Imagine the mall in or near the town you grew up in circa 2002.
Amongst the Hot Topics and American Eagle Outfitters, the unruly kids in the food court and the wafting smell of Cinnabon, there’s a tiny kiosk overstuffed with pyramid studded belts and graphic t-shirts advertising crude yet ironic motifs (“The Man, The Legend”) and snarkily subverted corporate logos. The swooping lettering of a Coca-Cola logo has been doctored to read “Enjoy Capitalism,” the familiar purple-and-orange FedEx logo is now “FedUp,” and the three-pronged logo of Adidas has been replaced with a giant pot leaf.
Now speed up to August 2016, when queer teens, softbois, and hardcore punk rockers crowded into Chinatown Soup Gallery for New York City’s first ever Pin and Patch Show. Amongst the vendors were t-shirts bearing a phony logo for the US Military’s Psy Ops, bootleg Seinfeld pins, and a parody of National Geographic featuring four yellow rectangles arranged like the Black Flag logo captioned with “Suburban Demographic.”
Initially these scenes appear to have nothing to do with each other, the former being for aggressive bros and the latter for freak-adjacent art school kids. But upon closer inspection - both are examples of culture jamming, an extremely ‘90s form of political activism wherein familiar symbols are disrupted - or jammed - to alter their initial meaning. Culture jamming was once a ubiquitous form of protest in the North American left wing - think animal rights activists spray-painting Murder King on a Burger King billboard - that slowly eroded into irrelevancy. But its essence has survived and mutated like a virus, adapting itself to the current moment.
Call it culture jamming 2.0.
The term ‘culture jamming’ dates back to the mid 1980s, when the Boston-based band Negativland coined the phrase in one of their experimental jams. Its spiritual antecedents are 1960s activists like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, whose Steal This Book describes shoplifting techniques and other scams as a form of civil disobedience targeted at the state.
Yet the man who brought culture jamming to the masses was Kalle Lasn, former ad exec and founder of the irascible counterculture magazine, Adbusters. Lasn’s mission, as outlined in his 1999 book Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America, was to “topple existing power structures and forge major adjustments to the way we still live in the 21st Century.” His methods of seeking change primarily involved protesting consumerism through fake ad campaigns that made McDonald’s look gluttonous and evil, creating an eco-friendly shoe alternative to Nike called Blackspot sneakers, and promoting an anti-Black Friday holiday dubbed Buy Nothing Day.
Today, Adbusters’ methods have all but faded from public consciousness and their platform is associated with an insufferable sense of superiority, not to mention lack of intersectionality, rather than political good will. Adbusters’ greatest failure lies in it’s inborn sense of judgment against the people who consume the products they denounce; treating anyone who has knowingly eaten a Big Mac or purchased sneakers from the mall as if they have something to be ashamed of.
Culture jamming 2.0. is characterized by inside jokes and conviviality rather than a sense of political urgency. Prashant Gopal, a Toronto-based designer who has been selling his wares on Big Cartel under the name Yo Sick for nearly a decade, cannot seem to escape “Pizza Butt.”
Eight years ago, he drew a stubbled full moon underneath Pizza Hut’s unmistakable red marquee and scribbled the words “Pizza Butt” underneath. He describes the joke as a “dumb twist” and “low-hanging fruit,” yet the design, which is currently available in sticker form, has sold numbering the thousands. “It’s the joke that never seems to die,” he says. Gopal suggests that the popularity of Pizza Butt banks on nostalgia and familiarity for childhood brands. “I grew up going to Pizza Hut with my family,” he says. “Your brain sees it, you recognize it, and you don’t even have to register what the original logo is.”
The act of subverting a corporate logo is called a “logo flip,” explains Finn Zygowski, of Iron Disease, who suggests they are one of the simplest ways for an artist to get people to engage with their work. Zygowski is best known for designing a patch of the NASA logo, swapping the text with “Nasty.” A bootleg of the patch is worn by Ilana Glazer in the latest season of Broad City. “It’s really easy to spot a bootleg because the type is always messed up,” he says. “That’s why I’m not really mad about it. If it was my artwork I would be more disgruntled, but it’s a logo flip so you can only take it so seriously.”
Another Toronto-based designer, Ricky Lee, uses logo flips to send up popular millennial hobbies. Among his product lineup, the playfully named “dad hats” he sells through his brand Povrich Apparel feature pill bottles plastered with social media logos. He calls the design “social drugs,” an irreverent and funny way of skewering millennial’s dependence on the adulations we receive from quantifiable likes online.
For nearly a decade, the popularity of small commodities like enamel pins and embroidered patches has been growing. Fresh out of art school, illustrators and artists seeking to earn income off their work often decide to forgo the fickle art market and instead focused their efforts on turning their designs into merch, selling it back to their peers for less than the price of a gourmet sandwich. While some of these DIY-ers have parlayed their merch game into a legitimate day job, others keep it as merely a side hustle.
Zygowski works full-time as a bike mechanic but says that being based in Toronto hugely influenced his side hustle. He knows both the proprietors of No Fun Press and Explorer’s Press socially, and watched as these two made it big off selling merch. “Knowing them was a big part of why I thought it could work for me,” he says. “If I didn’t know anyone who was doing it I might not have even really bothered.”
According to criteria laid out by Marilyn Delaure and Moritz Fink, editors of Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance, the work of Gopal, Zygowski, and Lee qualify as culture jamming according most of the criteria lain out in the book. Their work is artful, transgressive, often anonymous, and happens in multiples, but it is not strictly political. It’s clear that passion, not piss and vinegar, is what motivates many culture jammers today. In other words, logo flips are more likely to be borne of an affinity with a brand rather than a rebuke.
When Gopal started rooting around online to purchase merch of his favourite television show, Law & Order: SVU, he found the official web store wouldn’t ship to Canada. To circumvent the problem, he designed his own Law & Order themed merch: a black t-shirt reading “Especially Heinous” in the show’s instantly recognizable font.
Zygowski feels the same way about only designing things he likes. “When I’m going to make something to sell I usually look at it pretty seriously and I do my research,” he says. Zygowski’s interest in space exploration led him to design a patch of the Pioneer 10 space probe. But he decided that before putting it on the market, he wanted to create a zine about Pioneer 10 to place the patch in context. “I got the patches made and it was six months before I showed anyone because I was working on the book,” he says.
Ricky Lee’s passion is folded into everything single item he designs. One particular sweater, called the Swan of Trayvon, was designed as a tribute to Trayvon Martin, Lee says that he used the colours of the swans as a metaphor for society’s need to come together as one. Lee says he wants to focus on finding the positive in everything, which is reflected in his brand’s name, Povrich Apparel - going from poverty to riches. “Using myself as an example, here’s this young black guy that came from one of the worst areas in Toronto, Jane and Lawrence and look what he’s doing with his brand. That’s a big message that I like to relay to people, that you could do it too. It sounds simple but it’s actually true.”
Lee’s intention is to design clothes for kids on the come up, which inspires everything he does. And when there’s higher to go, the more you have to sweat to make it happen. It’s impossible to keep up a façade of ironic detachment when you’re striving.
When I ask Lee if being located in Toronto affects the designs he creates, he responds that here, it’s harder to get your work noticed. In New York, he says, there are a million tiny boutiques which celebs are crashing all the time; the closest thing Toronto has is Claire Danes having dinner at Terroni. It’s much harder to get your work noticed here, which is perhaps why so many Toronto artists are drawn to doing logo flips - like it or not, association with an instantly recognizable brand adds value and cache to the work. For many artists, springing off established work is not simply a fun exercise but a necessity if the goal is to get your work noticed.
As everyday engagement with the world becomes increasingly political, culture jamming has gotten less so. Fifteen years after culture jamming’s heyday, the biggest enemies in society are not big corporations but virulent racists and actual Nazis. There are more urgent issues to deal with. Photoshopping Joe Camel as a cancer patient feels oddly quaint. Our enemies have become less oblique, waking up every day is like traversing into unknown territory. It’s no wonder culture jamming as we once understood it is DOA, but it’s form has shifted into something more lighthearted and less sanctimonious.
Culture jamming has quietly evolved into practice centered on finding the quiet power in human connection. No matter whether your jam is beloved crime TV shows or little-known space probes, culture jamming 2.0 reminds everyone that they have a place in the world, no matter how niche that may be.
Muse From the 6 is a week to celebrate the artists who call Toronto home and the art that makes it unique. This week, Big Cartel will be supporting ArtHeart, a community organization helping people of all ages explore their creativity with art supplies, accessible studio space, and healthy snacks.