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Q&A: the subvertiser

Jeff is an artist and long time political activist. Frustrated by other means of protest he turned to the billboards in our neighbourhoods – often erected illegally and without planning permission – as his medium of choice for social comment. Reclaiming our streets from advertisers who target poor areas for their own profit, Jeff became a member of an ingenious political subculture. Enter the world of a West Country subvertiser…

Q: Who are you and what do you do?

A: My name is Jeff and I’m a “subvertiser”. I am responsible for changing billboards around Bristol – I add graphics and words to change the meaning of the advertisers’ slogans from one of commercialism to one that is anti-war, anti-capitalist and which presents an alternative view of the world. Bristol has always had a counter-culture history – it’s what brought me here and what keeps me here – and I’m just carrying that on by trying to provide an alternative to the prevailing materialist images that are absolutely everywhere. The standard view of the world that is fed to us through TV and newspapers and billboards is not the only one, you know?


What triggered your activities?

I’ve always been quite active in the culture of protest and had gone on a lot of demos. I read No Logo by Naomi Klein and learnt about ad-busters in the United States and was inspired by it. I was looking for an opportunity to get my message across – basically that the powers that be are not all they should be – and I wanted to make a visual statement, something different from signing a petition or whatever.


Can you remember the first billboard you altered?

Yes. It was in 2003, just before the Afghan war began and at that particular time there were loads of government “benefits cheat” billboards about, which I was particularly incensed by – it was a picture of a supposed benefits cheat person, and the slogan was “We’re on to you”. I changed the face of the person on the poster to Tony Blair’s face, kept the slogan “We’re on to you” and then added “Stop the War”.


Why didn’t you try a more traditional form of protest?

I do feel a bit of frustration about conventional ways of protesting. I’ve been on loads of marches and I still think it’s a valuable thing to do, but there’s a bit of an artistic streak in me and subvertising is a way of combining that creativity with protest. And also it’s a way of getting my art, if you want to call it that, out into the public arena. You could put something up in a gallery and not that many people would see it, but if you change a billboard by some technical means then many thousands of people go past every day and can see what you’re up to.

Why do you do it?

I do it because I feel burning frustration and unhappiness about the unfairness in the world.

What inspires you?

People who are prepared to stand up and say something different from the mainstream and follow their convictions. In terms of subvertising an advert has to either make me really cross to inspire me to change it, or it has to look really easy to change, like it’s crying out for the treatment!


What do you hope people get from seeing one of your subvertised billboards?

Firstly that it will make people smile and secondly that it will make them think. I hope I’m bringing people’s attention to an alternative message, raising awareness of various issues and opening a few eyes.


What’s your biggest achievement?

The fact that people have seen what I’ve done and have then gone out and done it themselves – that’s very satisfying. We have even done quite a few subvertising workshops, teaching how to do it, so being able to propagate the idea in that way is great.

Also, I remember when I’d done one of my first billboards, I went back to photograph it and a guy working for the billboard company was taking it down. I didn’t tell him I’d altered it, but started asking him what he thought about it all. At first he wouldn’t talk to me, but eventually he did and he said “These people are organised, you know. This is not just a couple of blokes coming home from the pub - these people are professionals”. I was very pleased by that!


Have you ever made any mistakes?

Occasionally I’ve got the sizes completely wrong. I’ve got to the billboard, looked at what I’ve printed out to stick up there and realized it’s way too small.

Another mistake I’ve made in the past is to not be obvious enough. I can get very fastidious about matching up the correct font when I’m changing words in a slogan. But I’ve learnt that it’s best to do some of the writing a bit wonky because that way people notice it and see it’s been changed. One particular time we matched everything up, even the background colour, and the result was that a lot of people missed it! Of course the other problem is, if you go too over the top with your changes, then the companies will be very swift to take it down. It’s quite tricky to get the balance right.

What’s your greatest fear?

That the walls of fortress Europe are going to grow higher and higher. As the effects of climate change produce even more refugees, Europe is getting more defensive. You can see it happening already with refugees from war that are being stigmatised and locked out and I think things are only going to get worse.

How do you actually go about changing a billboard?

I always carry a camera and when I spot a suitable billboard that inspires me I’ll take a photo of it. Sometimes I come up with an idea or sometimes I’m not quite sure what to do with it, so a group of us will get together and have a think. Once we’ve got the idea I manipulate the photo I took in Photoshop to see what it would look like - because I know the size of the actual billboard I can work out the size of any text or any photos that need to go on. I’m lucky because I have access to a large format printer so that makes it nice and easy. I paste together A4 or A3 sheets of the text or image we’re going to add and then go back to the billboard site in the daytime with our roller brushes and get pasting. We always do it in the day and try and blend in as much as possible on the grounds that if we were out there with our ladders at 2am that would look suspicious.


What gets you into trouble?

Well, I got arrested twice last year while protesting about Trident as part of the Faslane campaign. But subvertising has not got me into trouble… yet. Only if the billboard has planning permission is it criminal damage. But actually, a lot of the billboards don’t have planning permission and that’s another reason they make me so angry. These companies are taking over our streets and bombarding us with images without any permission from the people who live in those streets. It’s all part of the over-commercialisation of our world.

And you know what’s interesting? You never get billboards in posh areas. There are no billboards in Clifton! But come down to Bedminster and see how many there are.

What has life taught you?

You only get one go at it, so learn to deal with whatever’s thrown at you and keep smiling.

Words by Fiona McClymont

Photo by Jo Halladey

First published issue 52, spring 2008