Protest Signs: Where Art and Activism Intersect

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For 35 years, Syracuse Cultural Workers (SCW) has been providing the local community with voices and tools of resistance.

As a “peace and justice publishing company,” the house at 400 Lodi Street serves as an all-in-one storefront, studio, and warehouse. Upon entering, a hanging chime greets visitors with a soft twinkle at the front door, and newcomers can quickly guess what the place is all about: creating and promoting activism art.

In fact, the front room takes on the appearance of a quasi-gallery, showcasing a collection of items for sale that have been created since the organization’s inception in 1982. On the walls and collaged on the shelves are posters, bumper stickers, buttons, and postcards born out of a mutual hatred for the Vietnam War, nuclear energy, and the ignorance of multiculturalism.

Current Art Director Karen Kerney has witnessed SCW change since she first joined in the 90s, specifically in their art, which often projected an angry tone early on. Today, the message has been reshaped into energizing people to peacefully stand up for what they believe in. However, Kerney also says business hasn’t been this busy “since the Bush years.”

After a financial slump during the recession, sales are now at an all-time high, and posters like  “Early Warning Signs of Fascism” are in such high demand that they continuously sell out.  

The reason? Donald Trump’s election.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to dismantle the power of the Environmental Protection Agency and President Barack Obama’s accomplishments in sustainability. Within the first month of his presidency, Trump did not disappoint. After signing nearly a dozen executive orders, censoring government agencies with environmental mandates — for example, preventing the National Parks Service from sharing news on their Twitter feed — and the proposed budget cuts of slashing the EPA’s funding, there’s a lot for environmentalists to be up in arms about.

These issues have spurred dismayed, frazzled, and fired-up reactions nationwide, including those in Syracuse, New York. More and more people have been reaching out to SCW for guidance on  how to get more involved in the activist scene.

“We can hardly keep up with sales,” says Kerney. “People want to have these signs out on their lawns and in their windows: ‘Refugees Welcome Here,’ ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ‘Disabilities are Respected’ — people feel like they need to do something.”

Throughout history, protest posters have served as visual records and examples of social movements led by the masses.

In his book Posters for Peace: Visual Rhetoric & Civic Action, Thomas Benson argues, “when we notice a poster we instantly understand that it is asking something of us — or of someone. Posters, as they exist in our vernacular cultural experience, are fundamentally rhetorical.”

Andy Mager, the sales manager at SCW, confessed he’s overwhelmed by the amount of requests, but equally amazed by the demand.

“I also think we’re in an interesting moment that certainly predated Trump,” Mager says. “Black Lives Matter had a really key role in prompting people who had big roles in the culture — musicians, actors, athletes — to feel some responsibility for and identification with people to demonstrate change.”

By using posters as tools for change, social movement activists can capture the attention and emotions of others, usually in public spaces.

Rochester-based sculptor Jacquelyn O’Brien focuses on gender politics through feminist art, and marched in the D.C. Women’s March on January 21, where the streets were filled with a variety of posters.

Initially, she was a little wary of the overwhelming amount of signs because, while well-intentioned, words on a sign can often be reduced to a “bumper sticker.”

“After a few minutes of initial judgment, I saw a lovely array of aesthetic reminders of how we are all feeling at a time like this,” she said. “It also exemplifies that the art women make is vast and often offers a strong statement of its own — showing that art is a form of action protest.”

And in Syracuse, that action can be seen. On February 2 this year, hundreds gathered outside of the James M. Hanley building in a rally resisting Trump’s anti-environmental rhetoric and calling upon New York Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer to stand up against the new administration’s attack on science. The protest was organized by a slew of local organizations — Food & Water Watch, CNY Solidarity Coalition, and Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, to name a few — including SCW.

As protesters huddled together in front of Schumer’s Syracuse office on a cold and snowy day, it was clear that people with posters in hand thought about the kind of message they wanted to spread. Dozens of local media organizations and news outlets brought video recorders and cameras to the scene, capturing shots of not only the daring participant , but also of the flashy poster content. Almost all of them were undeniably beautiful.

Art in Syracuse, specifically art used as a means of activism, is nothing new, but Mager attributes the aesthetic poster art development to technology.  

“We can create these iconic images and put them up on a website where people can download them and shoot them over to their local copy shop and print them easily,” says Mager. “That’s obviously a lot easier than someone having the skill themselves.”

It’s critical to look toward the tools used in a social movement in order to better understand a social movement’s purpose and structure. Visual tools serve as lasting examples of specific messages that movements attempt to publicize or draw attention to. By studying these examples, society is able to analyze specific rhetorical and political messages being expressed by activists in attempt to evoke change.

Poster art is an important, and often emotive tool, for activists, whether they are textless images or catchphrases for the movement. Art and protest will always intersect in an attempt to garner attention in expressing their messages, voices, and agencies.

Max Hill, an employee at SCW, has seen work published by SCW being used in this exact way. For SCW, poster art is “art that has gone to work.”

“[Posters] feed the energy that’s already there … and push it and raise up those voices that want to cheer by giving them something to cheer with so that they don’t feel alone,” says Hill.