Artist Jon Paul Bail remembers being at a coffee shop in the East Bay when his friend walked in and said, “Hey, we’re gonna go down to Oscar Grant Plaza and kick it in a tent and spend the night.”
“Really?” he replied. “You’re gonna go down there and do that?”
“Come on, J.P. dude”, his friends continued. “You can’t choose when things go down because you don’t like the weather.”
Bail held his ground, but a few days later, he arrived at the Occupy encampment with some of his artwork.
“We showed up with posters and gave away 45 posters instantly and then, within two days, we were printing on site. So that was really my moment,” says Bail, “when I’m printing and I look behind me and there are 150 people standing behind me and we’re printing these posters.”
And just like that, Bail became an Occupy activist. He was one of many artists who were putting images behind demands, like economic equality and increased transparency in the financial system. One of the Occupy posters inspired artist Chuck Sperry to get involved.
“Someone sent me a picture of the Ad Busters poster with the ballerina, poised on one foot on top of the bull and it said: ‘Occupy Wall Street, September 17th, bring a tent.’ And I thought, ‘This is cool. Whatever is going on, you know, is a little bit different,’” Sperry remembers.
Chuck Sperry is the man behind the poster that declared: “This is our city, and we can shut it down.” It’s composed of bright colors and big block letters reminiscent of the rock posters he makes for a living. On November 2, 2011, his artwork spoke to the protesters who shut down the port of Oakland.
Sperry creates his posters carefully, mindful of the effects of each aspect. “So, when I’m making a political poster, I’m drawing upon the history that starts with the freedom of speech movement on to the psychedelic movement, the rock poster; and I’m bringing all this knowledge to bear on just making a simple statement.”
Even the colors chosen for his Occupy poster have meaning.
“One of the reasons I wanted to use these sort of psychedelic colors is that it had a positive sort of warm, inviting feel to it. And I thought it might be a bit nourishing. And if you were to see a sea of these walking down the street you would go, ‘these people are positive,’” explains Sperry.
Jon-Paul Bail’s poster is very Northern Californian: “Hella Occupy” is printed across the top. The poster is drawn almost like a political cartoon, with images depicting a city in chaos. Bail explains the creation of that poster: “We knew shit was going to hit the fan downtown, so we totally illustrated what was going to take place. So when we were going through ideas for the poster, I just randomly was thinking, you know, ‘The system sucks’, ‘We are the 99 percent.’ And this poster is black and red, red is to represent Marxism, and black for Anarchy.”
Communism and Anarchy are just two of many buzzwords that became associated with the Occupy movement as it unfolded last fall. Today the movement isn’t as visible in the streets, but activists are still involved in issues such as fighting foreclosures and keeping schools open. The movement has also entered the art world, through a recent exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts called “Occupy Bay Area.”
The exhibit features photo prints, posters, audio, and even video installations that blanket the walls of a big room and surrounding hallways. Bettie-Sue Hertz is the curator of the exhibit, and she says that she intentionally designed the space this way.
“We feel like the movement itself is quite sprawling and there are many different points of view that are represented in the Occupy movement as a whole and we wanted to kind of respond to that by not being too rigid in the organization of it,” says Hertz.
This approach gives off a slightly confusing image; it feels like being in a teenager’s bedroom during his punk phase. Hertz took care to provide historical context, and to connect the artwork to posters from previous movements. The exhibit also attempts to center around what Hertz views as being most characteristic of the movement.
“So we really think of the encampment as being something very special about Occupy. It’s what defines Occupy in many ways, and we then looked back to strikes, to sit-ins, to other kinds of encampments, and the power of being able to take over public space as a site from which you make your statements, whether it be about, um, economic injustice, or racial injustice, etc,” explains Hertz.
When asked whether it’s too soon to tell what the long-lasting effects of the movement will be, Hertz said it is never to early to consider those questions. Rather, she sees the exhibit as part of keeping the movement alive, not marking its decline. She thinks the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has an important roll to play here, too.
“We are in the position to respond very quickly, and to hopefully be able to be a platform for continuing the dialogs that were happening on the streets, and to bring those dialogs to a broader audience because not everyone was participating in the Occupy movement,” says Hertz.
The exhibition brought in Jim Dunn Woody and his wife from Petaluma. They were never involved in the movement, but consider themselves supporters. When asked about the vitality of the movement today Jim says: “I guess it just kind of petered out … It wore itself out maybe.”
Artists Chuck Sperry and Jon-Paul Bail say it’s a bit early for this kind of exhibit. Still, Bail says it’s exciting to have the Yerba Buena Center recognize his artwork while it’s still on the streets. The posters going up in Oakland aren't actually allowed to be there.
“The word on the street is no political art on the streets of Oakland. Period. So all the money that’s usually spent cleaning up the bubble graffiti is being spent wiping out political posters for the first time, probably, in my lifetime," says Sperry. "And so it’s real hot right now that the poster has been institutionalized and is currently hanging at the Oakland museum and hanging now over at the city, and the poser is still at work, on the street, getting buffed by the system. So it’s pretty amazing that, you know, these posters are not done working, these posters are still working, these are working posters.”
But I think we can all agree that they are working now in a very different way. Once they were a direct call for action, and now they’re hanging in an art center. Even though there is very little happening on the streets today, maybe the simple act of appreciating the art of the movement can keep the Occupy message alive.