The cartoon speech bubble is an easily recognizable symbol, and if you live in New York, at some point in the last four years you’ve noticed someone has been slapping them on ads, posters and billboards all over the city.
Sometimes you can tell they’ve been freshly applied, because they’re blank; pass the same spot an hour later, and sure enough, some (occasionally quite clever) pedestrian has filled in his own text.
A poster features a comely maiden holding out packs of name-brand smokes—but she says “I wish these were joints!” A poster for the Metropolitan Transit Authority depicts two strangers politely standing side-by-side—but the woman exclaims, “This guy’s breath is killing me.” A movie poster for E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial depicts that famous scene of an airborne Eliot bicycling across the moon, with E.T. in the basket, but the words coming out of the little alien’s mouth are “Please let me die in peace.”
Thousands of wise-assed New Yorkers are responsible for these ad-hoc captions, but the man who gave them a mouthpiece—the guy who printed up the blank bubbles and plastered them all over the city—is street artist Ji Lee.
New York City has long been the epicenter of what is now a burgeoning global street art movement. From Basquiat, Jenny Holzer, and Keith Haring in the ’80s to today’s street art interventions by Swoon, BAST and Faile, the streets of Lower Manhattan have provided thousands of artists with a rich and vibrant canvas to explore their creativity and imagination. But whereas most street art puts forth the artists voice and opinions, Lee’s project takes a very different approach; it gives everyday city dwellers a platform from which they can speak out about race, religion, media, fashion, humor, class, politics, and what have you, all while remaining completely anonymous.
“Some people feel this is an opportunity for them to talk back to the media. They feel like they have been suffocated and bombarded by advertisements and this is their chance to express themselves without censorship,” Lee explains. “But for other people this is an opportunity for them to say something funny and to be part of the public discourse. For yet other people it’s purely vandalism.”
“[Nevertheless], I think that I am doing a favor for the advertiser,” Lee continues, “because the message is now more thought provoking and people are now taking notice of the ad.” Lee should know about such things; he conceived The Bubble Project several years ago when he was working as an art director at a major advertising agency in Manhattan. Over time, Lee had become increasingly frustrated by the bureaucratic and stifling approach to creativity that had come to dominate ad agency life. He felt that the increasing amount of layers of formal approvals and focus-testing that one needed to have before being able to launch a campaign stifled much of the true creative thought that happened inside the agency.
“I became frustrated by the fact that I would see so many bad ads on the street, while at the same time I was desperately trying to create good ads,” Lee explains. “I felt I needed a creative outlet, a way to make something that was positive and imaginative and fun.” With $3,000 of his own money he produced over 15,000 stickers, then began putting them up on every ad he could find. “One of the things that interests me the most is that the project reflects the social atmosphere of the city at the given moment,” says Lee. “The first one that made an impact on me was from a sticker that I had placed after 9/11 on an ad that showed a skyline of New York City with the World Trade Center in the background. I placed a speech bubble coming from one of the windows of the Towers. I then came back a few hours later to see that someone had written inside of it: ‘We can no longer be ignorant of the world we live in.’”
Lee was so taken by the insightfulness of what people had written inside his bubbles that he began taking photographs of every response that he could find. He soon had collected over 1,000 images. At the urging of his mentor, the designer Stephan Sagmeister, Lee took a selection of his photographs and developed them into a book. Talk Back, the Bubble Project from Mark Batty Publishing, hit stores this June.
As a testament to its success, over the years Lee’s Bubble Project has expanded from New York to other urban areas all over the world. Recently new bubble projects have sprouted up in both Italy and Argentina. There’s even an online version of it now, where thousands of web-surfers write captions to photos posted in “Bubbled Person of the Week;” recent subjects have included people ranging from Scarlett Johansson to Zacarias Moussaoui to “Chef” from South Park.