Ron English's Popaganda
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|Ron English puts up illegal billboards, so he has only one way of knowing if it has been a good day.|
"I consider it a success if I don't go to jail," he explained. He should know. He has had two very unsuccessful days in the past.
You may have seen Mr. English, a 43-year-old father of two, wandering around the streets of Manhattan or New Jersey with a bucket of glue, a set of rollers and a crew of accomplices. He plasters his original paintings in broad daylight on billboards he does not own. This is a conscious decision, because billboarding in the dark would only look more suspicious. "If you're out at night," he said, "it's obvious that you're not supposed to be there."
It is worth being careful. Though he has posted more than 1,000 illicit signs, Mr. English says he has been chased while half-drunk by the police in Texas, has been the object of death threats and barely escaped an angry mob in Jersey City.
Mr. English is not a run-of-the-mill graffiti maker. He is widely recognized in the art world as one of the earliest and most celebrated in a line of "culture jammers"--
people who usurp the images of advertising and turn them on their head. In the past, his ridicule has been directed at Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Disney and the cigarette companies, to name a few. One of his most famous lampoonings, from 1999, featured what looked like the Apple Computers logo, the message "Think Different," and a bug-eyed Charles Manson. It loomed over East 14th Street for about two months.
His work is slick. He was so good at capturing the essence of Joe Camel that he was hired to create billboards for the cigarette maker — though he was later fired, in part for concealing skulls in the paintings.
"Ron's kind of a one-man billboard hurricane," said Jack Napier, the founder of the Billboard Liberation Front, a San Francisco-based movement considered one of the first to alter such advertising. "He's done some brilliant stuff."
Two weeks ago, Mr. English pasted up three works in Jersey City, where he lives and paints. One reads: "Saddam's SUV's. Oil Dependence Day Sale." It ends with the Chevy logo and the tag "Like Iraq."
A second billboard could easily offend at least three groups: "Jesus Drove An SUV. Mohammad Pumped His Gas," it reads. Moments after its unveiling, on a busy intersection near Jersey City's waterfront, a taxi driver with a thick accent passed by and rolled down his window: "I saw it," he said. "I don't like it. It's a disgrace." Later, Mr. English discovered that the word "Mohammad" had been ripped from the billboard poster.
Others are as upset about Mr. English's medium as his message.
"I don't think that it's the right thing to do," said Frank Nataro, the managing director of Chesapeake Outdoor Advertising, of Union, N.J. His signs in Jersey City have frequently taken the brunt of Mr. English's efforts. "They're trespassing on signage," he said.
Despite, or perhaps because of these stunts, Mr. English has become a sought-after painter of works not normally battered by rain, wind and disgruntled pedestrians. Luciano Pavarotti owns one of his paintings, and some have sold for as much as $30,000, Mr. English said. His most popular recent canvases are a series of Marilyn Monroe nudes that sport grinning Mickey Mouse heads instead of breasts.
With that success, Mr. English said he was thinking of winding down his operation, a pursuit he says is akin to painting a work and then destroying it.
Before forays in the last two weeks, the last billboard he had put up was in 2002, on East 14th Street in Manhattan. It said, "Jihad Is Over (If You Want It)" — prompting news articles that wondered who, indeed, would put up such a thing.
But he believes strongly in the message he is delivering. "It gives me direct access to the public without any editors or art dealers," he said. "There's no one in my way."