The story behind the poster: An interview with Lena Wolff

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You might have seen it displayed on the window of your favorite coffee place, handed out on Sproul or, perhaps most dramatically, emblazoned on the giant screen outside of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in the past week. The tweetable message, “Berkeley Stands United Against Hate” — the middle word in red and set off boldly against a black background — draws the eye and leaves no space for resistance. The image, spread both as a poster and as a Facebook profile picture, quickly became a symbol for those who opposed the “No to Marxism in America” protest last Sunday.

But there’s a lot more to the poster behind its appearance.

The idea for the poster began months ago. Lena Wolff and her wife, Miriam Stahl both veteran artists living in Berkeley — met Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín through his work as a council member for their district as well as through his speaking at Solidarity Sundays, which they frequently attended.

“I had talked to the mayor about creating a public visibility campaign about what the city of Berkeley stands for,” Wolff said over the phone. “And I think the Mayor Arreguín liked the idea, and the timing had worked out, with the ‘alt-right’ returning to Berkeley for the fourth time in the past year.”

Indeed, U.S. media as of late has often characterized Berkeley as a violent battleground, and Arreguín in particular has been taking heat from both the right and the left for not doing enough to combat the Antifa or the “alt-right,” respectively. Arreguín’s very transparent stand against hate by endorsing this poster can help quell that criticism.

“I think they asked us a week before the protests were happening, and we designed the poster in like two days,” Wolff recounted. “The language that we decided on was a back-and-forth between someone in the office and ourselves. [We wanted a] simple, strong statement that affirmed our unity as a city because, in general, most citizens here oppose the kinds of bigotry spreading through the nation since Donald Trump’s election — so we wanted to emphasize our unity, which is why we went big and bold in the design in the poster.”

While the old Free Speech Movement and the younger intersectional identity politics don’t always get along in Berkeley, there’s one thing all locals can get behind — peacefully but firmly opposing hate.

Wolff had created art with a political bend before — in a series of text pieces on the Iraq War shown in an art gallery in San Francisco in 2003 — but recently had been focusing on abstract works in wood, cloth and paper. Her wife Stahl, on the other hand, has recently released a bold children’s book, “Rad American Women A-Z,” and frequently creates “portraits of political activists, misfits, radicals and radical movements,” according to her website.

Wolff spoke about her break from her usual aesthetics to simple text and an unambiguous message:

“Right now the political moment calls for us to be clear and articulate in what we stand for. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote this really beautiful response in the New York Times (The New Yorker): ‘Now Is The Time to Talk about What We’re Actually Talking About,’ which really articulates how important it is to use words effectively, directly and truthfully, in the current context of a lot of hypocrisy, fake news, and misinformation being spread.”

The design was informed by historical precedent as well.

“Visually, we looked at the beautiful Arts and Crafts movement posters that came out of Berkeley in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and that informed the palette of muted colors that we chose.” The colors were a “kind of a riff on red, white, and blue, but with red, orange and cream,” Wolff said.

The end result, made in collaboration with a local graphic designer, was a poster that closely matched its message with its aesthetics, taking the colors of zealous nationalism and suppressing its intensity. It’s an odd contradiction — bold yet calming — that captures the aim of the largely nonviolent counterprotests.

Indeed, the poster seems to be widely embraced by the Berkeley community. As of August 26th, all 20,000 posters have been distributed across Berkeley.

Ronin, an activist who identified herself as representing the “unite against the ‘alt-right’ ” coalition, was passing out this very poster at Sproul Plaza. She commented, “I like it. I feel the message is very hard to argue against because who doesn’t stand against hate?”

And maybe that’s what made this poster the most visible sign of last Sunday’s resistance. Its all-encompassing slogan and carefully planned design, right down to the colors, explains its spread to cities like Alameda and San Jose. In the coming years it’s sure to endure every time xenophobia, racism and the like rear their ugly heads in the Bay Area.

Contact Adesh Thapliyal at [email protected].

Due to misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that an article and its attributed quotes were from The New York Times. In fact, these were published by The New Yorker.