Visual Culture

Artists Amplify the Power of Protest Signs

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jan 20, 2017 1:49AM

Keith Haring at ACT Up City Hall Protest. Exhibit #31. John Penley Photographs and Papers, Tamiment Library, New York University. Photograph by John Penley. Via Flickr.

If you were strolling through downtown Manhattan on March 28th, 1989, you might have caught Keith Haring striding towards City Hall. The artist was wearing his signature clear glasses and a t-shirt covered in a swelling red heart—but he wasn’t armed with his usual paints or chalk. Instead, he carried a handmade sign, one that would join the throngs of the largest AIDS activist demonstration up until that moment.

Haring is one of many artists for whom art and activism have been inseparable. Like Honoré Daumier, John Heartfield, Guerrilla Girls, Yoko Ono, and many others before him, Haring embedded passionate political views—in his case, anti-racism, anti-war, and AIDS rights—into his work, including for-sale paintings. When he joined protest marches, Haring took the striking, pop aesthetic that had made him an art star and applied it to powerful signs that would rally support for serious causes. The banner he made for the 1989 AIDS march was plastered with bold-faced text next to then-mayor Ed Koch’s curmudgeonly face. It repeated, four times over, a single stinging fact: “10,000 NEW YORK CITY AIDS DEATHS.” 


This week, as the country prepares to swear in a new, room-splitting 45th president, many left-leaning creatives have been preparing signs, not unlike Haring’s, to wave at Inauguration Day protests as well as the Women’s March on Washington (and its offshoots across the country). As social media channels like Instagram and Facebook chronicle slogan brainstorms, banner-making parties, and road trips to D.C., the power of protest signage—and of artists’ ability to amplify the reach of their messages—is once again being communicated loud and clear.

“All types of artists—painters, writers, graphic designers, publishers, and more, well-known or not—have a good sense of the kind of image that will have visual impact and communicate the message they’re hoping to advocate for,” explains Andrianna Campbell, an art historian and founder of the advocacy group-cum-hashtag #starsofallstripes, on a break from preparing for Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington. “After the election results rolled in, I realized that neither Hillary’s or Bernie’s campaign had a really convincing image attached to it like Obama’s did in 2008,” she said. “And I thought we could engage artists to change that.”

Artist Katie Holten holding a self-made protest sign. Photo by Dillon Cohen.

The image that Campbell is referring to is the now-iconic “Hope” poster by cult street artist and entrepreneur Shepard Fairey. In 2008, this graphic close-up of Barack Obama’s face, rendered in red, white, and blue and underscored emphatically with the all-caps “HOPE,” became the symbol most closely associated with the now two-term president’s first campaign. According to Fairey and his team, by Election Day in 2008, they’d produced and distributed over 300,000 of the posters—and that doesn’t count the versions printed at home via an image file that was available for anyone to download. At the time, the image appeared as though it were everywhere.

No poster with such an expansive reach emerged during the most recent election cycle. So, post-November 8th, Campbell joined forces with the progressive policy organization to urge artists to create signs, graphics, and slogans that would “promote positive change, not perpetuate the negative rhetoric coming from the President-elect,” she said. The group settled on the theme of a star—“historically, a beacon that’s led travelers forward, to a better place”—and solicited artists to forge signage that would drum up support for the forthcoming Women’s March. Photographs of resulting images, by the likes of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Michele Abeles, Marilyn Minter, and Laurie Simmons, have begun rolling out on Instagram in advance of the protest. Along with stars, they wield slogans—both straightforward and poetic—like Abeles’s “People Not Pipelines” and Tiravanija’s “Do We Not Dream Under the Same Sky.” 

Left: Katherine Bernhardt via Instagram. Right: Sara Cwynar for #starsofallstripes via Instagram.

But #starsofallstripes is just one of many groups, both formal and informal, rallying artists of every ilk to apply their creative prowess to politically pointed messaging. This past Monday, a cohort including Campbell, curator Alison Gingeras, artists Minter, Rachel Libeskind, Ryan Foerster, and many more gathered at the northeast corner of Manhattan’s 5th Avenue and 59th Street (around the corner from Ivanka Trump’s home) “to help Ivanka move to D.C., and take the causes we’re passionate about with her,” Minter quips over the phone from her Manhattan studio. The group, organized under the name “Dear Ivanka,” came to the site bearing painted boxes that doubled as signs. Minter wore a cardboard sheathe that read “Immigrant’s Rights,” Paper Magazine founder Kim Hastreiter carried a box scrawled with “Empathy” and “Health Care,” and Gingeras was shrouded in a carton that showed a naked female body, decorated with a thick tuft of pubic hair and the battle cry “My Body, My Choice, MY RIGHT.”

Minter, for her part, has been attending protest marches for women’s rights, civil rights, and anti-war activism since the 1970s. When we speak, she’s brainstorming the signs she’ll be making to bring to D.C. for the Women’s March. “I’ve lived through a lot of protests and a lot of bad presidents,” she explains, “so one of my signs will use that knowledge I have of the past.” She sifts through her notes and reads the message she’s planning to tattoo to one pennant: “Nixon and Agnew were gone a year and a half after their 1972 election.” She elaborates: “I saw that fiasco unravel before my very eyes, and communicating that piece of history will hopefully give people who aren’t looking forward to Trump’s inauguration some hope.”

Image courtesy of Dear Ivanka.

Hope, it seems, is something Fairey still has, too. While the artist didn’t surface work that engaged hot-topic policies or overtly supported candidates during the election cycle—save one meagerly circulated poster that encouraged his followers to vote—he made a dramatic comeback this past week. After getting wind of news that the size of signs and banners would be restricted during Inauguration Day, Fairey teamed up with the Amplifier Foundation (another organization established to trumpet urgent political messages through artist-generated visuals) and artists Jessica Sabogal and Ernesto Yerena. Together, they launched a Kickstarter campaign aimed at amplifying messages of equality and acceptance by printing and putting more posters in protesters’ hands on Inauguration Day and during the Women’s March, as well as buying ad space in major U.S. newspapers like the Washington Post. While they set out to raise $60,000, by the time the campaign ended, they’d raised over 20 times their goal, topping out at a whopping $1,365,105. 

Images courtesy of Dear Ivanka. 

This time around, Fairey and his team of artists won’t communicate just one message, but several. Through images of a couple embracing, a woman draped in a headscarf, a Native American man raising his hand resiliently, and slogans such as “We the people are greater than fear” and “We the resilient have been here before,” the posters will join a sea of signs—created by artists and non-artists alike—calling for LGBTQ rights, land rights, immigration rights, race equality, and more. That sort of solidarity sends a hopeful message, indeed. 

Alexxa Gotthardt
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019