Sunday, 11 April 2010

"No digital effects have been used on this poster"

By Crystal Bennes

It used to be that if you wanted to deface an election poster you had to go and do it the old fashioned way: tote a makeshift tool kit of paint, brush and ladder, risk life and limb to crawl up the billboard and get to work redecorating. This however is the future and the future is new media. In the first general election since the rise of Twitter, Facebook and social networking, there's a whole new world of online guerrilla graffiting out there for the taking. Anyone with an internet connection and a little imagination can attract – especially if the graffiti goes viral – a far wider audience than a couple of kids tagging up posters with cans of spray paint on the side of the M25.

Not that the battle for campaign posters isn't also happening on solid ground. Indeed it is. All the hallmarks of street art - ripped posters, paint splodges, thick black marker, stencilled swear words - are present and accounted for in cities and towns around the UK. In Bolton a graffiti artist has gone to the trouble of climbing up to one of the Conservative posters only to do nothing but stencil 'CUNT' in chunky, black, serifed letters on Cameron’s forehead, an interesting juxtaposition.

(photo by andythepol)

Technically this approach is more polished than a simple swipe of spray paint, but it’s not exactly going to win an award for wit or subtlety (though I’m beginning to wonder whether there’s really any place for subtlety in guerrilla election aesthetics). Not that wit and the presumed spontaneity of the DIY approach can’t prove to be a happy marriage. Here’s a nice example from Exeter:

(photo by Tundi Turunda)

This poster is part of the third, “I’ve never voted Tory”, poster series in which first-time Tory voters explain the reasons for their ideological shift. Take ideological shift with a grain of salt as the original three posters list, “we’ve got to mend our broken society”, “we need to sort out the economy”, and “I like their plans to help families”, as their reasons for giving the Tories a go. It all sounds a bit like the rhetoric of a one-night stand: I never normally have sex on the first date, but hell, I like your tie. Your place or mine. Some enterprising individual has picked up on the rather insipid nature of the rhetoric on the original posters and has replaced, “but we’ve got to mend our broken society” with the inspired though hastily spray-painted scrawl, “but no one else knows the rules to polo.” That it's tagged in thick black spray paint brings a bit of menace to a poster with an otherwise faux-PC patina (the woman on the poster is black, of course, so double the minority points).

Unlike the unadulterated versions of the Cameron poster (replete with aforementioned vacuous rhetoric) where we might say the medium is the message, the message is the message in the case of the tagged up posters. This is not a sophisticated aesthetic attempting to rival the original design, but a raw, rough-around-the-edges sensibility that's clearly more interested in getting the message across but also in exposing what we can all see to be the stylistic vacuity of Cameron's smooth as a baby’s butt face.

But for every fifty visually naive alterations to the original poster, a more unique approach to electoral street art can be found in which the artist demonstrates a real flair for the artistic and political appropriation of, not only the message, but of the medium as well. Infamous East London graffiti artist, Dr. D has made quite a striking alteration to the now ubiquitous Cameron poster, white-washing the majority of the image, leaving only Cameron and his baby blues staring back at us. Instead of the expected, “I’ll save the NHS”, Dr. D has printed “suck my goldman sachs” in all lower-case, banker-blue lettering - the same sans-serif type (Franklin Gothic Demi, for the curious) as the original poster.

(photo by Motthehoople)

Dr. D has exhibited her street art in galleries so it's no surprise that form is as important to her as function. There is no doubt that this is a more intellectual and sophisticated approach than simply tagging up a poster, yet it feels somehow less immediate, less visceral, and less violent than the DIY feel of angry black spray paint.

The most fun to be had in this guerilla warfare, however, is online. This is the real battleground for the 2010 election, where digital “tagging” and manipulation can lead to the instantaneous mass distribution of subversive political ideas. What makes the proliferation of online manipulations so powerful is that while they share the same aesthetic as the original posters, the messages are dislocated from the political language we assume will appear. When the new M&C Saatchi ads for the Conservatives attacking Gordon Brown were revealed at the end of March, it wasn’t even a matter of a few hours before Labour supporters had spoof ads all over the web. While the slogans on these spoofs naturally tend toward personal mudslinging, the more interesting ones often take a different approach. One rather amusing spoof took issue with the fact that Cameron had sacked his previous ad agency only to run back to ever-dependable Saatchi for the current set of blame-Brown ads: its strap line reads, “I changed my ad agency. I can change the country.” It’s rather amusing that design should come to find itself in the political firing line of public consciousness, especially given that the attack is not for any aesthetic misdeed but because a particular design agency has come to be seen as intimately linked to the Conservative establishment.

(poster by Tom Freeman)

There's plenty more where that one came from, though those who are on better terms with Photoshop push the visual language of the poster to its extremes. Many spoofers have singled out Cameron’s airbrushing in particular as worthy of satire: on one poster a picture of a character from Avatar has been swapped with the picture of Cameron, coupled with the strap line, “No digital effects have been used on this poster.'”

(poster by Ian Yates)

Another spoof insists that the poster has not been airbrushed. Ask Maggie, here, it reads next to a photoshopped Thatcher face cut and pasted onto the body of a well-endowed and much younger woman.

(poster by Andy Toots)

Clearly, many Britons are more interested in the falsity of the visual language than of the political message being pandered. Indeed a whole garden industry has sprung up around the digital manipulation and spoofing of the Conservative election posters. You could waste hours amusing yourself at

What is perhaps most remarkable about these spoofed and graffitied posters is that the guerilla efforts mock not only the message but the medium as well. As a previous post claimed, the medium has become the message. As voters in this age of no-policy politics, it is the visual that we are meant to identify with. Surely this explains why so few guerilla taggers and photoshopers create original, never before seen, artwork for their mocktastic efforts. Unless the visual language is the same, the subversion is meaningless.


  1. My favourite election defacement was in Southampton, 1997, with ref to the red curtains/evil eyes 'New Labour New Danger' posters - 'vote Tory for a nation of curtain-twitchers'

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