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March 10, 2003



By Larry-bob

Everyone's a semiotician.

To define: a reader of signs.

We all have various skills in the field of recognizing the meaning of symbols encountered.

I can look at a tattered wheat-pasted flyer and tell just from the remains of the design who laid it out and what band or action it advertised.

That is because I am a flyerer, an attendee of secretive rock shows, ranter of spoken word soirees, and frequenter of comedy haunts. As I tape up my small posters, I note what is already there.

I am not literate in the marks left by graffiti taggers, but I am sure a tagger or a cop from the graffiti abatement unit could tell us who left the mark. There are different layers to the urban landscape, and I can't read all of them. Some are just texture to me.

I walk down Polk Street, and down an alley is a sign with blue hand-painted words spelling out The Floating Corpses. This has apparently been painted elsewhere and then wheat-pasted in this spot. No further information is apparent to the untrained eye.

But I know that it is the name of a band because I have seen the band perform. I usually find out about their performances from signs on utility poles. Sometimes I do not find out until the date has passed. They do not send email or post to websites, nor do they fax newspapers for listings. They only flyer. There are other ragged flyers surrounding the name of the band. One looks to be made by an associate of the band, someone who dated someone who was in another band with a member of the Floating Corpses. The sign advertises a benefit. I make a note of it in my appointment book. They won't send me email, but I'll add it to my on-line events list and people will hear about it who won't ever see one of the actual flyers.

Now, certainly the flyerer, left to his own devices, will tend to follow his own interests, namely to put the flyers up in places where they will be the most visible. The formula which one could reach is to have the flyer in a prominent place where it can be seen, but a place where it will not be ripped down before it has had a chance to work its magic (or be covered by another.) A pseudo-mathematical formula could be arrived at, which maximizes the eyeball-scanning over time. Variables include foot traffic, time wasted by people waiting at traffic lights or restaurant lobbies, quantity of available wall-space, staleness of pre-existing propaganda, correlation between the intended audience of the event and the habituates of the bulletinboard location, and so on. Certainly some mental shorthand version of this computation occurs in the mind of the broadside-splatterer.

There are the city's laws about flyering, and then there are the unwritten rules. While it is illegal to post more than one flyer for the same event on a pole, it is also bad manners to hog the limited space.

I know the laws and I pretty much abide by them. I no longer carry a staple gun since it is not legal to post that way. Sometimes I'll even write a posting date on my flyers. Flyers that are oversized take up more room than their fair share. People who put up multiple flyers in the same space are hogging that limited available space. Venues that don't allow flyers for other venues should not expect other venues to allow their flyers.

There are people who flyer for the South of Market live clubs who carry masking tape around their arms, and rip down all the old flyers on a pole and wallpaper it with theirs. They use the excuse that the law states that flyers are to be stuck directly to the pole, not on top of other flyers, and sometimes the old flyers violate this rule. It is supposed to be against the law to remove legally posted flyers, but I have never heard of this being enforced.

It is better to put a flyer up in a store window since it will stay there longer. Stores that have bulletinboards or which allow postings are blessed. I wish there was some way of repaying their community spirit. Perhaps I should invoke/intone the names of these establishments from the stage as though they were unintentional media sponsors of my event.

There are crazy old people whose hobby is ripping down flyers. One man rides a motor-scooter around the city wielding a putty-knife, scraping flyers off utility poles. I was yelled at by someone once when I was flyering, who claimed I was littering. But I was not dropping flyers on the ground they were affixed to poles with tape. I asked him what he did to participate in the cultural life of San Francisco. He childishly repeated my words in a sing-song voice.

I do tend to take down out-of-date flyers but I don't want to leave a surface too bare. There is refuge in having other flyers up. If yours is the only thing stuck there, someone might rip it down, but not too many people are going to bother stripping off a dozen pieces of paper.

There is always a tape dispenser in my backpack. I have a small one now that contains light invisible-style tape, rather than the wider packing tape I used to use. I'm told I should be a contestant on The Price is Right with my well-stocked purse.

The suburbs are sterile. There is no place there for graffiti or flyer-posting or even signs in languages other than English. The same is true of chain stores. Starbuck's never has bulletinboards. There is no place to cry out against the boredom and conformity of the corporate world. Speech is reserved for those who can afford advertising, illuminated signs. All else is mute.

Someday will there be just one bulletinboard in the world on which all flyers must be posted, layered deep and instantly covered by new ones. Think of the Democracy Wall at Tiananmen Square.

Because the events that I'm publicizing tend to be aimed at the queer community, I put my postings in bars. I don't know if it works. Sometimes I think that people in San Francisco haven't gotten the concept that in the 8 o'clock hour you're supposed to go see live entertainment, and go to the bar later. People in San Francisco just go dance or hang out drinking. Sometimes I wonder when I'm posting at the few bars that allow outside flyers why they allow me to post, considering that hours spent by their customers away from the supply of alcohol and seeing a show elsewhere are money out of their tills.

The first flyer I ever designed was during college. It was for a band some friends of mine were in. I used letters I photocopied out of a Dover clip-art book and glued in place. I posted it around the college campus, on the numerous bulletin boards. I made more flyers in college, for bands, for political activities, and for trying to recruit people for a nascent campus gay group.

These days I design the flyers on a computer. I have designed close to two hundred flyers. When doing repeating events, oftentimes the new flyers are simply variations on previous flyers, varying in font and art elements. Why redesign from the ground up? On the other hand, sometimes I have trouble telling my designs for different weeks apart. From time to time, I do start over, re-shuffling the elements that must be there, the location, the performers, the time, date, and price. Oh, I almost forgot, a phone number. Nothing like having completed printing a batch of dozens of flyers, only to realize an important piece of information has been omitted.

When I go to the copy shop, I see other flyerers putting together their propaganda. I don't think much of the people who just recycle others' iconography, hoping to catch some cool cachet secondhand of the image of a rock star who isn't performing live at their DJ night. Some people are still using the cut-and-paste method, while others are even more high-tech than me, cranking out dollar-a-page full-color flyers. I guess the door price must be high to recoup that expense. I wait in line at the cutter for someone who is making postcards for a show. It turns out I know one of the other bands on the bill, and I ask which band he's in. It's a band I haven't seen before, but then, he hasn't seen the band I know. He gives me a card and I add it to the propaganda nest in my backpack.


Larry-bob lives in San Francisco and holds forth on the website www.holytitclamps.com