Activism Illustrated

Inkworks Press celebrates a quarter century of political posters, the key to making a visual impact before the Internet’s rise

Jen Angel

Today, the first step of a ris­ing activist group is throw­ing up a web­site, but a gen­er­a­tion ago the visu­al impact of a group was mea­sured by its posters.

Inkworks Press, a col­lec­tive­ly run print shop in Berke­ley, Calif., was at the fore­front of this visu­al cul­ture. For its 25th anniver­sary, Inkworks col­lect­ed the best of its out­put into a book cel­e­brat­ing the hun­dreds of polit­i­cal posters it has print­ed since its found­ing in 1974. The project took near­ly a decade, but the result, Visions of Peace & Jus­tice, was released this spring. The full-col­or, 150-page book reprints hun­dreds of posters, many as full-page illustrations. 

The book is orga­nized into eight move­ment-focused chap­ters: inter­na­tion­al­ism and peace, labor, racial jus­tice, women’s lib­er­a­tion, queer lib­er­a­tion, envi­ron­ment and pub­lic health, elec­tions and reform, and arts and cul­ture, each intro­duced by a short essay from a leader of the respec­tive move­ment. The art ranges from util­i­tar­i­an black and white type to strik­ing hand-drawn mon­tages. Date and artist infor­ma­tion is giv­en for posters when avail­able. Flip­ping through this book is an illus­trat­ed tour of the last three decades of activism. Many of the images repro­duced are icon­ic – like the one of Moth­er Jones cre­at­ed by Rupert Gar­cia for Moth­er Jones mag­a­zine in 1989

Among the most com­pelling images are a 1984 poster for the Nicaragua Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter by Doug Min­kler and the Trees for Haiti” poster cre­at­ed by Mia Truski­er in 1997. The best posters encap­su­late an entire polit­i­cal strug­gle. In 2003, vot­ers in Cal­i­for­nia vot­ed on Propo­si­tion 54, which would have banned the state from col­lect­ing racial data on its cit­i­zens. Civ­il rights groups argued that this ban would lim­it the state’s abil­i­ty to address racial dis­par­i­ties in health care and edu­ca­tion. The No on Propo­si­tion 54” poster cre­at­ed by Design Action in 2003 shows a No Parking/​Street Sweep­ing sign altered to say No Diver­si­ty 12 pm to 12 pm.” 

While the posters were often con­nect­ed to strug­gles in spe­cif­ic locales, as a means of polit­i­cal sol­i­dar­i­ty, the posters trav­eled the globe. In her pref­ace, Car­ol Wells, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­ter for the Study of Polit­i­cal Graph­ics, writes about a poster she designed in 1979 to ben­e­fit the Nicaragua lit­er­a­cy cam­paign. In the mid-1980s a Nicaraguan friend in Los Ange­les told me about a new poster that had just arrived from Nicaragua. When he showed it to me I laughed, because it was the first poster I had ever designed.”

Print­ers like Inkworks had influ­ence out­side their imme­di­ate region. In 1992, dur­ing the riots that fol­lowed the Rod­ney King beat­ing, Inkworks posters pro­claim­ing the Mal­colm X quote, I don’t see an Amer­i­can Dream, I see an Amer­i­can night­mare,” were sent to Los Ange­les. Inkworks was not the only press doing this work – Red Sun Press in Boston and Salse­do Press in Chica­go are two of the oth­er remain­ing shops – but Wells notes that of the 16 female-owned shops, none remain.

Inkworks Press has also prac­ticed what it has print­ed over all these years. The col­lec­tive­ly run busi­ness has pro­vid­ed liv­ing-wage jobs to dozens of activists and cre­at­ed an atmos­phere that encour­ages work­ers to dis­cuss and reflect on pol­i­tics and activism. At the back of the book, they reprint their Points of Uni­ty,” a man­i­festo about ide­al and just work­ing and social con­di­tions. Sus­tain­able insti­tu­tions are an impor­tant part of cre­at­ing sus­tain­able change, and the left needs more doc­u­men­ta­tion of groups that have done this well. 

Visions of Peace & Jus­tice holds more than stim­u­lat­ing illus­tra­tions. It is evi­dence of the pow­er of polit­i­cal art and the role the polit­i­cal poster has played over the past sev­er­al decades. It is a tes­ta­ment to a col­lec­tive of indi­vid­u­als who have ded­i­cat­ed them­selves to the move­ment for social change.

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