Painted on the Walls by Ian Burns

Posted by on February 5th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive by Seth Tobocman; AK Press;185 pp.; $20; B&W, Softcover; ISBN: 9781849350044

Seth Tobocman’s collection You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive exposes injustice with an inexhaustible amount of wrath. Stories of tyranny, gentrification, police brutality, murder and racism are rendered so economically, and the intensity from start to finish is so consistent that, if it weren’t for change in topic, you’d barely notice the work spans two decades.

This is the third edition of this collection (first printed in 1989, reprinted in 1999), and, although the majority of the work focuses on issues from Ronald Reagan’s administration, there are some powerful modern additions: stencils about the Iraq War, IDF brutality and the Gazan genocide to name a few. And in retrospect, the collection wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t two decade-long gaps in printing. Tobocman uses similar motifs and themes in each new decade (or with each new printing) that, in continuity, stress how well he reinterprets his repertoire to match the current political and economical environment.

Tobocman tends to use two polar groups of characters. One group is oppressive, holds power and tries to control the world; the other is oppressed, revolts and is trying to bring justice if not ethics to the group in power. The former group is represented by hands reaching out from the gutters or, if not their hands, then most of their bodies. “Farm Foreclosures,” “Terminating Social Security Benefits” and “Minimum Wage,” three political cartoons printed in the ’80s, feature menacing hands plucking dollar bills out from under, or simply out of their respective victims (the dollar bill as icon inside the citizen and a part of the urban landscape is also a recurring motif). It appears that these oppressors in Tococman’s worlds live in the periphery: Other-dimensional giants come to take what they want. This is terrifying if we consider what’s behind the symbol. If the working or middle class allows the powerful to grow unchecked they’ll be as defenseless against exploitation as the ant against the squishing thumb.

“The World is Being Ripped” uses this same technique. In the first stencil, two profiled faces, appearing out of the left and right gutters, rip apart a globe with their mouths; on the next page, two solid black overlords, the top halves of their bodies extending out from the gutters, hold the oppressed (rendered artfully, thick swerves for bodies and dots for heads) in the palms of their hands; and in a stencil that reads, “He has power over another man’s life but none over his own,” a recursive image of a man stepping on another, smaller man extends into the top left and bottom right gutters, getting bigger and smaller respectively. This piece reads feverishly, more so than any other in the collection. Each page is a single stencil, and the text that accompanies each stencil is brief, vicious — spoken word spat at a row of riot cops. The page turns mark the beat, and at this pace we barrel towards the end. It’s little wonder why the title of this collection was taken from this piece.

Another theme in this collection is the subversion of American iconography. “Freedom of Speech in Black and White” tells of Mumia Abu Jamal, a black journalist jailed in 1981 and placed on Death Row in 1983 for allegedly shooting a policeman. Widely considered a verdict based on racial prejudice, Mumia’s death sentence was later repealed. Mumia, however, was never released, and is currently awaiting a new trial. The opening panels of this strip are a prologue of Mumia’s story and a thematic primer for the reality of freedom of speech in the early ’90s. The backdrop for these panels is an American flag flipped vertically, the stripes transforming into Mumia’s prison bars. And this isn’t the only example: the Statue of Liberty in “The History of America and Thompson Square Park,” stock quotes and newspaper headlines in “I Saw a Man Bleed to Death” and the dollar bill in various strips — each subversion challenges the symbols we carelessly accept as representative of a true, just and free America.

Tobocman’s ability to subvert common symbols reinvigorates You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive in each new printing, allowing new readers to intelligently asses their own assumptions about their culture, nation, or even their sense of patriotism. If we can at least consider that our image of America (or any other nation whose injustices are glaring) may not be accurate, we can begin to heal our nation and our culture. Just as wars begin in the mind of man, so does revolution.

All images ©Seth Tobocman

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