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Themes/Popular Culture: Creative Disobedience

When artists and designers respond to the commercial, political, social or physical world around them, they don’t always play by the rules.

Mat introduces us to five creatives/collectives who ‘step over the line’ to make work. 

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”– Grace Hopper, computer programming pioneer and US Naval Officer


As an audience, we understand the rules by which media plays, with messages originating and carefully transported through familiar channels – publishers, galleries, TV, and advertising – at great expense. But there is a long tradition of artists, designers and groups of people who disobey and blur the borders of accepted channels and permissions to make us question the messages we receive.

From the Dada and Situationist International movements of the 20th century, to the “culture jammers” of the 21st, people have intervened in public and corporate spaces to make their voices heard. To learn more about culture jamming (the manipulation of corporate advertising to challenge consumerism) check out infamous culture jammers Adbusters on their website.  

Sometimes these challenges are made to make a socio-political point; to question authority; or make ourselves visible. Sometimes they transgress just for the joy of playing in the spaces between what is expected. In doing so they help us appreciate the everyday world around us. Below are a few creatives who represent this approach in their work.

Featured image credit: ‘Our Pink House’, a public art project by Olek.

Yarn Graffiti: Craft Activism

Also known as guerrilla knitting or yarnstorming, yarn graffiti is a type of street art which uses knitting and crochet to reclaim and humanise public spaces – literally wrapping the city in a blanket. Participants take pre-knitted swatches, sculptural pieces and amigurumi figures (Japanese yarn creatures), and use them to adorn anything from street lamps, letterboxes and fences to larger objects like buildings and vehicles. Although less permanent than spray graffiti, it is still technically illegal.

Credit: Our Pink House’, a public art project by Olek.

Some practitioners like London collective ‘Knit The City’ use whimsy and storytelling as a tool to help us re-evaluate our everyday environment. Others such as New York-based artist Olek use it as a challenging and confrontational medium for socio-political comment. For her ‘Our Pink House’ project see feature image to this article), Olek worked with female refugees from Syria and Ukraine, completely enveloping a house in pink crochet to highlight the plight of displaced women around the world.

Find out more about the ‘Knitfiti’ trend

Explore more images from Olek’s ‘Pink House’ project on Instagram #ourpinkhouse

Guerrilla Girls: Art Activism

This group of female artists formed in 1985, concealing their identities behind gorilla masks. Defining their mission to be “the conscience of the art world” they use wit and interventions to highlight the disparity in representation, salaries, prestige and exposure for female artists.

Credit: Images from the #poorlittlebillionaires projection, Whitney Museum, New York, May 2 2015, Guerrilla Girls with the Illuminator.

In 2015, they stealth-projected messages onto major institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art to make a point about how the art market is increasingly controlled and influenced by a small group of wealthy collectors. The collective says: “Women and artists of colour are here, empowered, and have all the skills and talent necessary. It’s the institutions and the billionaires behind them that must change.”

Find out more about the Guerilla Girls online

Led By Donkeys: Media

“Lions led by donkeys” is a phrase originating from the First World War, describing the soldiers sent to their deaths by incompetent generals. Over 100 years later, it’s the name adopted by an anonymous group of “four men with a ladder” who use billboard advertising hoardings to remind the public of contradictory statements made by leading politicians about Brexit.

Credit: Image courtesy of Led By Donkeys.

By pasting giant enlargements of tweets from politicians’ Twitter feeds, they use advertising hoardings to keep them accountable. Initially the advertising space was stolen, pasting over adverts for major brands like Ford and McDonald’s, though later spaces were legitimately paid for: “We temporarily borrowed advertising real estate from a company that could afford to lend it to us. We didn’t necessarily ask permission, but it was public service and therefore totally justified.” (source: The Guardian).

Read The Guardian’s article about Led By Donkeys in full

Follow Led By Donkeys on Twitter

#eachbodysready: Advertising

Another billboard campaign that drew attention was the “Are You Beach Body Ready?” advert for Protein World. Although the Advertising Standards Authority defended the adverts against accusations of body shaming, a public backlash resulted in posters being defaced (often in creative ways) and the slogan subvertised from “Beach Body Ready” to “Each Body’s Ready”.

Credit: the #eachbodysready campaign makes its mark on Protein World’s posters. Image via The Pool.

An anonymous designer also co-opted Dove’s groundbreaking “Campaign for Real Beauty” body (the second image in the gif above) positivity slogan and logo for an ad, which passed for official, although Dove had nothing to do with it.

Explore the #eachbodysready hash tag on Twitter

Jevh Maravilla and Christian Toledo –Art Direction

Eating at McDonald’s in Pearland, Texas, students Jevh Maravilla and Christian Toledo noticed that there were no Asians represented in the lifestyle posters adorning the walls. Seeing a blank wall in the restaurant they realised they had an opportunity to change this.

Credit: Video, ‘We Became McDonald’s Poster Models’, featuring Jevh Maravilla and Christian Toledo. Credit Jevh Maravilla, via YouTube channel Jevholution.

They shot and printed their own version of a McDonald’s poster, using themselves as models, and installed it by stealth (wearing a McDonald’s uniform bought from a thrift store). The poster was so convincingly art-directed that it remained on the wall for 51 days without the change being noticed, demonstrating how we tend to accept messages that look “official”.

Follow Jevh Maravilla on Twitter

Jan Vormann:Public Art

Credit: ‘Dispatchwork’, as seen in Calabria, Italy. Jan Vormann / VG-Bild.

Traditional restoration often aspires to a seamless, invisible repair, whereas Jan’s interventions are colourful and mismatched. His additions draw attention to themselves, allowing us to reconsider the beauty of imperfection and impermanence, much like the Japanese art of kintsugi (repairing broken pottery with gold) and the philosophy of wabi-sabi

Follow Jan on Instagram

View a map of ‘Dispatchworks’ from around the world

Advisory notes:

Some of these artist’s work feature adult language and nudity.

Take these artists and works as inspiration but please bear in mind that the boundary between legal protest/public art and illegal vandalism/trespass is often unclear.

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