment involving Stanley Kubrick and Arnold Toynbee is worthy of mention.

If you’d like to join in, someone has created a how-to guide for making and installing your own asphalt mosaics.

Self-vandalism? Pete Wagner reports that in the sixties, student anti-war protesters in the United States used to write the word “FUCK” on their foreheads so that they wouldn’t be photographed for the news media. Protesters were in danger of being suspended if they appeared in the papers as campus radicals.

When right-wing firebrand Barry Goldwater ran for the presidency of the United States government in 1964, his frequently-postered campaign slogan was “In your heart you know he’s right.” The graffiti rejoinder “but in your guts you know he’s nuts” became a coast-to-coast depropagandizer.

Similarly, U.S. government president Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” program’s “WIN” buttons were inverted by cynics who wore “NIM” (“Need Immediate Money”) buttons instead.

Creative and pleasantly pointless was the icon replacement at a mall in Sacramento.

A group calling itself The Ministry of Reshelving took it upon itself to raid bookstores and move all copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from the “Fiction” section to sections like “Current Affairs” or “True Crime”.

Someone on New Zealand’s TV3 pulled a fast one, superimposing the title “George W. Bush: Professional Fascist” over a primetime news story.

Other Bush bashing notices have been appearing alongside California freeways, courtesy of an anonymous person or persons that have been dubbed the Freeway Blogger.

Someone welded a bong and lighter into the hands of the sculptures at San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

One way of getting some eyeballs for your graffiti is to put it on money. Americans are reminded every day that the father of their country was once a cannabis farmer by a thought balloon on the one dollar bill coming from the bust of George Washington that says “I Grew Hemp.”

I’d be remiss not to include the beautiful Crop Circle phenomenon here somewhere. Here’s art etched right on the heart of agriculture. Curious circles are appearing everywhere these days (“police have no suspects and know of no motive”).

Large scale earth etchings like these can take on a less inscrutable message as well. One report has a San Diego, California farmer responding to annoyingly noisy fly-overs from a nearby Air Force base by plowing the word “QUIET” into his field.

And when Greenpeace was prohibited by a French court from pointing out the location of genetically-engineered crops using an on-line map, it instead carved markers into the fields of corn themselves!

Graffiti inside!
Graffiti inside!

Creative Vandalism
Creative Vandalism

Signs of the Times
Signs of the Times

Billboard Liberation
Billboard Liberation

Chalkboard Liberation
Chalkboard Liberation


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On This Day in SniggleryJune 25, 2001: Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, finally admits that the magazine’s report on the bizarre sport of monkey fishing was “willful inaccuracy.” (See News Trolls for more info)