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.
CEREMONIAL: The Marrying Room
I woke up last Thursday morning and asked Din, my boyfriend of six years, if he wanted to get married that day.
He laughed. “Can I finish my cup of coffee first?”
While he did that, I went online and found the nearest city hall; Beverly Hills performed marriages on Thursdays, but they didn’t have any openings that day.
“Let’s go get the license, anyway,” I said.
We drove to the big, pretty police station on Santa Monica and Rexford, and parked behind it. On the walk to the registrar, we started a discussion about how women manipulate men, when it comes to marrying.
“All women?” I asked.
“Just about,” said Din, pulling open the heavy door to City Hall. The ceilings were high, the floors marble, the light green and governmental. We passed through the metal detectors and waited near a bank of tellers’ windows, where three couples were filling out paperwork.
“What about her?” I whispered, nodding at a slender woman in pressed jeans, saying something clipped to her groom, who turned to look out the glass doors.
“She’s been busting his balls for 14 months, and now the fun’s really going to begin,” Din whispered back.
I laughed, but I couldn’t keep up the cynicism — the other couples appeared goofy with love. A man in his 50s in ratty sweatpants lunged for a kiss from his bride-to-be as they were handed their license. A very tall man dressed like an East Coast banker could not stop grinning as his fiancée, in a lovely Liberty of London shift, silently moved her lips as she read the questions.
“I’m not a ball-buster,” I told Din.
“Well, I know that,” he said, and kissed my hair.
Another couple seemed to blow in on a gust of air. He looked like NBA champ Steve Kerr, with a yarmulke; she had an open face, great glasses and a head scarf.
“Look at all these people getting married. It’s so hopeful,” she said to the room. I responded by telling her she needed to get a form from the center basket.
“Thank you, THANK you,” she said.
Din and I filled out our form and turned it in to a clerk with a Brooklyn accent (“You can make it out to me,” he cracked, when I asked how to make out the $67 check). Then we moved to the waiting area, a gem of 1930s modernism, with one large table and benches along three walls, where waiting couples sat, staring at one another. I felt as though I were filling up with helium.
“Din and Nancy?” called the clerk. We proceeded to the window. “Raise your right hands.”
We complied. “Do you swear the information on this license” — which had been typed and now looked as official and permanent as a birth certificate — “is the truth?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I do,” said Din.
“. . . I do,” I added.
“Okay, that’s it. Are there any questions I can answer for you?”
“Yes, where do we get married?” I asked.
“You can’t do it today,” he said, and then, to the crabby female clerk next to him, “We’re not going to have an angry day, are we?”
“I know, I know,” I said, “but for when we come back.”
He pointed left. “Down the hall, the door where the bell is.”
As Din slid the license into its envelope, I heard head-scarf gal say to the clerk, “You help marry people. It’s SUCH a wonderful thing.”
“Yeah, it’s a wonderful thingamajig. Next!”
Din and I found the marrying room — the bell was made of honeycombed paper. Inside, sweatpants man and his bride stood before a man in a purple-and-magenta satin robe. The room was small, no space for froufrou, and I felt, at that second, as though I had opened a closet and seen a jacket I’d forgotten about, then put it on, and it fit exactly.
Sweatpants caught me peeping. “Come in, come in!” he said, holding open the door. I stammered that I was just looking, for when we get married.
The man in the robe looked puzzled. “You’re not getting married today?”
“No, no,” I said, “but for when we do.”
“Oh,” he said, and grinned. “Well, be sure to call, so I know not to be here.”
This was getting better and better.
I backed into the hall, where Din and a secretary were laughing. What?
“She was just commenting on what he wore to get married in,” said Din.
“I know, but he was so happy,” I said, and then we left City Hall, discussing what we would wear.