April 19, 2008

The Anti-Warhol

For Ron English, combating the power of advertising means turning the medium on its head.

Michael Gluckstadt

Most people see a billboard as a simple outdoor advertisement. An example of marketing in its purest form, it is a one-sided conversation in which a company shills its goods to the consumer. But to Ron English, a billboard is an opportunity. He sees each one as a potential platform for mischief, social action, and art.

For decades, English has been painting over billboards all over the world, subverting their messages with his own take on pop iconography. Whether it's an Apple ad in Manhattan with a picture of Charles Manson and the tagline "Think Different," or a drawing on a Nevada highway of a gun-toting, erotic-looking cow, English uses humor and his considerable artistic talent to shock viewers from routinely digesting advertisements. He brings the same irreverence to his paintings, which often feature famous works of art with some jarring alterations. Messing with people's expectations plays a major role in English's art. He tells Gelf, "I think it's most effective when it's just over the edge. You look at the billboard and for a moment you're not sure if it’s a culture jam. That's the kind of zone that you want to create."

Gelf spoke to English about his art, his critics, and how he feels about being a criminal (he's been arrested, but never imprisoned). In the photo-essay below, Gelf highlights some of English’s work with comments from the artist. (You can hear English, prankster extraordinaire Alan Abel, and Steve Lambert, founder of the Anti-Advertising Agency, talk about their work at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, April 24, in New York's Lower East Side.)

old woman
Originally, I was doing these photos. It was a school of photography called "Fabricated to Be Photographed," and everything in the photo actually had to be happening in front of the camera. It was like trick photography. When I was doing certain tricks that had billboards in the environment, it appeared that I was going out and painting the billboards.

The last thing I did was in Palestine over Christmas. We did some stuff on the separation wall.

Saddam's SUVs

When we started as painters, we thought of the billboards as art shows. Then after we all got arrested and were charged with felonies, we said we'd stop doing it. But we kept doing it. Then I lived in the House of Commons in Boston, which was a political activist house. So we did the billboards again, but with more of a political agenda.

Joe Camel

I don't like to pick on anyone, but Camel Cigarettes was making cartoon characters to sell cigarettes to children, so that was pretty egregious.


There are the companies driving the war machine for personal gain. I like to point that stuff out because I don't think people think too much about it.

Charlie Brown

Most people in art circles have an art education, and recognize, "Oh he's making fun of a Manet." Art is a lot like folk music, in that people pick up a tradition and then make it their own, suiting it to their situation and their times.

Van Gogh

I think of art as a common visual language. When something becomes an icon, it is embedded with a certain meaning. If you use that icon, its image is implicit in your work.


Imagine if they copyrighted words and I wasn't allowed to say something like "Chrysler." It would be very hard for me to criticize them. To me, it's just an extension of free speech. I don't put Bart Simpson on a T-shirt and use the imagery as a vehicle to sell T-shirts.

Marlboro kid

It's great to be a criminal, right? You're in pretty good company. It's hard to explain to your kids, because they think that if you break the law you go to jail and you're a criminal. But if you take out a history book, a lot of the people on the forefronts of social movements were considered criminals. We're just ahead of the curve. Maybe the bad guy is the one who owns and puts up all the billboards all over the neighborhood, selling people malt liquor and cigarettes.

sexy cow

I'm not out to get these guys. They just happen to have billboards, and I want my art on those billboards. I'm not anti-billboard. I know a lot of people were back then, trying to run them out of town. Maybe one guy realized that I love billboards just as much as he did.


Project Mayhem in Fight Club was a representation of what we do and Hollywood picked up on it. I thought it was pretty cool. There is a woman in Hollywood working on a film right now with characters based on me and some of my friends.


I think it's most effective when it's just over the edge of what they might do, and you look at the billboard and for a moment you're not sure if it's a culture jam. That's the kind of zone that you want to create.


One time, we had mechanical Ronald McDonalds feeding little kids. We set the whole thing up in just a few minutes before the police got there. Then we had lots of people dressed up in Ronald McDonald outfits bull-rush the scene to confuse the cops. Then they asked who painted the billboard, and someone would answer, "I don't know, one of the clowns."

John McCain

I used to do them by hand, but it's much more efficient with the computer. Now I can put up 10 of them at a time.

Ron English

I may have my critics, but since I don't go on the web, I'm not really aware of them.

Related on the web

English's official site.

• English is the subject of Pedro Carvajal's documentary film, Popaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

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