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Keep Off Media(n): What’s (in) a sign?

Written By: daveski on December 24, 2008 3 Comments

Already more days have passed than I wanted since my first post on signs — I haven’t been carrying my camera around with me as I’ve been running around doing holiday shopping, bike has been in the shop, and with all the interesting things going on related to the end of the year, it takes some effort to focus on signs and the Thanksgiving bike ride I took, recording bits and pieces of the linguistic landscape between Berkeley and Livermore.

Yet I was enervated by the comments on the post and thought it especially interesting that the first sign I photographed on the ride–one of two signs on Shattuck Avenue between Vine and Center warning the public to “KEEP OFF MEDIA(N)”–was a kind of sign remarked on by katie_k and youki (also, Usree’s post mentioned below): namely, signs that have been altered, modified, amended (or “vandalized” in the eyes of the authorities) in meaningful ways unintended by their creators.

OK, enough of the long sentences. Here it is, from afar and close up:

From Thanksgiving Ride 2008
From Thanksgiving Ride 2008

(Note that these images and others I’m uploading are saved and geotagged on this Picasa (Google) web album. If you’re a Picasa or Google user and want to share your photos of signs with me, please add me as a contact. Or if you’d be willing to share your photos with me, please send them to me along with any location info and I can upload them in separate albums.)

This was Thanksgiving morning, November 27, 2008, a business holiday and cold morning at that. Nobody on the median. But those of you who have passed by this place often probably know that the grassy median between the four lanes of traffic on Shattuck is a favorite hangout for people eating Cheeseboard Pizza. I’ve done this too, and I have to admit it’s kind of cool to have a space for picnicking right there in front of the shop, except for the noise, the exhaust fumes, and, oh yeah, the chance of getting hit while crossing the street with a basket of slices and a coke. I did a little searching on Google Street View and actually found a scene that might look more familiar:


There are at least three things about these pictures that I find interesting. The first is (surprise, surprise) people are sitting on the median right below the “KEEP OFF MEDIAN” sign. So the questions of who obeys which signs, when, where, and why, etc. could come up, and would be interesting to look into. A later post.

The second interesting thing is the fact that in my photos from November this year, the final “N” from “MEDIAN” has been blocked out, changing the “MEDIAN” to “MEDIA” and transforming the message of the sign to “KEEP OFF MEDIA”. In the earlier Google image (which is, to be fair, from the other side of the street, so i’m not 100% positive both sides have been altered), the sign hasn’t been amended/defaced. This change seems doubly ‘transgressive’. First, people have taken over the ‘official’ space of the sign posted, we assume, by Berkeley city officials (anyone know the history on this?); second, the message itself brings to (my) mind all the progressive bumper stickers and other announcements telling us to “kill your TV” or “stop playing so many video games” (scary thought: does FIT count as media we should maybe give up?). The form of the words on the sign affords radical transformation of the sign’s meaning by virtue of the fact that they contain, look similar to, or can easily be changed to look like something else.

I’m starting to put examples of these kinds of “transgressive discourses” (this is the term that Ron Scollon and Suzie Wong Scollon use in their very interesting book Discourses in Place) on signs in a new album on Picasa. I’d love to see more in other languages and across geographic space and time. Usree’s “Signs from around the world” with the example of the Hindi sign with the word “forbidden” blocked out is a great example; one of the most subtle and powerful I’ve seen locally is the “POST MO BILLS” sticker you can (could?) see on telephone poles on Telegraph and close to downtown Oakland:

From “Transgressive Discourses”
From “Transgressive Discourses”

I wonder if anyone else has seen these…they blew me away at first! I don’t have space now to dig into the history of this or other inventive and subversive reversals of ‘official’ meanings, though I’d love to. The question I want to ask here, getting back to my question from last time of how to classify signs, is…how many signs are we looking at in the POST MO BILLS example, or the KEEP OFF MEDIA example, or others like them? Is there basically just one sign with its ‘intended’ official meaning (if there can be such a thing in the singular), such that spray paint, stickers, comments, and other later editings are seen as illegitimate? Are there two competing signs in the space of one, official meanings still coming across even as voices of protest or parody make themselves heard? Or have these signs been completely coopted, and authority overturned?

I’ll leave it at that for this post, and hope for some resolution as I head down the road. After all, I’ve only started making my way down Shattuck, and I’ve got 40 miles to go!

Oh, and as for the third interesting thing about the KEEP OFF MEDIA/N photos–the topic for my next sign post.

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3 Responses to “Keep Off Media(n): What’s (in) a sign?”

  1. Youki on: 24 December 2008 at 8:28 am

    I wonder why the “Prosecutors will be violated” text in the “Post Mo Bills” sign is in a smaller font size and lower. While I don’t want to read into it too much, the other similarities between the two signs makes me think it’s an intentional change.

  2. daveski on: 24 December 2008 at 11:00 am

    Interesting, yeah, the code seems to be foregrounded in the POST MO BILLS sign, and the “prosecutors will be violated” text much more subtle.

    I found an article that mentions “POST MO BILLS” as an example of “stencil graffiti”, which, the article says, “uses the street as its canvas. But where normal graffiti is executed freehand and as a one-off, stencil graffiti combines the Pop Art ethos of multiples with an aesthetic that mimics the punchy signage favoured by authority.”

    One of the people who I *think* is most popularly associated with this kind of thing is Shepard Fairey of “Obey Giant” fame, though the whole point is the underground anonymity of the movement, isn’t it?

    BTW, my pictures were actually taken in August 2004, and there were some comments on it in 2005 by UC Berkeley students in Korean language classes here.

  3. Jinny on: 27 December 2008 at 1:22 am

    Hum… I’m glad to know that there’s no “N” after “MEDIA” because I like eating the pizza on the grassy MEDIAN. Great!


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