Graphic Forms of Protest

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 4, 2005

A graphic printed on a T-shirt demands, "Curb Your God."

A poster for designer jeans shows one pant leg knotted, as if the wearer were an amputee. The words War Wear have been appended to the brand's label: Rifle.

Another poster mimics Apple Computer's colorful advertising campaign for the iPod. Except this one is about "iRaq" and the logo is a bomb, not an apple. The black figure silhouetted against a hot pink background is not dancing to iTunes but is a hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib, balancing on a box with hands attached to a white cord.

These are three of more than 400 provocative, emotionally charged graphics in "The Design of Dissent: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics" (Rockport). The book of posters, buttons, illustrations and other graphics was compiled by Milton Glaser, dean of American graphic designers, with Mirko Ilic, a noted illustrator and art director. An exhibition of 100 designs opened yesterday at New York's School of Visual Arts, where Glaser and Ilic teach.

In an age dominated by moving images, these freeze-frame visuals hold their own. They represent the activist strain of graphic design. Like contemporary advertising, it thrives on shock, wit and instant recognition. But as playwright Tony Kushner writes in the book's foreword, there must also be "some galling truth . . . imprisoned beneath the surface of public discourse" that causes a designer to fire a signal flare.

Glaser calls the collection an international survey of "nontraditional dissenting opinion." The designer, who is best known for the "I {heart} NY" logo, says that lately he has been focused on the importance of expressing dissent. The essence of his view is captured on a button he designed, which declares "DISSENT Protects Democracy ."

"Once you say that dissent protects democracy, people get the idea right away," Glaser said by phone this week. "When you have dissenting opinion, it comes out of some idea that fairness or appropriateness has been violated."

Work on the book began with a global call for submissions. Glaser and Ilic received more than a thousand richly varied examples. Most of those selected were created after 2000 and address politics, racism, corporate power, pollution, religion, media, animal rights and food. Three sections are devoted to war and strife -- in the former Yugoslavia, in Iraq and between Israel and Palestinians. Concepts of peace and equality get as much space.

Images dominate all but 12 of the book's 240 pages. Minimal text includes an interview with Glaser. Ilic is represented by cover art for the alternative magazine World War 3 Illustrated showing a ferocious hound in camouflage fatigues preparing to devour a bone labeled Iraq. The caption does not indicate whether the artist was illustrating a story or drawing his own conclusions. The Bosnian-born New Yorker has described himself as an "individual anarchist" willing to "poke fun at any power, because all of them are corrupt."

Emotions run high, whatever the topic, but techniques and symbols run the gamut. The iRaq poster by Copper Greene relies on parody. The T-shirt designer, Daniel Young, needed only typography to express concern that so-called divine directives are sparking violence and intolerance. The jeans were designed by Slovenian artist Tomato Kosir as a commentary on consumerism and war. The Coca-Cola logo appears in many guises. Fingerprints are popular images. So is raw meat.

Samantha Hoover, assistant director of communications for the School of Visual Arts, says creative people tend to be liberal. But the book was not intended to be one-sided. Palestinian and Israeli points of view were included, Glaser points out. Communism is skewered. So is President Bush. A design team from Slovenia played off the American Dairy Association's "Got Milk?" campaign for a "Got Oil?" poster on which Bush sports a mustache of oil. The poster shows how astonishingly global advertising has become.

Posters have a distinguished history as vehicles of protest, propaganda and commerce, from 15th-century broadsheets supporting the Protestant Reformation to 19th-century theater billboards by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In the 20th century, politics and art merged in powerful propaganda posters in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and Communist China. The American counterculture of the late 1960s inspired a renaissance of protest posters, in psychedelic colors. These days, Hoover senses renewed interest in public affairs.

"Since 9/11, with the Iraqi war and all that's happening, twenty- and thirtysomethings are paying attention to current affairs in a different way," she says.

Some issues are constant. In 1969, Dan Reisinger conveyed a message about Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union by using the hammer and sickle as the "G" in "Let My People Go." More than 20 years later, he drew a poster warning of a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. A recent poster by Turkish designer Bulent Erkmen for an Israeli client sought to address the sharing of power in Jerusalem. The word "equal" is presented as a page from a dictionary. All attempts at definition have been struck through with a red line.

Chaz Maviyane-Davies produced gripping posters relating the United Nations Articles on Human Rights to an African audience. For Article 4, a figure wears free-flowing dreadlocks made of chains above the words, "No one should be subjected to slavery or servitude."

Malaysian designer Theresa Tsang created three posters that protest the abuse of women. What appears to be the imprint of a lipstick kiss is an amalgam of photos of knuckles, glass shards and men beating women.

Design can transform even grim topics. In Serbia, the Thea Line cosmetics company commissioned an antiwar poster using its product. The designer, Igor Avzner, turned lipstick tubes into a cartridge belt, which is worn by a fashion model. The message reads, "Make Up, Not War."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company