Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Billboards bring
peace message to city streets


Artist Clinton Fein with his provocative billboard that is part of the Billboards for Peace project. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Ten artists from 10 member states of the United Nations are currently sharing their vision of peace on billboards throughout the city as part of the Billboards for Peace project.

Billboards for Peace was shepherded into the city by Richard Kamler, an artist and University of San Francisco professor. He asked the international collection of artists to "imagine what peace looks like from their own unique cultural perspective," Kamler explained before a bus tour launched the exhibit Monday, May 26.

The project was developed with financial support from Peace Development Fund and USF. Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS also provided funding for the Billboards for Peace. Kamler described working with the corporations on a peace project as "complicated," but also noted that CBS owns 85 percent of the outdoor advertising space in San Francisco.

Taken as a whole, the 10 billboards are a sharp rebuke of war and violence, featuring slogans like "Can I tolerate intolerance?" "Warning," and "Imagine Peace."

Individually, however, some of the art is puzzlingly abstract. The billboard at the intersection of Hayes and Divisadero, for example, shows a rosebud evolving into a flower.

"It took me a long time ... I'm representing Iran, which has so much political baggage," said Taraneh Hemami, the Iranian artist who designed the billboard.

The unfolding rose is a symbol frequently seen in Persian art, Hemami explained. A blood drop transfiguring into a rosebud was also featured prominently in posters throughout Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, a symbol of remembrance for those who died in the conflict, she explained.

Others are striking evocations of familiar images. Clinton Fein, a South African artist, San Francisco resident, and gay man, chose a photo that recreated the horrors of Abu Ghraib at the corner of Montgomery and Broadway. Fein's recent series of photos based on images from Abu Ghraib, called "Torture," was shown nationally and internationally in 2007.

A shirtless man cuffed to a prison bed fills Fein's billboard. A pair of bloody women's underwear covers his head. The concrete walls show the shadow of bars and are cast in red.

"The world we live in is too toxic," Fein said of his decision to show a violent image rather than a vision of peace. "Peace as a concept for me is something that we strive for. Whether or not we'll see it I don't know."

An image between the grit of Fein's work and beauty of Hemami's rose was displayed on a billboard on Duboce and Valencia. Rafael Trelles, a Puerto Rican artist, reproduced an image of a tank broken in half and sprouting a bouquet of flowers next to the words "Imagine Peace."

Trelles's billboard reproduced an image that he originally created with a stencil and a high-pressure hose on the side of an Army storage facility in Vieques. The tank was carved into the grime of the building.

He said that he intended the billboard to "inform about the colonial status of my own country."

Members of the public constituted the majority of people on the bus tour, taking pictures of the billboards along with the press.

"I think it's nice to think that the [peace] billboards will be next to Grand Theft Auto billboards," said Conner Cole, 23, a member of the public who signed up for the tour. "It's something to balance things out."

The billboards will remain up until June 22, and a complete list of billboards and their locations can be found at the project Web site,

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