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The Arts
10.17.07

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Photos courtesy Museum of Art and History
Department of Corrections: Santa Cruz artist Bob Stayton talks about the art and science of billboard modification tomorrow at the Museum of Art and History.

The Truth Behind "Truth in Advertising"

Bob Stayton prepares to reveal the secrets to one of Santa Cruz's most famous campaigns of civil disobedience

By Craig Gawlick


Gazing up at glistening bottles of Myers Rum on a giant billboard, one might not expect the tag line to read "My Liver's in Ruin." But back in local artist Bob Stayton's day, no billboard was safe from an arch twist on its original message.In the early-to-mid-1980s, Stayton led a group called Truth in Advertising whose members took it upon themselves to expose, as Stayton calls it, "the stupidity and harmful messages" of billboards. Before the digital age, this precise, clean way to alter billboards began with a Polaroid of a targeted billboard, a scale drawing and a carefully plotted out plan to alter the billboards late at night, usually featuring ads for cigarettes or liquor.

This went on for five years, with the police never catching the renegades and the company that owned the billboards never filing a complaint. Driven by "young idealism, combined with being fed up with the one-sidedness of the media, especially advertising," Stayton came up with the idea and recruited some friends.

Word got around about the billboards, with the Santa Cruz Sentinel running frequent stories about the billboard alterations. The Associated Press caught wind of the story; it ended up on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. As exciting as the publicity was, Stayton said it also created one major problem. "People started looking at the billboards more and more carefully, which probably helped the companies more than it hurt them," Stayton says.

An exhibit featuring before-and-after photos of the billboards, explanations on how the ads were altered and media clippings about the Truth in Advertising campaign is on view at the Museum of Art and History through Nov. 25. In conjunction with this exhibit, a special event put on by the Santa Cruz Film Festival is scheduled for this Thursday, Oct. 18, at 6pm. A talk by Stayton about his work and ideas will be accompanied by a screening of Popoganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English, an eye-opening documentary by Pedro Caravajal on the life and career of renegade artist and Stayton kindred spirit Ron English. English's morbidly obese Ronald McDonald was featured in the documentary Super Size Me. English also has done hundreds of similar subversive billboard alterations, becoming one of the most infamous culture jammers of our time.

At one time, Stayton was a wanted man, at least in theory. So why does he now feel it's safe to come out of hiding and declare the truth to the world, or at least Santa Cruz?

"I decided that it's been long enough," he said recently, adding with a chuckle, "I don't think I'm at risk anymore." That, and the reason the whole project ended in the first place: the city finally won a long legal battle in 1986 to have all billboard advertising removed.


BOB STAYTON talks about his work on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 6pm, followed by the film POPOGANDA: THE ART AND CRIMES OF RON ENGLISH, at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. Admission is $5. For information call 831.429.1964.


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