By Jeff Penalty
(Originally published in Swindle's "Icons" issue)

“Ronald Reagan made me do it.”

It’s unlikely that such a defense would hold up in a modern American court of law, but it’s how Robbie Conal explains his incitement to hit the streets with his trademark poster art.

Robbie is best known for gluing disturbing and hyper-real images of political and historical figures to fixtures of the urban landscape.  His posters usually include a portrait, a slogan or a one-liner (the man loves his puns), and some form of overt socio-political commentary.  The posters are placed by Conal and his “volunteer guerrilla postering army”: a formidable force that has the ability to cover a significant amount of public space in Robbie’s home city of Los Angeles and beyond.  Both his art and his methods are untraditional and controversial.  And that, children, is exactly how one becomes an icon.

Robbie, though, doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with that label.  “[The word ‘icon’] makes me think of a giant wooden cross painted by Cimabue in the late 13th century: Christ writhing stiffly on a 400 pound hunk of black carved wood, looming over my head in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.  Nope.  I don’t identify.”

But when others think of the word “icon” they may think of someone who has blazed a trail and inspired others to do the same, and under that definition Robbie most certainly fits.  Numerous artists have sidestepped the gallery system and taken to the streets with buckets and brushes in Robbie’s wake, inspired undeniably by his consistency and his coverage.  When asked at what point he realized that his illegal art would or could eventually gain legitimization, Robbie claims, “I never did.  But I knew people would see it.  Especially in L.A.  Everyone (around the world) thinks Angelenos are superficial.  But what they don’t know is that we’re DEEPLY superficial.”

Robbie is essentially the art world equivalent of a street corner Bible thumper.  Not content to sit quietly inside a church and wait for people to come in and find salvation, he goes out into the world to broadcast his message loudly, abrasively, and (mostly) unwelcome-ly to anyone in range.  The key difference being that most religious figures would encourage you to obey while Robbie begs people to think for themselves.

He offers the following to those who may want to continue in his tradition: “If you want to communicate your social/political ideas to regular people and have no money, make an interesting little black and white picture, turn a few words of the most subversive language on the planet—colloquial American English—inside out, shake ‘em for loose change…[and go] to Kinko’s.  Mix up the medicine and text message your homies after you call your local National Lawyers Guild office.”

With others clearly willing to pick up wherever Robbie leaves off, does he ever see his own postering missions coming to an end?  “I always see them coming to an end,” he claims.  “Every time I stand up on a red naugahyde banquette at Canter’s [the deli from which his L.A.-based missions stem] and yell at the, uh, ‘troops’ about ‘Guerilla Etiquette’ […] the first thing I say is, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this again.’  I’m old.”

Sure, he’s got his own book, “Artburn”, on the shelves, a regular column in L.A. Weekly, and a teaching gig at U.S.C., but if Robbie’s posters do someday cease to appear on your friendly neighborhood electrical box, what will he do for a creative outlet?

“My art in the future?  I’d like to draw portraits of cats.”