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In Bristol and around the world, groups like Brandalism are using subversive tactics to confront outdoor advertising in our everyday life.

Photos: Hannah Vickers & Alec Saelens

A recent early morning in Clifton. A group of people meet in hi-vis jackets, armed with rolls of paper. But they’re not tradesmen preparing for a day at the grindstone. Instead they are about to break into the casings holding bus shelter billboards with specialist keys, to switch the advertisements for protest art.

For a bunch of people about to commit criminal damage, they are remarkably blasé. The team work without permission and on crowded streets, but donning fluorescent jackets, they hide in plain sight.

Other groups are convening elsewhere, and work their way around Bristol. As well as changing bus shelters’ posters as passengers stood by, some activists took on the larger billboards, pasting up public health warnings – like the ones you see on packs of cigarettes – and YouTube-style ‘Skip Ad’ signs. Some stuck huge sheets of paper over advertisements and left pens for people walking past to write their own messages for the public to see.

The group claim they want to take the streets back from the corporations who they say are filling the city with unwanted publicity. This isn’t just a Bristol protest, but a global (albeit small) one. Welcome to Brandalism.

A new global movement: Subvertisers International

Brandalism, the activists’ collective, states its missions as “artists around the world taking creative action against advertising and consumerism in public space as together we imagine a world beyond consumerism”. Meanwhile, similar groups from around the world have joined forces to form Subvertisers International, which launched a globally coordinated campaign to #SubvertTheCity in March.

“It’s the first time that there’s been a coordinated level of takeovers across the world,” says Peter Marcuse, founding member of Brandalism UK and organiser of the Bristol arm of the action.

“We want to have a system-wide conversation about the impacts of advertising. It’s not the cogs in the machine, it’s the whole machine that we’re looking to question.”

He says that Brandalism was created as a way to “creatively confront the legitimacy of the outdoor advertising industry”. Consumer advertising convinces us to buy more and more by convincing us we’re not good enough as we are, he argues.

“It touches on loads of different issues in our lives: how we feel about our bodies, the impact on personal debt… The advertisers portray a certain good life in front of you, which is a false image a lot of the time, because it says that if you buy this product you’ll be happy, you’ll be like this person with her lovely white teeth.

“Those aren’t the things that make us happy. The things that make us happy are a nice family life, or connection, or friendship, or bonds. You don’t get that through buying products. That’s the lie of advertising”.

Home to Banksy and about to be the first city to roll out a mapped network of legal graffiti walls, Bristol is famous for its street art as well as for its activism. So it’s natural that subvertising has become prominent in the city.

The grassroots organisation launched in 2012 with activists visiting five cities and covering 36 large billboards with artworks submitted by 28 international artists. They followed that in 2014 by targeting bus stops, installing 365 artworks over two days in ten UK cities.

In 2015, the collective caught media attention following the takeover of advertising space during the international conference on climate change in Paris. Six hundred works went up in very public places without anyone stopping them – such is the power of the hi-vis jacket.

#SubvertTheCity

While Brandalism’s previous actions have focused on the negative social impacts of advertising, this new international campaign has a more hopeful tone. The organisers say that #SubvertTheCity is a call for the public to “reimagine our cities” and consider how we can make them better places to live.

Jill* is new to Brandalism and says that she enjoyed people’s reactions to the new ‘adverts’.

“Advertising is everywhere, people walk past these bus shelter ads every day, and it’s become part of the normal landscape. For however long these are up for, there’s something a bit different in their line of vision.”

She’s been hijacking advertisements in Bedminster and says that she wants to remind people that things can be better than they are.

“The world is a scary place at the moment, nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Now is the time for us all to come together and imagine what a different future might be like.”

“A collaboration between activists and artists is a great way for different people to come together to challenge corporate power,” she adds.

One activist, working under the tag King1821, went around the city at night, painting out the brand names on billboard ads in grey, in the same way that council workers paint out graffiti and tags – a practice called ‘buffing’.

“While taggers and graffiti artists are targeted in long-running campaigns by the police, billboards continue to proliferate, becoming more and more invasive,” he says.

He’s altered around 30 billboards across the city over the week, saying that he wanted to make the point that money is the defining factor in deciding who gets to make their mark.

“In a city known for its dynamic street art and wider culture, allowing money to be the prime factor in choosing who is allowed to contribute to the look and feel of the city is obscene.”

Legal implications

While breaking into bus stop ads and painting billboards constitutes criminal damage, Peter argues that some legal arguments can be presented in defence. For example, he says, the legal principle of ‘defence of necessity’ can be invoked to justify breaking the law in situations that risk creating greater harm.

However, Peter points out that keeping out of trouble altogether is the safest option, often by simply looking the part. One of the crews changed an ad in front of a police officer without being challenged. “The cop just thought the installation team were genuine contractors and left them to it,” he says.

“Whether subvertising is legal or not, the outdoor advertising industry has expanded so aggressively that now everyone has an ad space near them – and the industry can’t guard all those sites.”

While billboard modifying and replacing advertisements with artworks still form a central part of the action – as in previous campaigns – other initiatives are being taken by others sympathetic to the subvertisers’ aims, without flirting with the law.

One such event, is a public meeting on 13th of April in Hamilton House to debate the question: are billboards “visual pollution, welcome entertainment or just an acceptable part of the urban furniture?”

*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the people involved.

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