Q&A: Philly Guerrilla Artist Huggie on Mayor Nutter AVI Art
This spring, the city is expected to overhaul our property tax system. Instead of tax rates that are based on property assessments from 2004 and, in some cases, the 1980s, each city property has been re-assessed and likely taxed at around 1.25 percent (though the final number is still unknown). What that means, in layman’s terms: your taxes are probably going up again. And if you recently moved to one of those up-and-coming, gentrifying neighborhoods and think you got a good deal on your home, well, think again—because they’re going up the most. Last week, the city put together an online calculator showing how much in taxes you can expect to pay in 2014, assuming the deal goes through.
Local street artist Huggie—who prefers to maintain pseudonymity, since some of his/her art is illegally posted in public spaces—has taken issue with that, and is using a unique artistic style to say so.
“For the last couple years, I have been taking the bandit signs that litter my neighborhood, altering the message, and putting them back up for all to enjoy,” Huggie tells Philadelphia Weekly. “I started off doing it for fun, but sometimes opportunities present themselves that are too good to pass, and the pieces become political. Mayor Nutter’s new Actual Value Initiative was one of those opportunities.”
We talked at length with Huggie, whose art can also be seen online at GorillaUpskirts.com:
What inspired you to begin altering bandit signs in the first place?
One of the key reasons was I grew tired and angry of seeing these businessmen with no ties to my community plaster my neighborhood with bandit signs. What bothered me even more was the fact that so many of my neighbors seemed oblivious to the visual pollution. They didn’t even notice them. Instead of just taking them down (which I did), I decided to change them and put them back up.
The reason was two fold. One was to reclaim the space. If you are messing with me then I am messing with you. I first did this a couple years ago when, overnight, my whole neighborhood was covered in “I will buy your house in 7 seconds…These other guys won’t” signs. I just made a simple flier stating “I will buy your house in 6 seconds” and used a staple gun to put it over every sign I could see. I haven’t stopped since.
The other reason I do it is a weird attempt to make the citizens of Philadelphia wake up. I think the idea behind these signs is crazy. Skydiving companies will advertise their services by illegally nailing a plastic sign on a boarded up house. Doesn’t exactly scream “reputable company” and definitely not one I want to trust with my life. By taking these signs and making them even more outlandish, I am hoping to bring all of the signs to people’s attention. To inspire people to not blindly accept what is placed in front of them .
For a while my friends and I had a joke where we added “.com” to the end of someone’s sentence when they said something unintentionally funny. My one friend happened to be a gorilla keeper at the Philly Zoo, and she told a story about how one particular gorilla exposed herself to people. Someone said, “GorillaUpskirt.com,” and a laugh was had by all. A couple months later I made a flyer promoting this fake website GorillaUpskirt.com. It promised “hot lowland and mountain gorillas,” “No monkey business”—and of course it was “PETA approved.” I made about 50 copies and put them on telephone poles in West Philly. About a week later, it hit Reddit. Turned out some guy in Montana saw it and bought the actual website. It blew my mind. That day I bought the rights to GorillaUpskirts.com. Adding the “S” saved me from having to buy it from him.
But now the name means much more than that. Gorilla is obviously a play on guerrilla. What I do is attack guerrilla advertising with guerrilla art. ‘Upskirts’ references exposing the advertisers. I see nothing wrong with the advertising industry. I don’t view it as evil as some do. Heck, I would love to take my skills and work for it. I studied marketing in college, after all. But I do see something wrong with people being spoon-fed culture and not thinking or challenging it. The upskirts exposes the underbelly of these advertisers.
Of all the issues plaguing Philadelphia right now, why’d you decide to take on AVI in particular?
Sometimes my signs are just silly. But I love when I can do something topical or culturally relevant. I have attacked other issues in the past. I did a series of wheatpastes vilifying the previous Philadelphia superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, while canonizing [Philadelphia teacher] Hope Moffet.
I also did a series of bandit signs parodying the awesome “With Love, Philadelphia, XOXO” campaign. I changed the message to “Dear Citizens, Thanks for expecting everyone else to clean up your litter. With Love, Philadelphia.” I put these up at a couple particularly nasty lots around the city. This got wings on the Internet and two young ladies actually picked up 15 bags of trash in front of my sign and posted the before and after pictures. It was amazing.
Now I am targeting the AVI. My sign doesn’t really say what I think of it. I leave that up to the viewer. But as a homeowner, I am nervous about what these means for the city. I admit my property taxes were way too low. If this money goes into fixing our broke school system I will be very happy. But as it stands, we now have the city wage tax, soon to be higher property taxes, terrible schools, and maybe hundreds of thousands of land and home owners who are delinquent or just never paid taxes. I’d rather see the city go after them first.
Check out GorillaUpskirts.com for more of Huggie’s art and musings.