Last Friday night, a group of about 100 people crowded into the back room at Canter’s, the iconic 24-hour Jewish Deli in Los Angeles’s Fairfax District. Some nursed cups of coffee or devoured pastrami sandwiches — but they hadn’t come to eat, they had come to protest. Earlier that day, the United States Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion. The multi-generational group had gathered at the behest of artist Robbie Conal, who needed an army of volunteers to put up his latest poster bearing the ghoulish countenances of the five justices who voted to strike down Roe (as well as Justice Roberts, whose opinion concurred with their judgment). In case Conal’s message wasn’t clear from the grotesque depictions, a bold, yellow text reading “SUPREME INJUSTICES” left no doubt.
“It’s infuriating and horrific, unconscionable, a crime against women and human beings,” the artist told Hyperallergic. “These guys are out of their fucking minds, and they’re not stopping.”
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Conal has been practicing his brand of public guerrilla art since the mid-1980s, when he first took to the streets to paste up satirical posters featuring his stark black-and-white depictions of Ronald Reagan and his cabinet. Since then, he has produced over 100 street posters, targeting politicians, media figures, and leaders of all stripes. A network of volunteers helps disseminate them in cities across the country.
Conal’s last national public poster campaign was in 2018, when his image of Rudy Giuliani looking like a zombie with sunken eyes and bared teeth was plastered on telephone boxes and construction sites from California to New York. He had been laying low since the beginning of the pandemic, painting quietly in his studio, when the draft opinion signaling that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe was leaked in May.
“When I realized what the Supreme Court was gonna do for women’s freedom of choice, I got really mad,” he recalls. “I ripped through six portraits in a week and a half.” Working with his wife, the film title designer Deborah Ross, the pair designed a poster based on the six paintings and overlaid text and printed 1,500 copies.
“Then it’s a matter of whether the troops are still around after all these years,” he said of his volunteer network.
Serendipitously, Conal had already been planning the postering event for last Friday at 10pm when the Supreme Court’s announcement was made that morning. He expected about 25 people, but over 100 showed up. The artist passed out rolls of posters, buckets, brushes, and wallpaper paste, and the guests set out in small groups to cover the city with the ominous caricatures. (Conal also provides volunteers with a Guerilla Etiquette guide so civil disobedience doesn’t cross the line into private property damage, arousing police attention.) He estimates about 400 posters went up, from Venice to Los Feliz.
For many of the participants, the event felt like history repeating itself. Thirty years ago, Conal created two posters when pro-choice activists feared that Roe would be overturned by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. (The court actually reaffirmed abortion rights in a narrow five to four decision in that case, but upheld other limitations to abortion.)
In 1992, Conal created his “Gag Me with a Coat Hanger” poster featuring Justice Rehnquist to protest a “gag rule” prohibiting federally funded clinics from referring patients to doctors who performed abortions. One of his volunteers was Mary-Jane Wagle, then a board member of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, who approached him about creating another poster.
“In the late ’60s, all of us were protesting Vietnam, and I was struck by how much it meant to have really well-crafted posters and artwork as part of demonstrations,” Wagle said in a phone interview. “In my view, that lends greater credibility and power to protests.”
The pair designed a poster featuring Clarence Thomas and five justices who had recently upheld the “gag rule.” The illustration shows the justices replacing the phrase “Freedom of Choice” with “Freedom from Choice.” Wagle and her friends, a group of women whom Conal dubbed the “Guerrilla Matrons” after the Guerrilla Girls, met at Canter’s with the artist to plot their poster campaign. Eventually, 25,000 posters were printed and sent to Planned Parenthood chapters across the country, bringing the message to 73 cities, according to Conal.
Several of the Guerrilla Matrons were back at Canter’s last Friday, along with their daughters and granddaughters.
“Using art to make a statement is a really valuable thing, but it’s incredibly discouraging that we’re here again,” Wagle said, adding that her dismay was tempered by solidarity and support. “To be able to do this that very night was truly therapeutic. It helped cement our conviction that we have to fight for this right.”
Wagle’s daughter Marika was a teenager when she accompanied her mother to put up “Freedom From Choice” posters in 1992. Last week, she was back at it, this time with her 20-year-old niece and her friends, who headed out to Beverly Hills to poster. She doesn’t expect the posters to change the minds of those who oppose abortion, but hopes they remind pro-choice advocates “that we can’t shut up”: “If we don’t keep pushing the needle, nothing’s going to change.”
Singer-songwriter Inara George took part last Friday as well, pasting along Hollywood Boulevard with her friend Liz Dean, just as the pair had done thirty years ago. “So many people put their lives in danger to change these laws, it’s disheartening,” she said, adding that the act of postering “is definitely cathartic, just to feel like you’re doing something.”
The way we consume media has changed exponentially since Conal began his guerrilla practice almost forty years ago, but he still sees the power of old-school image distribution (especially if it can be signal-boosted through social media), both for the public who sees the posters and those who help share them.
“You take your positivity where you can find it. These people were so revved up and rightly so,” he says. “My mantra is ‘apply what you do best to what you care about most.’ I can draw and talk smack. That’s it.”