No, not that Jack Napier, the Batman villain (the guy who becomes the Joker), but the seminal culture jammer who borrowed his name. Twenty-odd-years ago, Napier co-founded the San Francisco-based Billboard Liberation Front, an underground group that reclaims some of the public spaces taken over by advertisers. Under cover of night, BLF members crawl up on billboards and alter them, changing ad messages to provide merriment and confusion at advertisers' expense. These self-styled guerrillas are realistic enough to know that the billboards are often restored to their original state in a matter of days, and thoughtful enough to do minimum damage (to facilitate cleanup). They frequently leave a sixpack up on the billboard's ledge, for the outdoor firm's crew. Examples of the BLF's work abound in our cover story on page 51.
They're a mediagenic bunch, what with their sense of humor and their stockpile of cool masks (they like to stay anonymous, and show up for interviews with faces concealed). We never got them to drop the disguise - so the coverline, admittedly, is a bit of advertising hyperbole - but they sure did talk up a storm. Napier doesn't dislike advertising at all, he says; he just resents the fact that outdoor advertising monopolizes a space that is public. TV commercials? You can hit the mute button or switch the channel. Magazine advertising? Turn the page. Outdoor advertising? Not so simple.
It's a seductive argument, at first. A few hours after I'd finished editing the story, I walked through Manhattan's magnificently restored Grand Central Terminal. Being in a BLF state of mind, it suddenly dawned on me that the giddiness-inducing majesty of the place had everything to do with the near-complete absence of advertising. I also recalled the creeping outrage I'd felt earlier this year when I turned to look at marvelous, magical Prague after a walk across the medieval Charles Bridge, to find the downtown waterfront marred by a huge monstrosity - a single blue Nokia billboard, as ugly and jarring as a clown's nose on the Mona Lisa.
Still, when the populist appeal of Napier's views wore off, the flaws in his worldview started to bug me. Sure, public space belongs to all of us - but not the real estate that encompasses it. Property owners have rights. If I paint my house fuchsia and some local crank doesn't like it, it's still my house, my call, and if he shows up in the middle of the night with a bucket of eggshell white and a paintbrush, he's not going to get a warm welcome from me. Similarly, outdoor firms own or lease the spaces that contain advertising. So they get to control how those spaces are used, subject to city (community) ordinances - and subject to the approval of consumers, who have an absolute right to vote with their wallets (Nokia is not getting my business anytime soon). Secondly, the BLF doesn't remove the ads altogether; it alters them to suit its own goals, monopolizing the same space with a different message. The group is guilty of the very sin it purports to fight.
I don't want to play the evil sheriff of Nottingham to Jack Napier's feelgood hero, but to me, he's more of a masked hood than a masked Hood. Then again, Napier's an interesting character, and how he took our reporter on a wild goose chase all over town makes for fine summer reading.
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