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The Billboard Liberation Front Handbook

This passage is an excerpt from «Countercultures. 1956-1995», the second volume of the Graphic Culture Anthology series. Theauthor ofthe paper isactivist R.O. Thornhill, whose contribution is preceded by an introductory text by the volume’s editors, Silvia Sfligiotti and Francesco Ciaponi.


‘Culture jamming’ is a term coined in 1984 by the US experimental band Negativland, used to describe a form of activism that was later often associated with the Canadian magazine Adbusters. In this approach, the media and advertising communication, particularly that of large multinational corporations, are subjected to various forms of alteration similar to Situationist détournement, aimed at countering the dominant narrative with messages of the opposite sign: altered advertisements, fake news spread through the media, parodies, mispronounced logos, and more. The effectiveness of this method relies on being able to use to one’s advantage the power of the brands one is acting against. The Billboard Liberation Front, founded by Jack Napier and Irving Glikk in 1977, devoted itself to altering large billboards, particularly those of major brands such as McDonald’s and Apple, by twisting their message with text or image changes as a form of taking over spaces dominated by commercial communication. The manual invites anyone to engage in this “improvement,” providing all the technical and practical information derived from the group’s experience. The edition given here is the first, and refers to the most accessible alteration techniques at the time, with a do-it-yourself approach. The text was updated several times, including digital techniques when they became more popular.

Processed World, n. 25, 1990. Cover.

The Billboard Liberation Front has been successfully dedicated to improving outdoor advertising since 1977.
We hope that the following manual will prove useful and comprehensive. We have detailed methods for making alterations ranging from the smallest and most easily accessible signs to the largest and most difficult to reach signs on highways.
In most cases, it should not be necessary to resort to the elaborate, if not obsessive, precautions that the BLF has resorted to in order for an individual or group to get its message across. All that is needed is a can of spray paint, a cheerful spirit and a balmy night. There are many different reasons for wanting to alter or otherwise enhance an existing advertisement. In this manual we will avoid ideologies and focus only on practical information.

1. Selection of the poster

Once you have identified the advertising message you want to improve, it is a good idea to check if there are multiple places where the same advertisement is present. You must identify those that offer your message optimal visibility. A billboard on the main highway will obviously give you more visibility than one on a dimly lit side street. You must then weigh the location/visibility factor against other crucial variables, such as physical accessibility, potential escape routes, volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic during optimal hours for alteration, etc.
When choosing a billboard, keep in mind that the most effective alterations are often the simplest. If you can totally change the meaning of an advertisement by changing one or two letters, you will save a lot of time and trouble. Some ads lend themselves to parody with I’insertion of a small image or symbol in the right place (a skull, the radiation symbol, a happy face, a swastika, a vibrator, etc.). In other billboards, I the addition of a comic book ‘cloud’ or ‘balloon’ to one of the characters might be more than enough.

2. Preparation

(a) Accessibility

How do you get on the board? Will you need to carry a ladder to reach the base of the board? Is it possible to climb up the support structure? Is the billboard located on the roof of a building, and if so, can it be reached from inside the building, from a fire escape, or perhaps from an adjacent building? If you need ladders to work on the billboard, you can sometimes find ladders on platforms placed above or behind the billboard, or on adjacent billboards or roofs.

(b) Practical factors

How large are the letters and/or images you want to edit? How close is your work area to the platform that sits at the base of the board?

On the larger boards, you can attach the equipment from above and rappel down in front of the wall to reach the points that are too high to be reached from below. We do not recommend this method unless you have some climbing and mounting experience. When hanging in one position, the working area is very limited laterally. The possibility of leaving the scene quickly decreases proportionally the more complicated the position. Placing large words or images is much more difficult

(c) Safety

After choosing the billboard, be sure to inspect it both during the day and at night. Take note of all activities in the area. Who is around at 2 a.m.? How visible is your work area, in front of and behind the billboard? How visible will you be as you climb the support structure? Keep in mind that you will be making noise; are there apartment or office windows nearby? Is there anyone in the house? Walk carefully if you are on a rooftop; who knows above whom you are walking.

What is the visibility of passing cars on surface streets and highways? What can you see from your working position on the billboard? Although it is very difficult to see a figure on a dark billboard at night, it is not impossible. Any point of which you have a direct view is a point from which you can be seen. How far is your billboard from the nearest police station or Highway Patrol headquarters? What is their patrol pattern in the area? The average response time to calls from citizen X? You can get an idea by surveying the area and observing it. Is it quiet at night or is there a lot of foot traffic? When bars close, will this provide cover, i.e., will the drunks keep the cops busy, or will it increase the likelihood of being caught by passersby? Do they care? If you are detected, it may be helpful for your co-workers to take care of them rather than hoping they will not call the police. Do not let them relate you to a vehicle. Ask your co-workers on the ground to pretend to be random passersby and check what the spotter thinks. We have been spotted at work several times and most people have been amused. You will find that most people, including civil servants, do not look up unless they have a reason to do so. Step onto the billboard before your shot. Experience the feeling of being there and moving about the structure at night. Take a camera with you – it will be good cover for doing anything you shouldn’t be doing: “Gee, officer, I’m a night photographer and from up there I can get a good shot of the Bay Bridge…” Check the escape routes. Can you get across rooftops and out a fire escape across the block? etc.

(d) Lighting

Most billboards are illuminated by floodlights of some kind. Many large billboards are turned off between 11:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. by a time control placed somewhere on or near the billboard. Smaller billboards are often controlled by photoelectric cells or conventional timers, also placed somewhere on the billboard. If you can find the photoelectric cell, you can turn off the board lights by sticking a small flashlight directly into the ‘eye’ of the cell. This will make the device think it is dawn, the time when the light should go out. As mentioned earlier, most of the larger boards are controlled by timers. These are located in control panels at the base of the media structure and/or behind the board itself. These panels are often locked (particularly those at the base of the structure). Unless you are familiar with live electrical circuits and such devices, we recommend that you wait for the timer to turn itself off at midnight or so. Many of these billboards are powered by a 277- or 220-volt current and may cook you to a crisp.

Billboard Liberation Front, Apple Think Disillusioned (Dalai Lama), San Carlos, CA, 1998. Intervention on a billboard advertisement.

One of the Billboard Liberation Front’s (p.175) most visible “emigliation actions” was the series of interventions made on billboards for Apple’s Think different campaign, in which several famous personalities–in this image the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso–were used as testimonials for the California-based company to boost its image during a period of severe crisis. The altered message “think disillusioned” is accompanied by the inclusion of a skull in place of the Apple brand.

3. Graphic setting:

Lettering and image design

(a) Scale

If the change involves only a small area (a letter, a small symbol, etc.), you probably don’t need to put too much effort into matching or designing your overlay (we will use this term to refer to the finished element with the image or lettering that you will apply to the billboard). Simply measure or trace the design directly from the poster board. If, on the other hand, you intend to create overlays that are large and/or have a large number of letters, and you want the finished image to look as much like the one designed by the advertisers themselves as possible, you will have to put in more elaborate preparation. Find a location at approximately the same level as the billboard, in a direct line and fronting it (at a distance of about 60 to 300 meters). Photograph the billboard from this location and make a tracing from a large print of the photo. Using the measurements taken on the board (height, width, letter height, etc.), you can and a scale drawing of the change you want to make. From this you can determine the size of the overlays and the necessary spacing between letters.

(b) Color Matching.

There are two simple ways to achieve background and/or color matching of the lettering or image area.

1. On painted or paper billboards, you can usually cut out a small sample (about 2.5 cm on a side) directly from the billboard. This does not always work on older painted billboards that have many thick layers of paint.

2. Most large paint stores have small color swatches. A fairly close match is possible with these swatchbooks. We suggest stick to solid colors and relatively simple shapes for maximum visual impact.

(c) Font style

If you want to get an exact match for the font style, purchase a catalog of different fonts from a graphic arts store. Use it together with existing letter tracings to create the full range of letters you need for your modification. You can convincingly mimic letters that are not on the board by finding a font in the book that comes very close and using the existing letter tracings as a guide to draw the new letters.

(d) Application

We recommend that overlays larger than 120 x 90 cm should not be used. If your message is larger, you will have to divide it into sections and then join them together to get the comlete image. On billboards it is very windy and large elements are difficult to apply. Some nights there is condensation on the billboards and the areas to be covered must be clean. For overlays use heavy drawing paper and gloss paint. Glossy paint impregnates the paper, making it super-strong, water-resistant and difficult to tear. To make the overlays, apply the background with a roller and spray-paint the lettering through cardboard templates into which you have carved the letters. For extremely large pictures or panels, use large pieces of painted canvas. The canvas should be heavy enough to avoid being torn by the wind that blows over most billboards. To keep it taut, glue and staple strips with a cross section of 2.5 x 10 cm along the entire horizontal length and along the bottom profiles of the canvas. The canvas can be rolled up like a transport mat and then unrolled past the top of the billboard and lowered into place with ropes. You can tie the four corners and the center (top and bottom) together in a very stable manner, or, if you can access the front of the board with a ladder or rope, secure the board by screwing the boards to the board behind. A good cordless drill is required for this operation. We recommend using ‘Tek’ sheet metal screws with a hex head, size #8 or #10. Use a hex head bit for your drill. These screws work well on both wood panels and sheet metal. To level the overlays on the poster board, take measurements from the bottom up (or top down) of the poster board to the bottom line of where the board needs to be to cover the existing text. Make small marks at the outermost points on the left and right. Using a tracing cord and two people, draw a horizontal line between these two points. This line serves as a reference for placing the overlays. Although there are many types of adhesives that can be used, we recommend a rubber-based adhesive. This adhesive is easily removable (but if applied correctly will remain in place indefinitely) and does not permanently damage or mark the surface of the signs.

This aspect becomes critical if, in the event that you are arrested, the authorities and property owners should assess the economic damage suffered for
property damage. Applying rubber-based adhesive to large overlays is delicate. You must evenly spread both the back side of the element
you want to paste as well as the surface of the billboard to be covered. Allow a drying time of 1-2 minutes before applying the paper to the billboard.
To spread the adhesive, use standard-size painter’s rollers (25 cm) and a 20-liter plastic bucket. Ask one person to spread the back of the elements to be glued and another to spread the surface of the billboards. Both people will be needed to apply the element to the surface of the billboards.

Francesco Ceccareli presents the book series: “Antologia di Cultura Grafica”.

4. The heist

Once you have completed all the preparations and are ready for the actual hit, there are many things you can do to minimize the risk of arrest.

(a) Personnel

Reduce the number of people on the billboard as much as possible. Three people are optimal: two for the actual work and one person for guard/communication. Additional sighting teams will probably be needed on the ground (see below).

(b) Communications

For work on large billboards where you will be exposed for a long time, we recommend that you use portable communication devices (CB units or walkie-talkies in the FM band), if you have any available. Place one or two cars at major intersections in view of the billboard. Units on the ground should monitor oncoming traffic and maintain radio contact with the lookout on the billboard. (Note: Do not use the most popular CB or FM channels; there are many others to choose from. It is good to communicate in code, as others have access to the channels you will be using.). It is crucial that your ground crew not wander out of their vehicles and in no way give the impression that they are in a possibly desolate area late at night for no apparent reason. A passing patrol will notice them much sooner than they would you on the billboard. Keep a low profile.

(c) Escape

If you have done your homework, you will be familiar with the terrain surrounding the billboard. In case you are discovered, prepare a set of alternative routes out of the area and a meeting point with the support team on the ground. If a patrol is approaching and you are in a spot where it is difficult to drop everything and hide quickly (hanging from a rope in the middle of billboards, for example), it may be best to stay put until they pass. Movement is more likely to attract the attention of a distracted. Once on the ground, if pursuit is imminent, hiding may be the safest option. If you have scouted the ground carefully, you will be aware of any good hiding places. Keep in mind that if the police do a thorough sweep (unlikely, but not impossible), they will move on foot with high-powered headlights and flashlights. Clothing that you will have stashed in your hiding place may prove useful. A business suit, perhaps, or rumpled, vomit-encrusted sportswear. Be creative.

5. Shots during the day

We do not recommend this method for most tall billboards located along or near highways and major roads. It works well for smaller and lower billboards, where modification is relatively mind simple and quick. If you choose to work in the light, idon a coverall (with the company name on the back?), a painter’s hat and work quickly. Keep an eye out for parked or passing vehicles bearing the billboard company’s name or the advertiser’s name. Each billboard has the company logo in the bottom center. If you are on a Sleaze Co. billboard and a Sleaze Co. truck pulls up, you are probably in trouble. The attendants are unlikely to try to physically detain you (if necessary, try to bribe them), but they will probably call the police.


If those who read this manual find it useful for their own advertising efforts, we at BLF consider it a success. We believe that the improvement of street advertising is a pastime that should be practiced by more people. It is not that difficult to work on small and low billboards. Quick action on a billboard of this type will not requireả all the elaborate preparations and precautions we have described. The more ‘real’ messages we have on highways and streets, the better.

Silvia Sfligiotti is a graphic designer, lecturer and visual communication critic. Here is her bio.

Francesco Ciaponi is an independent scholar and editor. Here is his bio.

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