Artist as Activist: Poster Syndicate, and “Buy War Bonds” at Grael Gallery

by Admin on 04/10/2017


The role of the artist in society is constantly changing and evolving. This is due to the ways in which artwork questions, comments and responds to societal norms and current issues. Creating a visual portrait of a particular time, art functions like a mirror. Through its prism, it reflects the surrounding culture, asking, in a way, how we are being and how to relate the external and internal of our human experiences. It comments on the choices we make through various forms of juxtaposition, irony, allegory and metaphor. Do artists have an innate responsibility to speak out against political injustice. What does it mean to have a visual platform and how do artists utilize their talents and passions for positive change?

Political and revolutionary posters have played an important role in the United States. The counter-culture movement in the 1960s was led in part by the psychedelic graphics that were being produced as a critique of or a commentary on current leaders and culture of society. There was an influx of political ephemera like pins, posters and pamphlets during this era. The prerogative was information to the masses, to disrupt the way people were receiving information and understanding the political landscape. There was escalating inertia in revolting, speaking up and creating community through communication.

Political posters must be viewed as potent graphic statements in their own right, not just because they are aesthetically engaging, but also because of what they are. There is a graphic urgency and polemical force of a revolutionary renaissance in the U.S right now. Contextualizing the purpose of political posters, the medium provokes thought and contributes to an atmosphere of rebellion, liberation, and dissent.

Located here in San Francisco, Poster Syndicate is a political poster collective that was started at the San Francisco Art Institute by Art Hazelwood and two of his students. They started the project in spring of 2014. It grew out of the crisis around higher education: student debt and the abuse of adjunct faculty. From this jumping off point, they now work to bring art and design to many different people’s movements in hopes that their messages can be heard and seen more visibly. Their mission is to create dialogue and a diverse community’s voices present through art, specifically posters. They recently partnered with Clarion Alley Mural Projects, painting murals and are initiating live screen-printing events about once a month.

“We are continuing the tradition of posters as a form of political messaging.”

Members of the collective are students, community and union organizers, and local political artists that are all different ages and come from different backgrounds. This diversity allows the group to be engaged and aware of a variety of issues based on the different perspectives members bring to meetings. Poster Syndicate does not have a physical location, but they do work and partner with local spaces and also work out of member’s houses. The absence of a physical location forces the collective to be working within the community printing in the street, making it accessible and open. Their messages and actions are engrained in the physical landscape of the city.

Recent projects include live printing 1500 posters and handing them out at the Women’s March in downtown San Francisco as well as mailing 200 posters to the east coast for the March on Washington. These are huge accomplishments considering that the collective is relatively small. Their future initiatives are centered around sanctuary cities and continuing their mural in Clarion alley titled “Cultivating Resistance,” which is a direct response to the election of Donald Trump. They’re going to be focusing on issues such as reproductive rights and the defunding of Planned Parenthood, solidarity, claiming space and pushing back against the hateful racist, and xenophobic rhetoric of Trump and his administration.

“To make art now is an incredibly important task for those engaged with the community. Art is an expression of a viewpoint, an interpretation of the world. The world needs artists to reflect on the shit show that is our current political environment. Making art now is a civil duty. “ – Poster Syndicate

In a similar light, the newly established Grael Gallery’s first exhibition entitled “Buy War Bonds!” is an art auction to benefit the ACLU. Studio partners and friends, Spencer Davie and Trevor Ewald, founded the beautiful space in the mission. They wanted to create a place to support the local arts community, but also engage with arts to eliminate an overwhelming feeling of imminence.

The exhibition is based on the propaganda and war bond posters of WWII, an incredibly effective tool in inspiring patriotism and rallying the American people to actively participate in the then current war effort. In this conversation between past and present, participating artists examine contemporary issues regarding immigration, human rights, personal freedom and a myriad of other topics. The aim of the show is to inspire the same sense of duty and need to involve oneself in current affairs as the posters from this era of American idealism did.


Coming from a place of disenfranchisement and disillusionment, Davie and Ewald felt it was vital to open the gallery to allow the community to engage, process and heal. “Freedom of expression, those civil liberties are implicit to the art making process and if we as artists don’t take part in protecting them and aren’t intelligently engaged in the politics of it, we are going to lose the ability and the right to be involved and to make whatever we want.”- Trevor Ewald

These realities and intrinsic freedoms are highly important and valuable at a time when news sources we are being exposed to are very mediated and curated. Often, we are indirectly being controlled on what we do and don’t have access to: the politics of information.

Artists are working as activists in their practice to create something genuine and unique in response to the prevailing and/or manipulated political landscape; the balancing of one’s own voice and a revolution’s voice. From this resurgence, the time-tested strategies used in promoting the purchase of war bonds remind viewers again of what patriotism could feel like and what their civic duties are. When the personal becomes political it ensures a realization of broader societal issues that often point to a clearer articulation of the problem. “I think participation is important, especially when there is so much social upheaval. You have to be engaged. You have to be participating. It’s your society. It’s your community. It’s your country. These are all things you belong to.” – Spencer Davies


The closing party and auction for “Buy War Bonds” is Friday April 14th from 7:30pm-10:30pm. 1458 San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco.