I remember seeing these weird stickers and spray painted stencils of Andre the Giant when I first moved to Philadelphia in 1996. I was just a kid and Circle of Hope was just an idea. Now Shepard Fairey’s OBEY design is almost 25 years old and it’s on a T-shirt worn by what seems like 1 in 10 of the college kids I’m seeing these days, and Circle of Hope is very much more than an idea and into it’s 17th year. I’d like to see these parallels converge a bit more as I work to develop our mission.
Shepard Fairey is a subvertiser. He’s managed to get really mainstream which is sort of weird but he’s one of the most well known subvertisers I know of. Wikipedia’s article about subvertising says “the key process involves redefining or even reclaiming one’s environment from a perceived corporate beast.” I don’t know if Shepard would be so direct but one of the recent designs on his website obeygiant.com speaks that sort of language. He takes an obvious message- “we are going to run out of gas” and makes it look cool. He puts a funny mustache on the image of the emperor and it sells like hotcakes. I do believe that he is not at this just to get rich (I think he’s doing that though) but he’s also hoping that his message is noticed on the shirts of all those college kids regardless of why the individual is wearing it.
Jesus is interested in reclaiming our environment from the corporate beast too, so I think we ought to figure out how to do it. Of course we wouldn’t advertise (some of my friends in Circle of Hope can’t even stomach saying the word in the context of our mission) but we would subvertise and we ought to think hard about how to get our name and even our “brand” associated with resistance and restoration, questioning the powers that be, and liberation from oppression. This is the message that is resonating with those who are buying the OBEY brand if only subliminally for some.
We want to do more than wear T-shirts though. We want to supplant advertising and fuel the rebellion that Jesus is leading.
Another thing that I think is interesting about Shepard’s ideas is his popularization of the phrase “the medium is the message.” It was introduced in Marshall McLuhan’s most widely known book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964. Though not exactly a corollary, our incarnational approach to evangelism is akin to McLuhan’s and Shepard’s idea. Our medium for transmitting the gospel is the community. We are the gospel as much if not more than we preach it. This has it’s roots in Anabaptist theology, yes, but more so in the message and modus operandi of Jesus. He said, “I am the Way” –it’s me. He went around preaching about other things too but he makes it clear in all four of the gospels that the most important thing is not a thing or idea at all–He’s Jesus. The promise from Jesus is “trust in me and I will give you all I have from the Father, including eternity.” When I say “we are the gospel” I’m not supplanting Jesus but I am being like Him. No, I am not the Way but I believe the best way to communicate Jesus to those who do not yet know Him is to invite them into a way of being. We say “We create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption.” The medium, us as followers of Jesus and temples of the living God, is the message.
Unfortunately, just being who we are does not suffice in a world of noise and isolation. If anyone is to be exposed to who we are we’re going to have to be conspicuously. I think a really good way to do that is subvertising. Let’s supplant advertising by using the medium, speaking the first language of our consumerist culture and see if anyone will notice. I’m praying they will.
- Manifestos like this one printed on newsprint and inserted in the free papers like Citypaper and Philadelphia Weekly (if they live off of sex advertisements I think we can exploit them for Jesus’s cause)
- Book marks in the books sold at bookstores or mock subscription postcards in magazines (I think I should probably be kicked out of UPENN’s bookstore, don’t you?)
- Mock customer appreciation cards like this one
- Stickers like these
Circle of Hope has a Street Team led by Luke Bartolomeo who designed this cool stuff. We’re interested in these ideas. Would you like to join us? Let me know.