By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
They don’t mix — art and politics — like Scotch whiskey and Pepsi-Cola, they don’t mix.
—Billy Lee Brammer, The Gay Place
The first thing you learn about poster artist Robbie Conal is that, like that other famous and charismatic good-timer with his own standing army, he assigns everyone a nickname. A gang name, if you will. And not “41” or “Turd Blossom” either — something with some aesthetic panache: Boom Boom, his sidekick and field lieutenant, is a sardonic young woman with full-sleeve tattoos who brooks no impertinence. H-Bomb and Bambi are two young former assistants who met cute while postering in Santa Barbara and now are inseparable sweethearts. And Little Smackdown is Conal’s nephew — his wife’s sister’s kid — who at age 12 is making his maiden voyage (and who should have been home hours ago).
Conal is one of the pioneers of culture jamming, that loose aggregation of pranks, agitprop, semiotics, performance art, pamphleteering, pirate radio, media hoaxing, monkey-wrenching, ad-busting, subvertising, slashing, hacking, sampling and cultural guerrilla warfare. His specialty is “sniping,” or the unauthorized posting of subversive material — in his case, black-and-white, pen-and-ink caricatures of wizened public figures (Reagan, Ashcroft, Bill Gates), put up with paintbrushes and wheat paste on bus shelters, traffic boxes and construction sites during the midnight hour. Conal, who has been a teacher for two decades, the last six years at USC, has put up 48 such posters since 1986, and it’s built him a specialized following in Seattle, the Bay Area, New York, Washington, D.C., and other organized pockets of resistance.
It also got him arrested last March in New York City, where undercover plainclothes graffiti police showed up in taxicabs and placed his crew of six in holding pens for six hours, even if one of the veteran cops as much as apologized. (Before that, his only previous brush with the law was when a Venice flatfoot caught him red-handed and asked for “two with no glue for the station house.”) And so we’re huddled in the backroom of Canter’s deli on the night before George Bush comes calling, a hundred of us — everyone from middle-aged public defenders to teenage girls with hooks in their lips to a 14-woman delegation from the peace group Code Pink — receiving instructions from Conal on “guerrilla etiquette,” or the rules of engagement in dealing with postwar L.A.’s finest:
“If you happen to run into a large man in a midnight-blue suit with glittery accessories, and he wants to know what the hell you are doing, you tell him, ‘It’s an art project.’ If he asks, ‘Do you have a permit?,’ you say, ‘Oh, no, I don’t’ — and not sarcastically, either. You do whatever the police tell you. If they tell you to go away — L.A. is big, go somewhere else. But no running away from them. It did not work for Rodney King, it will not work for you.”
Conal and his co-designer — who is less than thrilled with her new nickname, Lamb Chop — have broken precedent to create a special poster for the occasion: a pink flower with Bush at the center, in the Macaulay Culkin/Home Alone pose, bearing the caption “Oops, I Did It Again!” Surrounding him on the petals are Colin Powell (“Everybody thinks he’s the Great Black Hope; he’s really Darth Vader Lite”), Donald Rumsfeld (“Dr. Evil himself”), Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Dick Cheney. At around 11, Conal, Boom Boom, Little Smackdown and Little Nikita, another of his many assistants, all pile into a rental car — Conal’s wife having forbidden him to bring glue into their new car. (She’s currently in New York designing the titles for the upcoming film Cold Mountain.)
Cruising La Brea for some prime signage, we quickly absorb the real-time lessons: no running; always close your door to appear less conspicuous; never tag a private merchant or pristine wall; try to keep it under 30 seconds. Much of the fun comes from what Conal labels “secondary serendipitous textual readings” — the odd symbiosis the posters find with current ads, in ways that are impossible to plan: Bernie Mac holding a surfboard for Charlie’s Angels, making that same “Oh no!” face; Pirates of the Caribbean, with skulls and treasure at the bottom of the frame; a Las Vegas tourism ad with the legend “Leave today, leave tomorrow, just leave”; and the best, a Bravo film titled A Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that bears the suggestive tag line “Five gay men out to make over the world, one straight man at a time,” dovetailing perfectly with the five subordinates ringing the flower.
Three hours and 1,000 posters later, it’s all over, and Conal is buying victory pancakes for a dozen of the faithful at Swingers. “It’s always easier in your hometown,” he says, remembering his arrest. “But people have told me it’s getting a little testier here.” Later, he learns that two women in his group — a college student and a mother with grown children — were arrested in Santa Monica.
First-timers. Soon to be martyrs for the cause.