Pranks R Us

the billboard liberation front manual

The Billboard Liberation Front has been successfully improving outdoor advertising since 1977.

We hope you find the following primer fairly useful and comprehensive.

In this primer we have detailed methods for alterations ranging from the smaller easily accessible boards, to massive, difficult to work on freeway messages.

We realize that it is not necessary to go to the elaborate lengths and obsessive precautionary methods that the B.L.F. has in order for an individual or group to make a message to the public. A can of spray paint, a blithe spirit, and a balmy night is all you really need.

There are many different reasons for wishing to alter or in other ways improve an existing advertisement. In this primer we have avoided ideology and attempted to stick to methods and practical information only.

1) Choosing a board

2) Preparation

a) Accessibility

b) Practicality

c) Security

d) Illumination

3) Graphic layout, lettering/image design

a) Scale

b) Color match

c) Letter style

d) Application

4) The Hit

a) Personnel

b) Communications

c) Escape

5) Daytime Hits

6) Postscript

1) Choosing A Board

Once you have determined which billboard message you wish to improve you may want to see if there are multiple locations with the same advertisement. If there are a number of boards you should determine which one(s) will give your message optimum visibility. A board on the central freeway will obviously give you more exposure than one on an obscure side street. You must then weigh the location/visibility factor with other crucial variables such as physical accessibility, potential escape routes, volume of foot and vehicular traffic during optimum alteration hours, etc.

In choosing a board keep in mind the most effective alterations are often the simplest. If you can totally change the meaning of an advert by changing one or two letters you'll save a lot of time and trouble. Some ads lend themselves to parody by the inclusion of a small image or symbol in the appropriate place (a skull, radiation symbol, happy face, swastika, vibrator, etc.). On other boards perhaps the addition of a "cartoon thought bubble" or spoken word "bubble" for one of the characters might be what is needed.

These are some of the factors you may wish to consider in selecting a board. Other important considerations such as security, accessibility etc. are touched on later.

2) Preparation

a) Accessibility

b) Practicality

c) Security

d) Illumination

a) Accessibility

How do you get up on the board? Will you need your own ladder to reach the bottom of the board's ladder? Can you climb the support structure? Is the board on a building rooftop and if so can it be reached from within the building or from a fire escape or perhaps from an adjoining building?

b) Practicality

How big are the letters and/or images you would like to change? How close to the platform at the bottom of the board is your work area? If you need ladders to work the board, occasionally they may be found on platforms on or behind the board or on adjacent boards or rooftops.

On larger boards you can rig from above and hang over the face to reach points that are too high up to reach from ladders or the platform below. We don't recommend this method unless you have some climbing and rigging experience. Hanging in one position your work area in very limited laterally. Your ability to leave the scene quickly diminishes proportionately to how convoluted your position has become. Placing huge words or images obviously entails more difficulty.

c) Security

After choosing your board go by it during the day and at night. Take note of all activities in the area. Who is about at 2:00 a.m.? How visible is your work area (both in front of and behind the board)? How visible will you be while scaling the support structure? Keep in mind you may (will) make noise; are there any apartment or office windows nearby? Is anyone home? Walk lightly if you're on a rooftop; who knows who you're walking over.

What is the visibility to passing cars on surface streets and freeways? What can you see from your work position on the board? Even though it is very difficult to see a figure on a dark board at night, it is not impossible. Any point you have line of sight vision with is a point you can be seen from.

How close is your board to the nearest police station or CHP H.Q.? What is their patrol pattern in the area? Average response time to Joe Citizen's call? You can get an idea by staking out the area and observing. Is it quiet at night or is there a lot of foot traffic? When the bars let out will this provide cover -- i.e. drunks keeping the cops busy or will it increase the likelihood of detection by passers-by? Do they care? When you've definitely been spotted it may pay to have your ground people check them out rather than just hoping they don't call the cops. Just don't let them connect you with a vehicle. Have your ground person(s) pretend to be chance passers-by and find out what the observer thinks. We've been spotted at work a number of times. Most people were amused. You'll find that most people, including officials, don't look up unless given a reason to do so.

Go up on the board prior to your hit. Get a feel for being there and moving around on the structure at night. Bring a camera. These are great cover for doing anything you're not supposed to: "Gee, officer, I'm a night photographer and there's a great shot of the Bay Bridge from up there ..."

Check out your escape routes. Can you cross over rooftops and leave by a fire escape across the block? etc. etc.

d) Illumination

Most boards are brightly lighted by floodlights of some type. Most large boards are shut off some time between 11:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. by a time clock control somewhere on or near the board. Smaller boards frequently are controlled by photo- electric cells or conventional time-clocks, also somewhere on the board. If you find the photo-electric cell you can turn the lights on the board off by taping a small flashlight directly into the cell's "'eye." This fools the unit into thinking it is sunrise -- the time the light are supposed to turn off.

As noted, most larger boards are controlled by time-clocks. These can be found in the control panels at the base of the supports structure and/or behind the actual board itself. These panels are often locked (particularly those at the structure's base). Unless you are familiar with energized electrical circuitry and devices of this type we caution you to wait until the clock shuts itself off at midnight or so. Many of these boards run 277V or 220V service and will cook you well-done.

3) Graphic Layout, Lettering/Image Design

a) Scale

b) Color match

c) Letter style

d) Application

a) Scale

If you are changing only a small area (one letter, a small symbol, etc.) you probably do not need to go to any elaborate lengths to match or design your "overlay" (we'll use this term to describe the finished image/lettering you'll be applying to the board). Just take actual measurements or tracings directly off the board.

If however, you intend to create overlays of great size and/or number of letters and you want the finished image to look as much as possible like the advertisers themselves had made it, you should plan on more elaborate preparation.

Find a position roughly level with the board and in direct line with it looking square on (200 to 1000 or so feet away). Photograph the board from this position and make a tracing from a large print of this photo. Using measurements you have taken on the board (height, width, letter height, etc.) you can create a scale drawing of your intended alteration. Now you can determine how large your overlays will need to be and what spacing will be required between letters.

b) Color Match

There are two basic ways to match the background and or letter/image colors.

1) On painted or paper boards you can usually carve a small (1" x 1") sample directly off the board. This does not always work on older painted boards which have many thick layers of paint.

2) Most large paint stores carry small book paint samplers. It is possible to get a pretty close match from these samplers. We suggest sticking to solid colors and relatively simple designs for the maximum visual impact.

c) Letter Style

If you wish to match a letter style exactly, pick up a book of different letter types from a graphic arts supply. Use this in conjunction with tracings of existing letters to create the complete range of lettering needed for your alteration. You can convincingly fake letters that aren't on the board by finding a closely matching letter style in the book and using tracings of existing letters as a guide for drawing the new letters.

d) Application

We recommend not using overlays much larger than 4' x 3'. If your message is larger you should section it and butt the sections together for the finished image. It gets very windy on boards and large paste-overs are difficult to apply. Some nights you get condensation on the boards and the areas to be covered need to be wiped down. Use heavy pattern paper for your overlays and gloss lacquer paint. The lacquer paint suffuses the paper, making it super tough, water resistant and difficult to tear. For making your overlays, roller coat the background and spray paint the lettering through cardboard cut-out templates of the letters. For extremely large images or panels you can use large pieces of painted canvas. The canvas should be fairly heavy to avoid its being ripped to shreds in the wind that most boards experience. You can glue and staple spanner 1" x 4" boards the entire horizontal length and bottom line of the canvas. The canvas will then roll up like a carpet for transportation and can be unrolled over the top of the board and lowered into place by ropes.

You can either tie the four corners and middle (top and bottom) very securely, or, if you can access the face of the board either by ladder or rope, you could attach the panel by screwing the 1" x 4" spanners to the board behind. You'll need a good battery powered drill for this. We recommend hex head "Tek" sheet metal screws, #8 or #10 size. Use a hex head driver bit for your drill. These screws work well on either wood backboards or sheet metal.

To level your overlay panels on the board, measure up from the bottom (or down from the top) of the board to bottom line of where it needs to be in order to cover the existing copy. Make small marks at the outermost left and right-hand points. Using a chalk snap line with two people, snap a horizontal line between these two points. This line is your marker for placing your overlay(s).

Although there are many types of adhesive which could be used, we recommend rubber cement. Rubber cement is easily removable (but if properly applied will stay up indefinitely) and does not damage or permanently mark the board's surface. This becomes crucial if, after your apprehension, the authorities and property owners start assessing money lost due to property damage.

Application of rubber cement on large overlays is tricky. You need to evenly coat both the back-side of the paste-over and the surface of the board that is to be covered. Allow 1-2 minutes drying time before applying the paper to the board.

To apply the cement use full sized (10") house paint rollers and a 5 gallon plastic bucket to hold your cement. Have one person coat the paste-over backs while another coats the board surface.

Both people will need to affix the coated paste-over to the finished board surface.

4) The Hit

a) Personnel

b) Communications

c) Escape

Once you've completed all the preparations and are ready for the actual hit, there are many things which can be done to minimize the risk of apprehension.

a) Personnel

Have the smallest number of people possible on the board. Three is about optimum; two for the actual work and one lookout/communications person. You will probably require additional spotting teams on the ground (see below).

b) Communications

For work on larger boards where you will be exposed for great lengths of time we recommend hand held communications devices (C.B. units or F.M. band walkie-talkies) if you have access to them.

Have one or two cars positioned at crucial intersections within sight of the board. The ground unit(s) should monitor oncoming traffic and maintain radio contact with the lookout on the board. (Note: Do not use the popular C.B. or F.M. channels; there are many others to choose from.)

A verbal code is a good idea since others do have access to comm channels you'll be using.

It is crucial that your ground crew(s) do not lounge around outside their vehicle(s) or in any other way make it obvious that they are hanging around a (probably) desolate area late at night for no reason. A passing patrol car will notice them much sooner than they would ever notice you on the board. KEEP A LOW PROFILE.

c) Escape

If you've done your homework you'll know the terrain surrounding the board quite well. In the event of detection you should have a number of alternate routes out of the area, and a rendezvous point with your ground support crew(s). If a patrol is approaching and you are in a difficult spot for quickly ditching and hiding (hanging on a rope in the middle of the board, for instance) it may be better to simply stay still until they pass by. Movement is often more likely to catch the casual eye. Once on the ground and if pursuit is imminent you may be much safer by hiding. If you've covered the terrain carefully you'll be aware of any good hiding spots. Keep in mind that if the police do a thorough search (doubtful but not impossible) they will use high-powered spot lights and flashlights on foot.

Stashed clothing in your hiding spot may prove useful. A business suit perhaps, or rumpled & vomit encrusted leisure wear. Be creative.

5) Daytime Hits

We don't recommend this method for most high boards on or near freeways and major roads. It works well for doing smaller boards lower to the ground where the alteration is relatively quick and simple. If you do choose to work in the light, wear coveralls (company name on the back?) and painters' hats and work quickly. Keep an eye out for parked or passing vehicles bearing the billboard company or advertiser's name. (Each board has the company emblem bottom center on it.) If you're on a "'Sleaze Co." board and a "Sleaze Co." truck pulls up you're probably in trouble. It is unlikely that the workers will try to physically detain you (try bribery). But they will probably call the cops.

6) Postscript

If anyone reading this primer finds it of any use in their own advertising endeavors we at the B.L.F. will consider it successful.

We felt that roadside advertising enhancement is a pass-time more individuals should engage in. It's really not that difficult to do smaller, low to the ground boards. A quick "Hit & Run" on such a board will not require all of the elaborate preparations and precautions we have detailed.

The more "real" messages we have on the freeways and streets the better.

—R. O. Thornhill , B.L.F. Education Officer

AIM HIGH

Once upon a time there were 5 tree planters from a cooperative who, having worked very hard, took a vacation in Seattle. They saw a billboard which had a very phallic jet aircraft torqueing across the sign with the caption "Aim High." So they did.

People went onto the board, measured and got color samples. They pasted red painted letters onto white butcher paper, got squeegees and other gear, and one evening rush hour they posted a person at one end of the freeway bridge next to the board, and another near an on-ramp in the opposite direction; all armed with walkie-talkies. The others wheat-pasted the paper onto the sign.

Most observers were amused; the others were much more emphatic, even hostile. One father-son team got out and demanded that the crew "COME DOWN HERE RIGHT NOW!!!" The young vandals explained that they just had a job to do and ignored these "Love it or Leave It" types. The traffic flow soon compelled the all-American duo to leave; indeed, it was so heavy that even with immediate warning—had cellular phones been invented—the cops would have taken minutes to arrive.

Within 15 minutes the sign was corrected and our heroes departed, leaving their spattered overalls and equipment in a friend's boat, which was anchored in one of the city's canals. To celebrate they sought out a local bar, whose tinted windows turned out to have a commanding view of the scene of the crime. As they entered it was clear that virtually everyone had watched them; they were fingered ... and the room broke into cheers.

They had relaxed for perhaps 20 minutes when the police arrived like gangbusters, looking for people to assist them in their inquiries. As nobody had seen a thing, the cops left.

By noon the board had been covered with the same sign. It looked great ... until the next winter rain, when the added letters ghosted through the wet paper: next to "Aim High" were the words "Blow Up The Pentagon!"

"You do Boards Too?"

Our story begins long, long ago ... even the statute of limitations has run.

I've never been at my best at 3:30 in the morning; being acutely nervous doesn't help the experience. In the predawn darkness our voices are muffled as we wake and drink some coffee, some alcohol: Slivovitz. We leave silently, carrying anonymous black knapsacks, dressed in dark colors, wearing felony shoes (sneakers), get into our vehicles and depart.

At the prearranged area we park out of sight of each other, retrieve our sacks and bundles (rolls of paper, painting rollers with long handles, what are those—mops?) and walk calmly to the board. It's one we've hit before so we know access and visibility. Hopefully the watch teams are in place in each direction. We won't know until we all get home—or we are warned of an approaching cop by a blinking flashlight.

The board is low, so one person will work on the ground. The nimblest climbs up first, then the heaviest. Mops are passed up, a bucket appears, and plastic bottles (here now, what's this? starch?) are emptied. On the ground the rolls are unfurled and wetted lightly with a mop, while above another wets the paper of the billboard the same way. The awkward sheet is handed up, maneuvered into position, pressed down, then rolled firmly. The process is repeated for another large piece, then for two small ones.

We are interrupted by happy cries from the street—skateboarders! One of them calls his friend over—unable to believe his eyes. His friend misses us at first, then focuses. They ask what we're doing, and I tersely explain "We're correcting this billboard." They watch for a minute before heading down University Ave. We rapidly finish our work and collect our tools. The ground person has already vanished around the corner when we dismount and walk away calmly, pausing for a moment to admire our handiwork. A sign which used to advertise a condominium village in Richmond with the slogan "Once a Great Notion / Now a Great Life" now reads "Once a Great Nation / Now a Great Lie." A banner with 20" tall letters reading "US Out of North America" covers the real advertiser's name. (Let us not get into a debate about whether it has ever been all that great; we went for the cuteness.)

We corrected about a dozen boards in about a year. We were inspired by another group in Berkeley which was altering Selective Service registration boards ("It's Quick / It's Easy / It's the Law / Men turning 18 must register at the Post Office"). They had substituted—perfectly—the word "Deadly" for "the Law." Our first attempt was not as polished: we replaced the third line with ours, which read "It's a Trap for Assholes." We specialized in these signs, our alterations including "It's the Pig's Law" and "Men turning 18 must register at the morgue." We also hit other targets of opportunity.

We used rolls of colored artist's paper from various stores; originally we tried spray-painting but gave it up as too much work and too expensive. We made letters with the appropriate color of paper and applied them with white glue. The actual application to the board was done with ordinary laundry starch. It only works on paper or cardboard signs, but it is cheap and easy to obtain. (We'll point out that we saw this as fun & worthwhile & all that, but also as training for more adventurous endeavors. We had read "Traces"—a manual useful for those who perform actions which they do not want to be caught doing— emphasizing the use of untraceable, ordinary items, and lots of caution about pieces of the perpetrator remaining on the crime- scene, and vice-versa.) We were indifferent to the ease of removal—we figured that the workers who did so would be paid anyway.

One afternoon I saw a worker replacing an SS board that we had hit; we worked furiously, made calls, assembled the team, and had a newer—better—version up by 4:00 the next morning. Fast service!

We never went onto a board in advance; a certain feeling that it wasn't all that necessary and that it exposed you unduly. In fact, some LAGgards (Livermore Action Group—an anti-nuke group) were caught measuring on a board and charged with trespassing. Needless to say, they also became some of the "usual suspects" for any billboard operations in the area. We worked with photos and visual inspections on foot, as we were mostly hitting small boards in urban areas. Freeways are a different matter.

Most of our work was "corrections" and small alterations. We learned the hard way that what the BLF says about small pieces of paper is not just a good idea; it's a law of nature. We only tried to take over a whole board once. A dozen of us were involved—tremendous racket, lots of work, big failure. If we had scouted first we would have known that this beast was enameled metal. Our staple-guns and starch were ineffectual. At least we got the size right. They closed off the access after our attempt. Ah well. Wish we'd had the BLF's manual then.

Unwilling to limit ourselves to existing "authorized" locations, we also hung banners—large ones. Both were initiated by others; we merely provided "technical assistance." One, strung across the last overpass before the toll plazas on the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge, was in honor of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Imitating a movie marquee it read "LEBANON - Featuring: A Casket of Thousands / A US-Israel Production." It went up at 6:30 a.m.; CalTrans crews took this cotton sheet & rope creation down in less than a hour, but not before countless people saw it.

The other was done in support of a LAG blockade, and was a light paper/balsa sign that read simply "US Navy Supports the Livermore Blockade." Intrepid climbers were dropped off on Treasure Island (a US Navy & Coast Guard property) at about 6:15am. They climbed up and hung the banner above the tunnel for west-bound traffic. We had several cars, each making a quick automotive stop—with excuses ready—on the lower deck (east bound) periodically until the party was retrieved (or captured). The sign was quickly removed, but at least one AM radio DJ reported it, wondering idly if the Navy knew about it. A cautionary note here—we were VERY careful about these—if your sign comes down on traffic it will be very counter-productive. Make sure the sign can be removed safely.

We also did a spraypraint campaign—about a hundred stencils in 1/2 mile and 1 mile arcs, as well as BART stations, ATMs, schools, etc. We painted a silhouette of the U.C. Berkeley campanile with a red ball over it, and a caption: "Ground Zero / Range (1/2 mile, 1 mile) / Wind Speed (2400, 1700 mph) / All structures reduced to rubble. Result: You are Dead." On churches and hospitals we changed the "Result" line to read "This structure unavailable for emergency services." (We love bad puns.)

You want to be careful with stencils; one of us applied anti-nuke slogans to the labels of cans going to a local "national security" company. His boss called him in and told him that he had just finished reassuring the place's head of security that the person who had done it was fired (the FBI proved that the paint was applied before the labels were put on the cans). Fortunately for him, his boss had lied.

So, what's the point ? Get out there and have fun; spread the good word! Sometimes it's disheartening—you'll find that lots of people never look at billboards, and some people who do don't see what it really says. But such methods represent alternate communications that subvert commercial and social space.

Hope to see your writing on the wall, real soon, everywhere!

And remember—Be careful; Be funny; Be Audacious.

—Unos de Nosotros