In 15th–16th century Bhutan, a saint who called himself the “Madman from Kyishodruk” traveled the countryside preaching Buddhism by convincing common folk to paint giant erect penises on their homes. The Madman called his own dick the “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom,” and sometimes painted it with wings attached. The tradition lives to this day in rural parts of the country, where a painted phallus is believed to drive away demons, the evil eye, and malicious gossip.
The practice elicited the opposite effect in Seattle on June 10, when employees of marketing company Polite Society discovered the phallic markings of a madman claiming to be the “Penis Army” spray-painted on its poster installations citywide. Giant dicks, bent at a jarring angle, blared out at the city in Capitol Hill, Belltown, and beyond: PENIS ARMY IS COMING FOR YOU.
“Every one of our advertising boards in the city of Seattle for our clients was defaced, even though our competitor’s boards next to them were untouched,” says Chuck Zimmerman, the founder of Polite Society. “It’s a very bizarre behavior.”
In Seattle, a majority of the posters you see stapled on telephone poles or wheat-pasted on advertising boards come from either Polite Society or its competitor Poster Giant—a company whose postering tactics have elicited such ire from the local music and art communities that a Facebook page called “Poster Giant is scum” was created two years ago to document it. The page, active to this day, has 582 likes.
Independent bands who try to advertise shows with do-it-yourself poster campaigns often return the next day to find their work torn down and covered with posters from Poster Giant clients—a practice documented by opponents of the company through videos and photos. In 2012 Poster Giant wheat-pasted over a public art mural in Pioneer Square, a move the company apologized for after it was met by a wave of criticism from local artists who claimed the company was monopolizing public space.
Above: Poster Giant vs. Grrrl Army circa August 2012
But the most public battle Poster Giant waged was in the summer of 2012. The Sunset Electric wall on 11th Avenue, which has since been replaced by an upscale apartment building, then served as something of a neighborhood bulletin board for the Capitol Hill community. Grrrl Army, an anonymous feminist group that promotes awareness of rape culture, had painted the wall pink with anti-misogynist messages, declarations of solidarity with queer groups, and fierce indictments of status quo sexual politics.
Poster Giant proceeded to wheat-paste over the guerrilla feminist installation. Undeterred, Grrrl Army returned in force to replace its mural. Thus began a months-long back-and-forth battle—both parties intermittently covering each other multiple times on the same day. At its peak, Grrrl Army began sticking coathangers on the wall, which Poster Giant had to swat down with shovels.
After the incident, Grrrl Army came out and endorsed Polite Society. “Grrrl Army has been supportive of our policy of not covering or tearing down posters for independent bands and sharing the poles with people,” says Zimmerman, who has made it a company prerogative to leave community posters up for shows and events that haven’t happened yet. “As far as this ‘Penis Army’ thing, it seems as though whoever is responsible is making a mockery of our association with the Grrrl Army.”
While Zimmerman is not accusing “our competitor” of the Penis Army vandalism and no direct evidence exists to indict them, considering the company’s history with Grrrl Army and the fact that only Polite Society and its clients’ boards across the entire city were targeted, “You can draw that conclusion,” he says. On the day I called Zimmerman, he said reports had come in that Poster Giant tore down Polite Society’s Pride Week posters and stuffed them in trash bags, photos of which were later shared on the “Poster Giant is scum” Facebook page.
I contacted Poster Giant twice about the “Penis Army” graffiti. Each time the receptionist sighed, took down my name and number, and said someone would return my call, which has yet to happen.
Whoever is behind the Penis Army tags couldn’t have been more tone-deaf in regards to their timing. With the Isla Vista killing spree, driven by misogynistic delusions, just a month behind us and Pride Week quickly approaching, the messages were less than funny.
“As a woman, I find it incredibly distressing,” says Tallulah Anderson, a six-month Polite Society employee. “One of the reasons I decided to work there is because it is so female and gay-friendly. I wanted an organization I would feel very comfortable and safe working for. Considering we are such a female- and gay-run organization, it’s particularly offensive.”
“The statement ‘Penis Army is coming for you’ implies sexual violence, makes a mockery of the Grrrl Army’s stated purpose of stopping abuse against women, and perpetuates rape culture,” Zimmerman says. “There are people walking by on the street, children and victims of sexual violence, who probably find this disturbing. Our staff isn’t afraid of this sort of intimidation, and we have materials to replace the posters.
“Our statement is ‘The Penis Army: What a bunch of little dicks.’”