ACT-UP’s ’90s Activism Now Hipper Than Ever


What’s better than political art on a sneaker? You guessed it (or didn’t): re-issued activist t-shirts now arguably fashionable for their nostalgia. As our good friends at The Shophound report, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, popularly known as ACT UP, are collaborating with Open Ceremony to bring you their iconic and once ubiquitous “Silence=Death” graphics on t-shirts once more. The price has gone up a little since the early ’90s — expect to pay 50 bucks for these puppies and at bougie shops — but a portion of the proceeds benefit ACT UP, a New York-based organization committed to end the AIDS crisis.

Re-released on World’s AIDS Day this past December, we hope the reissue brings increased awareness of the activist group’s legacy and its role in the city’s communities, including those in the visual arts. Founded in 1987, ACT UP’s visibility skyrocketed by the early ’90s with the help of Gran Fury, an activist/artist collective described as the “unofficial propaganda ministry” for the organization, and the driving force behind much of the graphics produced during that time.

“Silence = Death” (t-shirt). Image credit: Opening Ceremony

We asked artist AA Bronson to give readers an idea of the group’s significance this morning. A member General Idea, the Canadian activist artist collective that lost two of its three members to AIDS in the ’90s, Bronson was living in New York between 1986 and late 1993, the peak ACT UP Years,

If it weren’t for ACT UP, the massive swaths of death that the specter of AIDS cut through the populations of New York and other American cities, and especially their cultural communities, would have been on an even grander scale. If it weren’t for ACT UP, we now would be seeing infection rates in the US comparable to third world countries in Africa and south-east Asia today.

Bronson’s new book published by Creative Time with artist Peter Hobbs, Queer Spirits launches this Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in a 1991 interview for Bomb Magazine, Fury spoke to seminal artist Robert Gober about their work and the many obstacles they faced. “We very often are censored at the bureaucratic level,” the group told the artist. This took many forms, including losing permits for large billboard campaigns at the last minute. The phenomenon explains the allure and effectiveness of t-shirts and postering: no paper work is required for this kind of marketing to work. Given the significance of ACT UP’s history and current work, we’d like to see more of this campaign at work. As demonstrated by the New York Public Library archives, there’s plenty of material to reissue — and most of it available for purchase for print too.

Click through for those highlights, below.

“When a Government has Blood on its Hands” (t-shirt) Image credit: NYPL

Also available at the shop are the t-shirts above, but we’ve reproduced the original merch advertisement as it’s much better. The uber eager shopper can purchase Read My Lips and Silence = Death in white to own the quartet.

“When a Government Turns Its Back on People” (Final poster). Image credit: NYPL

As mentioned in the Bomb Magazine interview earlier in this post, an unnamed company revoked the use of its billboard at the last minute when saw the image and text. It would be interesting to see how well this same advertising campaign would do today.

“Men Use Condoms or Beat It” (sticker). Image credit: NYPL

“AIDS: The Artists’ Response” (poster). Image credit: NYPL

“RIOT: Stonewall, ’69,” 1989 (sticker). Image Credit: NYPL

“Gran Fury for Art Against AIDS . . . On The Road” (poster). Image credit: NYPL

“Read My Lips (Boys)” (Photocopy). Image credit: NYPL

“Wall Street Money on the street with blood?” Photo credit: NYPL

“Silence = Death” (Neon sign). Image credit: NYPL

This sign was originally produced for White Columns, the famed New York non-profit known for showcasing emerging artist work.