Robbie Conal and the Poster of Dis Belief
Revolutionary Worker #1061, July 2, 2000
Imagine what it feels like to be living in Los Angeles as the Rampart police scandal hits the news day after day - the anger, the outrage... and, for the basic people, the satisfaction that the truth you have known about the police from hard experience is finally coming to light.
Now, imagine waking up one morning, hitting the streets and seeing something that really nails the police and their criminal mentality. You see this thing all over the city, everywhere you go - for days. And every time you and all the people you know see it, you just can't help but smile. This is what happened with the latest poster from guerrilla artist Robbie Conal. Robbie's poster, Dis Belief, is one of the most powerful artistic works to deal with the LAPD scandal yet.
Robbie recently spoke to the RW about this poster. "Dis Belief is actually a sequel to a poster I did in 1993 on the first anniversary of the so-called L.A. riots which was basically an LAPD nightstick on fire with the word disarm broken up into Dis in the upper left hand corner, and Arm in the lower right hand corner. That was put up starting at midnight on the first anniversary at the corner of Florence and Normandie. We had an unusual group, not just me and my Club Slime and Grunge Puppies, but also Mothers' ROC (a group opposed to the criminalization and jailing of youth - RW), some ex-gang members from South Central, some neighborhood groups and some Christian groups. We all got together and started there and then put it up all over town."
The authorities hit back at Robbie for the Dis Arm poster. The county Board of Supervisors tried to charge him with fomenting civil unrest and violence against the police, but then they backed off.
Seven years later, the Rampart scandal prompted Robbie to respond with another poster. "After Rampart started cracking open like a rotten egg and spreading, I thought it was time to do the sequel. I knew that the anti-gang CRASH unit of the Rampart precinct in the LAPD had their own secret logo - a smiling skull with a cowboy hat and a dead man's poker hand - aces and eights - behind them. So I thought, okay, that's pretty good. The skull and crossbones is a symbol for poison, and they're kind of poison. I thought I'd take the two nightsticks, cross them, have them seem like they've been burning for a while, going back to 1993, so they've turned a little bit to charcoal and their embers are glowing. Then I asked my friend Al Schaffer, who is a great photographer, if we could get our hands on a LAPD badge. The more I thought about an LAPD badge, the more I thought it could be morphed with computer imaging into a skull." After a visit to a prop house to pick up some nightsticks and a badge, Robbie worked with computer graphics illustrators to turn the badge into the Terminator 2 skull and then turn out a poster almost exactly the same time size as the original Dis Arm poster.
"The great thing about Rampart, if you can say there is anything good about it, is that it's an outing of something that anybody on the street has known has been going on in LAPD for years and years. In fact it's built into the culture of the LAPD from the beginning. So to have it out in public as a so-called scandal - actually dredging up the particulars of the corruption in LAPD and the ironies and awfulness of it - is a good thing because knowledge is power, and it is a good thing for the general public and us to know what is really going on. I can't say I was happy about it. I was kind of sad and angry. But on that one level it's terrific that this came out. I just feel like it's right on my critical edge to express concern about it on a street level and communicate directly to regular people walking the streets some kind of resistance to LAPD right under their noses. This is kind of like my job, you know - 'Oh shit, I got to go do another one. Got to go to work.'"
When it came time to put the posters up, Robbie had no trouble finding volunteers. "Most of my subjects are national issues - whether it's major politicians who have abused their power, or somebody like Bill Gates - who is actually like a global capitalist or business issue. But in this case we're in L.A., it's a local issue, it's symptomatic of something that's going on all over the country and probably all over the world - so we had way more people volunteering to do this poster. It was something that was in their front yard and back yard and that they could relate to directly. We had lots of folks - we took over a quarter of Canter's deli before we went out and we even had the great Jerry Quickley do a poetic invocation for us - which was fantastic. He threw down a verse about some time he had been arrested for being himself and it made all of Canter's erupt into spontaneous applause. Then we just ran out into the night. It was pretty cool, pretty romantic - until you actually get out there.
"One of the charms of postering is that you get all these people together with all their own ideas and their own issues. As I recall, when we got together to poster there were a couple of guys who lived in the area around Rampart who said, 'We got it covered, don't worry about a thing.' It's not like I got to tell people to go to South Central or Watts. They will take care of it. I've got to hold them back, you know, 'don't put it on the police station, don't put it on a bus.' My problem was getting people to go out and do Santa Monica. On the other hand, it's still very real out there. We just had a case of a 17-year-old who got busted in Palms, caught putting one of the posters up. Since she's a juvenile the judge really threw the book at her - threatened her with suspending her driver's license for a year, two years probation and a fine with the option of going to a trial. She went to trial yesterday and I don't know what happened yet."
People began to express their views on the poster even as it was being slapped up on walls around the city. "With this poster we had lots of people running after us, yelling at us, whistling, applauding, asking for posters. On the streets it's a pretty popular poster. It looks like Halloween.
"In a way, this poster is interesting technically. I found that when I get into high production values - and this is a combination of photography and computer-generated imagery, pretty spiffy, full color and all that - we get close to a threshold that is problematic for my work.
"An irony of the art that I make is that the higher the production values, the more confusing the message is in the sense that like with this poster, I did a couple of versions of it and this is the most didactic of the ones we could have printed. And still, I think quite a few people have looked at it and thought that this might be a teaser ad for a TV mini-series about the police or a TV movie. Or maybe a video game - there is an LAPD video game that you should check out. You can be the LAPD and go around blowing people off the street."
Robbie explained that people have had all kinds of interpretations of the Dis Belief poster. "That's just part of the charm of this kind of public art. It can be taken many different ways and it has a life of its own once you let it out there. I think that's really important for artists to appreciate - you don't want to overcontrol your message or overpower people with a one way reading of your art. You've got to give it a little breathing room and let them work with it a little bit. Just put it out there and let it happen, let people interact with it, bringing their own personal baggage to it. Let them have a relationship with it as opposed to hitting them over the head with being hit over the head. Don't tell them what to think about stuff, just express yourself and just let it loose, cut the umbilical cord and let it live its life. In some cases that can get pretty entertaining."
Known for his wicked portraits that ridicule and expose people in the power structure, with Dis Belief Robbie is exploring different artistic territory: "I'm a little restless now, I don't want to just do an ugly old white guy and a word. I had one version of this poster that I really liked - it was just the badge, 2 feet by 3 feet die cut out in a skull shape with no Dis Belief text, no crossed batons, no nothing - just the badge morphed into a skull with the Terminator eyes. I still think that would be fun to put up. That would be subject to even more interpretations. I'm still not sure why I didn't do that. I kind of know why, but I think I was a little artistically chicken about it. If I were really pushing myself into a little unknown public territory in terms of expression I would have cut the words loose and just let it float out there as a metallic skull. As it is, it says policeman and Los Angeles Police on it and I could just let that do its dirty work by itself. I think that is much more open to a range of interpretations - let them work it out. I feel like a little wimpy for not having done that.
"I mean, the poster is fine and the good thing about the poster is that it is referential - it does refer to the history of LAPD whereas the other one wouldn't directly. This one not only refers to Dis Arm but also to that time and that situation and takes you off onto a course, allows you an opening, through interacting with the poster, to tour the history of LAPD and that's the good news about the Dis Belief poster as opposed to the die cut skull. And I appreciate that, that's important to me, that people understand that there's a history to this, that it's not an isolated incident, that it's part of the culture of the police in our society and who they serve and protect and who they don't.
Robbie Conal's art always generates a lot of discussion and over the years he has developed a core of supporters for his art. At the same time he reaches out to new groups of people with each new work. "Dis Arm did a lot for my relationship with the Black community. Whatever relationship I have with the Black community is based on anything I do about the LAPD - I can't imagine why! - whether it's Dis Arm, the Daryl Gates poster or this one. We know who the targets of LAPD are and they know who they are. And you know who you are as you're being dragged away or assuming the position. So anything that comes out that actually is critical of LAPD on the street, I think there is a natural constituency that is going to identify with it.
"I've got lots of ideas about how to use the poster in other parts of the country. One thing about this poster that I think was pretty funny is that we got a lot of calls from New York saying, hey how come you didn't do one for us. Well, all you got to do is change the badge. People in Chicago and Detroit have called saying why don't you do one for every major city, we'll just get a collection of badges and pop it in. It works everywhere, come on. That's the good news and the bad news - it's an endemic problem that the society just has to address. It's outrageous. And it's symptomatic - it's one of those issues that if you actually get on it and ride, you can ride it right back to class issues in America and who the government was formed to represent and who that leaves out and then all the agencies of the government, including law enforcement. It's a terrific history lesson."
And Robbie Conal hopes that the posters will surprise viewers on the street: "I want this poster to get people to think about it. I want them to see on the streets, where you don't necessarily expect it, a public expression of resistance to and concern about what LAPD is doing and how everything is playing.
"One thing about my work, if it's done right, hopefully you know it's not an ad or something. We're too funky so you know it's not an ad for a movie, we're not selling anything, it's not commercial. It's like trickle up art as opposed to trickle down economics. It's not coming from the top down to the streets but it's bubbling up from the streets. I think it helps when you're walking in Rampart, or in any active part of Los Angeles, and you see something on the streets about an issue that you're worried about that isn't connected to a product and isn't commercialized or isn't propaganda from the dominant power structure. Hopefully you look at it and say 'what the hell is that doing there and what's it about.' That would make me happy - if people just look at and go, 'Oh that looks cool, what is it doing there and what's it about.'"
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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