Ron English has been liberating corporate billboards for nearly 25 years. Born in Texas in 1966, he grew up amidst a mounting image/consumer culture and social turbulence. According to the February 4th 2009 Rumpus Interview by Julie Greicius, Ron became very active in political activism in the 1980’s while living in a commune household in Austin, Texas with members of the environmental group Earth First. It was then he began to have major issues with mindless consumption, corruption and the right to free speech. His guerrilla street art began to show up in public places in the late eighties and eventually on New York City billboards over top of corporate ads selling cigarettes, fast food, and a warmongering government. He continues to offer his opinions and free speech through his art today in the form of his own paintings by utilizing pop culture icons and appropriated style.
Two of his major corporate targets are McDonalds and Camel cigarettes. Their ad campaigns seemed to be geared towards children and as a father of two, this must antagonize Ron’s nature. Camel’s ads took this direction in the eighties after the crusty old cowboy bit wasn’t increasing the teen market, and thus came Joe Camel, the cartoon character meant to sell the idea of smoking to the youth of our nation. Ron twisted this by creating Joe Jr., a baby version of the cool camel who is seen donning a pacifier and diaper along with the smooth menthol cig. He also worked closely with friend and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock on the 2004 documentary Super Size Me and created a series of paintings depicting Ronald Macdonald as a fat, rich, pedophile. On his billboard posters he changes the chain’s slogans to “phat food” and “Mc Super Sized”. His subversion is brilliant. He is able to use the exact same tag lines used by the big guys, yet brings the truth into the light. He is essentially allowing the viewers to make up their own mind on the issue. Shepard Fairy, the well-known “guerrilla” artist is quoted in the 2004 documentary film by Pedro Carvajal, “Popaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English” saying that this is the ultimate form of Democracy and freedom of speech. Ron says that the corporations do not deserve the right to free speech, the people do. And that is what he does, takes back the media, and gives free art to his viewers. (Greicius, 2009)
Ron is not a digital artist however he utilizes public domain to send a message of truth and hype as well as express his opinions and creative talent. He has been pirating billboards for nearly 25 years under the radar, it was really until the recent internet exposure of 2009 presidential campaign and the 2004 release of the Popaganda DVD that the world began to see his work and realize its potential. To support Obama on his presidential campaign he merged the faces of the Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama in a large scale painting he repeated on the side of a building in Boston hoping to suggest the similarities of the political leaders and reinforce the potential of a progressive government. After getting permission from authorities to put up the piece, he was asked to remove most of them after only twenty minutes. (Greicius, 2009) Even when he jumps through the hoops and stays within the law he offends somebody. He deals with privacy, copyright and domain issues on a daily basis. These are the very same issues that affect the digital medium and the Internet. Digital artist frequently appropriate images to create their art but are often met with controversy and end up in legal battles. Ron uses recognizable images like The Simpsons, Marilyn Monroe, and Kiss often in the context of the appropriated styling of Picasso, Warhol, and even Looney Tunes. Ron has been arrested numerous times and spent time in jail. He has also been sued by the companies that control the rights to Charlie Brown, Mickey Mouse and Vincent Van Gogh, but has been lucky to have the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts on his side. It seems to be delicate issue of who owns what, who should be allowed free speech…and so on. “We live in a world where every inch of our visual landscape is bought and sold… corporations shouldn’t have the right to free speech, the people should”. (English, Popaganda, 2004)
Whether it is a public space, gallery, or the Internet, Ron’s images communicate a message of free speech, choice, and progressive thought. His creative talent and clever subversion expose the truths behind corporate ad campaigns and his portrayal of pop culture icons target an image driven society.


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