A crowd of about thirty people was gathered in a corner of Canter’s Deli close to 11pm on Friday night. It was a fairly grungy group, dominated by young people, but well seasoned with middle-aged duffers like myself. Graphic t-shirts were the uniform of choice, dreadlocks and face studs the predictable accessories of those who had shown up to be accessories to municipal misdemeanors. We were drinking coffee and milkshakes, laughing and kibitzing a few steps away from the Kibbitz Room, where the evening’s band could be heard warming up.
At the center of the group was Robbie Conal, a jolly, urban gnome in a chicken t-shirt. He was holding up his latest street poster, a Mitt Romney visage rendered in the classic Conal hand: over lined and jittery, a graphic manifestation of Conal’s genius as well as his A.D.D. Romney’s lipless mouth was pursed, eyes slightly crossed in a monumental effort to conjure a thought. An empty thought bubble floated over his head.
“So this is my take on Mitt,” Robbie began. “Mitt has deep thoughts. You’re getting a Sharpie with your roll of posters, so I’m sure you can write in something he can’t think of, which would be anything.”
“I got nuthin’,” someone shouted out.
“That works,” Robbie affirmed.
We were Robbie’s guerrilla postering crew. After two decades of watching his iconic posters crop up mysteriously on street corners around Los Angeles, I felt privileged to finally be there, at the center of the Los Angeles political art hub.
I came of age in New York City in the 80’s where Keith Haring’s chalk drawings were on every subway stop in town and Jean Michel Basquiat had recently emerged from his SAMO cover to dominate the art world. When I moved here at the end of 1988 Robbie’s work was basically it for L.A. street art -- Banksy was still finger painting and graffiti was mostly a disorganized, egocentric, gangster mess with occasional spurts of brilliance. This was back in the era of Jesse Helms and it was his “Artificial/Art Official” posters that made me a fan.
Conal’s art was something new: political discourse made tangible, fine art for the masses. The posters were graphic thought prods; Etch-A-sketch acts of outrage and pranksterism. They were funny, ugly, weird and righteous. They were also everywhere – on bus benches and construction sites, they covered billboards and light switching boxes, transforming Angelinos from passive consumers into what Conal calls “surface semioticians.” I remember, sometime around 1990, driving up La Brea and wondering how the posters managed to appear all over the city all at once. The mystery turned out not to be very mysterious; its a movement fueled by chutzpah, Dynamite glue and strawberry milkshakes.
“It’s a minor form of civil disobedience,” Robbie told us. “It’s about the same as being a little bit pregnant.” The analogy didn’t quite track, but it was comforting nonetheless. I had been a little bit pregnant sixteen years ago, and now that baby was all grown up and interning for Robbie over the summer. She had spent the day rolling his posters into tubes of 25 per and preparing for her first urban art attack.
Conal is not some riled-up, vitriolic art beast, but a sweet-natured, menschy soul who takes his art-mentoring very seriously. My daughter is one in a long line of kids he has taken under his wing over the years. She washes his brushes and runs errands for him and he pays her in home-cooked meals, chicken shirts and positive reinforcement.
“This is a lot of fun,” Robbie continues, getting down to serious business, “but for it to be a lot of fun, you need to follow Robbie’s Rules of Guerrilla Etiquette. No running. It didn’t work for Rodney King and it’s not going to work for you. That means not just no running from people in midnight blue suits with shiny accessories. It means not running across intersections because you’re so happy and are having so much fucking fun that you’re going to attract attention. Also, as you go along and everything’s going great, you might get a little cocky and get surface lust. You’ll think, ooh, great spot! I’m gonna climb up here where everyone can see it, but guess what? They’re gonna see you too.”
It went on like this for about an hour before we all went out to the Canter’s parking lot to get our posters and vats of Dynamite wallpaper glue. We struck out, my daughter (let’s call her by her baby nickname, “Bunnyhead” to protect her identity, unless of course you want to Google anything else I’ve written in the last sixteen years) riding shotgun, her accomplices in the back seat. I was there to chaperone the minors and drive the getaway car.
Bunnyhead had made a special mix CD for the ride, per Robbie’s instructions. We bopped through Santa Monica, postering Main Street, Wilshire, Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway, listening to hip-hop and The Smiths, slapping up posters in a semi-haphazard manner per Robbie’s instructions: “If it looks too perfect nobody will think its us. It’s gotta be a little crooked, a little funky because that’s the way we are.”
After a couple of hours, we were headed home via Pico. It was around the time that Morrissey was whining about not having a stitch to wear that we passed the Westside Pavilion. On the corner of Pico and Overland was a beautiful, virginal traffic light switch box. Robbie had deliberately sized his posters to fit these boxes perfectly. I dropped the kids off and told them I’d circle the block, as I didn’t want to park in a red zone, careful driving being another of Robbie's, and my, rules of etiquette. Of course, “around the block” took about seven minutes, as the residential streets around the Westside Pavilion are blocked to through traffic. When I finally rounded the corner back onto Pico, I saw the flashing squad car lights and my kids being questioned by L.A.’s finest.
I pulled up slowly and immediately saw what had gone wrong. Their youthful surface lust had gotten the better of them. They had blown off the light box for a big, white, blank door on the side of the mall itself. The Mittster seemed to be wondering what the hell he was doing affixed to private property.
“Kids?” I said, rolling down my window and looking like a model of parental concern and dismay, “What’s going on here?” I figured it would go easier for everyone if I played it like a Westside Soccer Mom just picking up her juvenile delinquents. If I were identified as an accessory to vandalism, it would be far more complicated for all involved, especially me.
“Ma’am, is one of these kids yours?” the larger of the two officers asked me. I parked, got out and identified Bunnyhead as my personal perp.
What ensued was close to an hour of questioning. The children were asked if they had any tattoos, scars or gang names and I had to turn away to keep from laughing when Bunnyhead shot me a look. The kids followed Robbie’s rules and were impeccably polite and respectful. The cops were solicitous, even friendly. “Remember,” Robbie had said, “If the police are interested in what you’re doing, it’s their job to be interested. If you’re really polite they’ll just think you’re misguided youth, and they wouldn’t be wrong about that.”
These two officers immediately saw they had nabbed some newbies. They checked student ID’s and asked about their SAT scores. They even went so far as to admire the poster and tell the kids they thought their political activism was admirable, but private property had to be protected. The crew nodded in perfect understanding. Because everyone was so cool, they gave the kids a break on the vandalism charge, and let them go with a curfew infraction. The guilty parties scraped the poster off the door, parents were notified, citations were issued and everyone went home. We await our court date and anticipate a small fine.
The evening was fun until it suddenly wasn’t fun. Watching my daughter being questioned and fingerprinted by the police was not a peak parenting experience, and I must tell you, I questioned my own judgement. But this is where the rubber of progressive parenting meets the road of authoritarianism. Our family believes in free speech and political activism. Afterward we talked about how it would have been different if she had been out randomly tagging with malicious intent. It’s a fine line between vandalism and street art, and I wanted her to be clear about where it lay. I also made it clear that I would have felt very differently if she had gone and done this without my permission or protection. Call me a hypocrite, but I encourage my children to question all authority except my own.
The next day Bunnyhead texted Robbie a photo of herself holding up her citation and his reply was: “Congratulations! I’m glad you didn’t have a boring night.” No Robbie, it certainly wasn't boring.