PROPAGANDA TOUR
A bucket of glue and a trip to miami
Words by Jeff Wiesner
Photographs by Ben Woodward

On the bridge in Miami, with map, wheapaste, and posters.

Recently I was introduced to the world of street promotions. It all happened innocently enough – a friend of ours designed a poster advertising a new movie that would be coming out in theaters soon. He told the advertising company to contact us about putting up the posters in Philadelphia.
We’ve been doing that sort of thing anyway – wheatpasting. It’s when you put up a poster on the wall of a building or construction site with wallpaper glue. When we’ve done it, it’s always been our own artwork that we’ve screenprinted in our studio. It’s usually either to advertise a show we’re having, or just to have an outdoor exhibit of sorts. It’s a lot safer than graffiti because walking around town with a bucket of glue and a brush usually falls below the police radar of criminal activity. It’s also easier to clean up or go over, so I don’t feel so much like I’m destroying someone’s property.
As soon as we said yes to the advertising company, the boxes of posters started to arrive in the dozens. We got to know the UPS guy pretty well as our studio became a regular stop on his route. The shipments began to include stickers, stencils, promotional toys, and t-shirts. It was way more than we could ever post or distribute. A bulk of the product went to friends or the recycling plant. All we had to do was take a roll of photographs every other week and they would reply with our check, a handsome reward.
It seemed like we had the ultimate hook-up, that insider’s job that others only fantasize about: sleep all day, wake up at the crack of dusk, go out in the night for a couple hours to put up 24 exposures’ worth of posters, get paid.
In the process of doing this project I became friends with the girl who was our contact person for the advertising company. Her job was even sweeter: she traveled six months of the year between six major U.S. cities, asking kids our age to fill out a 20 minute survey about their favorite brand name products. What perfume do you wear? Who’s your favorite actor? She would buy drinks and talk with her friends from that city while kids sat at surrounding tables filling out the surveys. The participants would get paid $10 each which she would pull from her thick wad of bills. Sometimes she would let kids do multiple surveys to make some extra cash. “Just use a fake name and change up your handwriting a bit.” She didn’t care. We were all getting over.
As our movie promotion campaign was coming to an end, we found out that the contacts in Miami hadn’t been doing their job. In the past 2 1/2 months, not a single poster or sticker had gone up. We imagined the kids trapped in their apartment inundated by all the boxes and cartons of propaganda. The advertising company was more desperate and frantic than mad: How would they promote the movie to the Miami market with only two weeks before the movie’s release?
We’ll do it, I said. It seemed so simple they might even go for it. An important factor was that it was their only option. They agreed to send us there, and they offered to give us three months’ worth of pay for two weeks of work. They couldn’t pay our airfare, but with the amount we were getting paid we could easily afford that plus a hostel with plenty to spare. Besides, we were planning on doing it all in one week, not two: one roll of film a night for five days. And South Beach in December? What East Coaster could resist? It was the get over that just wouldn’t quit.
Though there were probably seven or 10 kids from our studio who had been helping to put up posters, Ben and I snagged the Miami job. We secured our flight and headed to the airport with our bikes in boxes, a bucket, a brush, and two small boxes of wheatpaste mix. Just add water and we’re your mobile propaganda unit.
We quickly realized that the communal atmosphere of the hostel wasn’t going to work for us. We would be storing our boxes of posters there, mixing our glue, going out late and coming back covered in wheatpaste. In a new city doing something that was slightly illegal, we thought it best to keep a low profile. We upgraded to a single room in the hotel portion of the establishment.

Ben mixes the paste in our hotel room.

We biked over to the kid’s house who had the propaganda for us to pick up. We were pretty proud of ourselves, two grimy art kids shipped in from Philly to take care of a Miami kid’s job that he couldn’t handle in his own hometown.
The Miami kid lived in a decent apartment with a couple other DJs. They all had regular gigs at the upscale nightclubs in town. He told us that Miami is a difficult town to wheatpaste. There are cops and people everywhere. Plus, wheatpasting had become so prevalent here that the city recently attached a $1000 fine to each offense.
Gulp. That last part made us pause for a moment. But we weren’t going to let this club kid discourage us. We took as many boxes as we could carry on our bikes – about six out of his 20 – and told him we’d come back later for the rest, which we never did.
We tried to get in touch with a friend of ours who published a renowned, nationally-distributed magazine on graffiti. Maybe he could suggest some choice spots to hit and even give a reaction to the comments from this DJ who was obviously shook.
We couldn’t get in touch with him the first night. Then Ben’s bike broke so he had to wait until morning for a bike shop to open and get it fixed. I didn’t feel comfortable going out wheatpasting by myself because it’s always good to have a lookout. However, we were on a strict five day schedule to shoot five rolls. “We’ll shoot two rolls tomorrow night,” Ben suggested. I was getting anxious and antsy, and I was wondering how legitimate the DJ kid’s concerns were. I had to do something with my nervous energy. I couldn’t stay in the hotel room all night watching cable.
Fuck it, I’ll go out by myself and just use the staple guns we brought. Then I find out that the staples were forgotten back in Philly. Okay, I’ll hit a hardware store along the way.
The strip we were staying on catered to the trying-to-be rich and extravagant. Something as practical as a hardware store was a rare occurrence and the few that I found were either closed or didn’t have staples. I settled for a couple rolls of packing tape. Anything to put up a few posters and get the first roll started.
By the end of the night I only had 15 photos. The DJ kid was right on one account: there were people everywhere. On the streets. In the alleys. Behind buildings. Police officers. Security guards. Club goers. Drunken foreign travelers.
Eventually I gave up on putting up posters and went on a long ride. Two hours up the coast, 1 1/2 back. Out of South Beach into the quiet, and then the soft murmur of the next town. Over dirt roads, side roads, and bridges to the sudden oasis of a 24 hour Walgreen’s. What time was it? I didn’t even know. It felt late.
I stopped at one town center and paused to observe the people coming in and out of the local bar. Got up two posters in between crowds.
The next night wasn’t significantly better. Ben was mobile again so we mixed the wheatpaste in our hotel room and headed out. Ben hit a few dumpsters around the corner from some busy nightclubs. I tried to feel useful as a lookout, since I didn’t have the commitment [read: balls] to wheatpaste amidst such a crowd. After some close calls, we both decided that South Beach was just too populated. We planned to go into the city the next day. Surely we could find some ducky alleyways in such a large metropolis. Furthermore, we would head out earlier in the day to avoid the evening crowd.
The next day we went over the bridge into the city. Just on the other side of the bridge was a huge wall covered with hip hop posters. We’d struck gold! We covered the wall with 20 posters. I took pictures from different angles – near, far, facing left, facing right – to make it seem like more than one spot. That became our theme for the trip as we never quite found the payload of wall space we had been hoping for. We traveled on bike for hours from upscale neighborhoods to shady ghettos in search of eligible surfaces that were few and far between. In a couple neighborhoods the drug dealers not only stood on corners but out in the middle of the street. A couple people were even on bicycles, which destroyed the usual feeling of invulnerability I have from being on a bike and having the ability to get away quickly from a bad situation. One guy actually followed us for a bit, but he turned out to be harmless.
“You were in what part of town?” We finally connected with our graffiti guy the next day. “Man, white people get shot in those neighborhoods and nobody asks questions.” Our insider’s perspective had come a bit late. Ben and I agreed that our days of postering in Miami were over. We spent our last day on the beach – not that either of us had brought any gear with us. We rolled up our pant legs and appreciated the fact that we had survived our propaganda tour without jail time, fines, or shootings.

Enjoying the ocean before our flight home.

We finished the fourth roll in Philly, careful not to get anything in the shot that would disclose its location. For the fifth roll I deliberately exposed a blank roll and blamed it on a faulty camera. To my surprise, a few weeks later we were paid in full.
It didn’t take long into this project for us to realize that as much as we were getting over on the ad company, they were getting over on us. We were out there risking our necks while they hid behind a middle man ( or a woman in this case). If we had been caught, arrested, or fined, they would immediately disown us and be untraceable. As much as we were getting paid, they must have been getting paid a ridiculous amount more from the movie company. This propaganda campaign took the place of any magazine advertising they would have done instead.

EPILOGUE
The advertising company contacted us again a month later, this time for a job that we couldn’t refuse. For the new movie they were promoting, “Skulls,” they were stamping one dollar bills with a skull logo from the movie. Our job was to “circulate” the money on college campuses. Hello? By “circulate” they meant spend. They wanted us to “accidentally” drop them on the ground in a bar. Tack one to a bulletin board. Leave one in the change slot of a public phone.
This job was the ultimate get-over. This was one to tell the grandkids. And to top it off, we would get paid to spend their money. All we had to do was send back some photo-graphs and a list of where we spent the money.
The wads of cash arrived in three separate FedEx envelopes, $500 each. Sure enough, over George’s mug was a skull stamp. Everyone at the studio had ideas on how to distribute the money. To discuss the possibilities, 15 of us went to a swanky brunch spot in West Philly – paid for by the Skulls, of course. On the way there we put dollar bills under a bus stop bench, in the holes of a gate, under the handle of a car door. On the way over the Walnut street bridge we let some fly out the window. We all laughed.

The 3 wads of cash.

Dollar bill hiding spot in a brick wall.

At brunch, Andrew told us about “Poo Dollars.” You put a spot of poo on a series of dollar bills and stick ‘em to the ground on a busy pedestrian walkway. The experiment: Will the average person keep the dollar once they realize it has poo on it? Is it worth a dollar to clean off some poo? How about three dollars? In the end, no one would poo in a bowl and spend an afternoon sticking dollar bills in it.
We talked about dropping bills off a pedestrian overpass. From a tree. Or how about just throwing a wad into a crowd and watching the people scramble?
We started to wonder about the implications of this project. What was the significance of this task? What does this say about distribution of wealth in our society? The guy outside our studio is asking for a quarter, and we’ve got 1500 dollars to litter around town.
We decided to put a majority of the money toward equipment and expenses for our studio. We divvied up what remained after our over-priced brunch (I still felt like I got robbed, even though it was free) and went our separate ways. Only two people ended up writing a list of where their dollars went, so I sent that off with the one roll of photos I took.
Along with the package, I included a note: “Need anybody for Miami?”