An edgy new national billboard campaign is using hip-hop and punk street team tactics, and original artwork from Shepard Fairey and other prominent counterculture artists, to inspire and energize voters in Black, Latinx and youth-heavy neighborhoods in advance of the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Co-founded by a veteran of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, Remember What They Did has teamed with Third Man Records in Detroit — as well as grassroots artists and activists across the country, including former Nine Inch Nails art director Rob Sheridan — for an in-your-face blitz that aims to shock while getting out the vote.
“Door-to-door canvassing doesn’t make sense during COVID, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t out delivering groceries to family members or getting gas,” says Scott Goodstein, who worked on the 2008 presidential campaign of Pres. Obama and the 2016 presidential campaign by Sen. Bernie Sanders. “So it was the perfect time to target specific neighborhoods with shocking, eye-opening art that will have some real facts.”
“We wanted to make sure we did not leave any stone unturned and reached out to every voter, because the mistake we make over and over is assuming the Democratic base will come out and vote,” he continues, citing statistics from the 2016 presidential race. In that election, vote turnout dropped 5% from Obama to candidate Hillary Clinton and the overall enthusiasm of Black voters was down between 7-20% in a range of states, age and population demos.
The billboard and street art campaign features controversial quotes from Pres. Trump with stark imagery depicting police brutality, hate speech, the caging of immigrant children, white nationalist gatherings and bodies ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic overlaid, with infamous quotes such as “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” “That’s going to sort of just disappear, I hope” and “Even if the world goes to hell in a handbasket, I won’t lose a penny.”
Goodstein, who also founded the Punk Voter and Rock Against Bush organizations earlier in his career, says the alarming images and quotes are meant to drive the vote in underrepresented communities that are not typically targeted in mainstream political advertising. The veteran grassroots organizer encourages those interested to visit the Remember What They Did site, where they can pledge to vote, register to vote, learn about early voting, or help to crowdfund more billboards in battleground cities across the country.
Voices of Michigan founder and veteran rocker Gretchen Gonzales Davidson (Slumber Party) tells Billboard it was a “no brainer” to team up with Goodstein and Remember What They Did co-founder artist Robin Bell after seeing the images they pulled together for the campaign in what they all agreed is the most important election of our lifetimes. “Because of the pandemic, we have to think of alternate ways to connect,” says Davidson. “We can’t share information door-to-door or in-person, so we are using art and visuals to connect with one another in a bigger way.”
Davidson’s group has brought together “musicians, creatives, makers and doers” who she says are tired of the polarization they’ve seen among their family, friends and community over the past four years. Like Goodstein, she hopes the powerful billboards, posters and stickers will remind young voters how much is at stake and how their vote can have a major impact. “We want to make access to voting a simple and effective experience, not a burden,” she says. “These images will act as our voice, help to unite the community, create a domino effect for the spread of information, and ignite change.”
Goodstein and Bell — best known for his video projections on the Trump Hotel in D.C. — tapped into the long history of punk and hip-hop spreading the word through street art and guerrilla marketing campaigns in an effort to, literally, get word out on the street in four battleground cities: Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Phoenix. To date, 4-6 billboards have gone up in key neighborhoods in each city, accompanied by a poster street art campaign led by local partners.
One of those key partners is Jack White’s Third Man Records, which is serving as a hub for distributing posters around Detroit and in their store. “With Michigan and Detroit playing a hugely important role in the coming election, the team reached out and for us it was a must to get involved,” Third Man Detroit’s Roe Peterhans tells Billboard. “We’re incredibly passionate about affecting change with this election, and when we can help make that happen through art and music, we’re happy to provide powerful imagery that communicates to young voters we share in their frustrations. We believe that impactful visual art and music can influence people to vote.”
Sensing that seeing their frustrations interpreted through art and music could inspire young voters, Peterhans says the “palpable current of incredible frustration” in the country is given voice in the images, which he praised for their diverse range and power. In addition to the Third Man Detroit location acting as a hub to distribute the posters and stickers for people to take home or throw up around town, the outlet will also offer voting information for Michiganders, with each free poster containing a QR code that will help you request an early absentee ballot.
In addition to Bell and Fairey (creator of the iconic Obama “HOPE” poster), other social justice artists on board with the campaign include Nekisha Durrett, Nate Lewis, Rafael Lopez, Robert Russell, Sheridan and Swoon (Caledonia Curry).
“My art piece is a reminder that while the American public was protesting in the streets, in record numbers, against racism and police brutality, Donald Trump was encouraging police brutality against the protesters — reinforcing the very same problems within law enforcement and the criminal justice systems the protesters were demanding to be reformed,” says Fairey in a statement. “This image implies that the police are supposed to be peacekeepers, not warriors, and that Donald Trump is on the wrong side of social justice and the wrong side of history!”
NIN collaborator Sheridan adds, “We’ve been dragged through four years of madness, misery, anxiety, sadness, and anger” in a statement. “Our country has become more toxic, more violent, more divisive, and now, more deadly. My piece is a reminder of the most frustrating truth: That the chaos agent sitting atop our national wreckage DOESN’T CARE. He doesn’t care about you, or me, his supporters, our country, our future, or ANYTHING except himself. We’re tearing ourselves to pieces under the sadistic whims of a narcissistic boyking; we can’t afford four more years.”
With almost 40% of voters not reached by traditional political ads, Goodstein says it’s more important than ever this year to employ the kinds of non-traditional means he learned early in his career when he was a college field rep for Sony Music, handing out stacks of posters and stickers to eager music fans who he hoped would spread the word. That’s why you can buy one of the Remember What They Did posters for $10, or an armload for $50. He’s also asking potential backers to help crowdfund more of the 40 x 48 billboards. So far the effort has also gained support from Offspring guitarist Noodles and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, among others.
“We’re going into neighborhoods that don’t see these types of street campaigns like you would in Los Angeles or New York when a major record or movie comes out, and you might glaze over it,” says Goodstein. “But when you see something shocking like this, speaking on issues that not every politician is talking about, it wakes you up.”
Check out some of the images below.