“Nagual,” defined as a feared presence and/or a protector, encompasses many layers of culture and time. Its origins derive from an indigenous shape-shifter or trickster, usually a jaguar and sometimes a wolf, depending on the region and landscape. As colonialism spread, so did the meaning of a nagual. It can be considered a person’s alter ego; The nagual can also be known as an individual’s spirit animal. According to Nagualism: A Study in Native-American Folklore and History, it originally represented a brujo or sorcerer. Other Mesoamerican societies see the nagual as a coyote or a trickster. Southern California is abundant with coyotes and is the metaphysical home for the Naguals Press. Acting as spirits they pick up their roles as defenders of their communities not with brute, but with wit. The trickster, per Carlos Casteneda’s description, opens and closes the doors of perception, bringing new knowledge and new ideas.
The two original designers were workmates with little interest in politics. A trip to Spain swept up one designer into the 90s street protests of Madrid and woke them to the power of the people’s voice. Their family emigrated from a country that was in a death match between capitalism and communism. In their migration from dense urbanity they found a home in the rolling hills of California. The second designer’s focus was always Los Angeles. They struggled to make space within a city that was developing without them. Both grappled with the privilege left to them by their parents’ wealth, education and land ownership. In a reaction to gain control of the swirling times, the designers plotted and schemed about how to insert themselves in the conversation, giving birth to the idea of Naguals Press.
Two outcast designers grew into a quasi, on and off collective of designers. When their membership is high enough they attempt to operate as a collective with a shared sense of values, while creating their own designs, sharing feedback, and challenging each other to create better work. Responding to the many injustices they have experienced over the years, this group of graphic artists and designers have taken on many antagonists as they seek their own voices.
la imprenta, la propaganda, las palabras
The PSA, or Public Service Announcement, has been around as early as the American Civil War and served as government propaganda to sell war bonds. The first use outside of government appears to be in the 1900s when free ads run by a network of newspapers were used to express the “outrages of child labor.” These public advertisements were so successful they launched the advertising industry and brought awareness and reform to the child labor laws of the 1900s. The government used this formula for the war effort during World War I. Multiple government agencies brought together teams that developed hundreds of posters. The most notable out of this time became the “Uncle Sam: I want you in the US Army” PSA. These PSAs were “civic causes” produced free of charge by media professionals. According to psaresearch.com it is still defined by the FCC government campaigns, but it now includes non-profit missions and their “community interests.” These days, PSA campaigns can reach into the millions of dollars. Commercial agencies donate their resources and experience to create public service announcements, while media and broadcast companies donate space and time. In return for creative control, agencies use the opportunity to cultivate industry awards by developing work outside the commercial constraints of typical client needs. Agencies also use the PSA as a means to bestow favors on public officials and corporate gatekeepers for their pet causes. These performative acts align the brand with certain values used to attract potential staff as well as promote their corporate responsibility. The PSA has even become part of many design and advertising school curriculums. School partnerships offer students an opportunity to ideate and publish campaigns for clients who would not normally be able to afford creative services.
The dos Naguals designers’ experience revealed how the PSA had become commodified. It reinforced their intuition to create outside those spaces. The first Naguals campaigns came out of living and loving the streets of Los Angeles. The multicultural soup of Los Angeles was a late night swimming pool of tacos, Chinese food, city lights and beer for the two designers. It was an opportunity to reclaim public service announcements for the benefit of the public and without a veneer of money on the surface. Research and causes came from clippings of local newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Business Journal. The designers took turns writing headlines and conceptualizing visuals with no formal process other than to entertain each other. In these moments Naguals’ founding members merged the snipe and the public service announcement into one expression.
snide public service
The etymology of snipe is sniper, an assassin undertaking a targeted attack. For Naguals it is anonymous snide criticism. This use of snipe is not to be confused with a ship’s steam engineer, or an ornithological species and its mythical country hunt through the underbrush. The sarcasm of a snipe is not a naturally occurring resource; it has been cultivated. Early attempts were visual jokes on power. As Naguals grew, people shared their design essence with each other. Their graphic vocabulary expanded and even their style was influenced by contact with each other. Street artists in the collective taught the group a fearlessness and the punk rocker brought in an energy and anger that taught everyone about being “snide”.
the way we were
There was so much nostalgia floating in the swells and aftermath of the candy coated acid pop of the 80s. According to the second designer, one morning the radio-alarm clock burst through the fog of the 90s by playing Nirvana’s Nevermind, triggering a seismic shift in thinking and emotions. At the time other creatives noticed the cultural shift as well. It suddenly gave designers permission to be as guttural as the music. Over the course of the next few years it also led to an exploration of the memories of the punk rock culture of the 80s and the reeducation in graphic design. Technology was digitizing the “hands-on craft” of design. Photoshop 3.0 was barely five years old. In 1991 the postscript and true type fonts for PCs are developed; in 1993 Quark 3.3 layout software ships for PC users; and in 1998 the pop colored iMac drops and everybody is suddenly a designer. Layout is no longer in the hands of professionals in a print shop or service bureau. Creators can now bypass expensive production steps.
The 1991 uprising in South Central Los Angeles over the beating of Rodney King by LAPD pounded on the doors of the mainstream American psyche. Billionaire Ross Perrot then set the stage with his presidential bid in 1992. It opened the gates for millionaires with their own jets to enter politics across the country. The wealth gap in America that we know well enough today was just beginning to be revealed. They were not your ordinary suburban millionaires, they believed they knew how to manage our lives. In 1993 a Los Angeles multi-millionaire Richard Riordan was elected mayor of the city. His ideas of privatization and the gap between his image and what working class life is about lit a match for Naguals Press. The first campaign was launched with critiques of the 39th mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan and his push to amend the city charter in 1997 (menace to society).
In the democratization of technology where design tools became household appliances, printing reproduction was still in the analog age. Art was made into an inter-negative, then a metal plate. Multiple copies were made on an ink and paper press operated by 1-5 employees depending on the paper size. In that transitional period quantity and color determined the cost effectiveness of a campaign. Even a single color art on ink and paper press was expensive as a result of the process.
The indispensable tool of any corporate office in these ancient times was a copy machine. In an art department the copy machine straddles an office tool and an art tool. Sizing art and type for rough drafts were typical tasks, but also making copies of your campaign proposal. For the less reputable office workers, like our designers, it was an instant printing press to advertise Saturday night’s music gig or Thursday’s poetry reading to friends and strangers. For Naguals it was the official reproduction of choice. The first few campaigns were made as camera-ready or paste up art, then sent out for copies. Eventually the technology of 2004 developed DTP or Direct To Press, which allowed copy machines to serve as a computer printer. Graphic designers in their caveperson voice were like, “I have fire…”
The electrostatic press (copy machine) made quantities of twenty-five, fifty, a hundred. During that first campaign countering the influence of Mayor Riordan in 1997-98 about 1100 impressions were reproduced and distributed throughout Los Angeles. It was an exhausting campaign to paper the city from the San Fernando Valley to Fairfax and the Eastside. The subsequent PSA campaigns became more localized. When one of the original designers changed careers, choosing film and eventually the corporate path the Naguals went into hibernation. Sleeping for three years until that next group of young designers and students were seduced into raising their voices, sharing their point of view. War and oil woke the Naguals’ spirits. Dozens of anti-war posters created during this period were lost to a hard drive failure. With no hard copies or photographs, twenty to thirty posters were wiped away from memory. One of the most memorable was a diptych poster illustrating then-president Bush, his father and brother, the governor, clowning around in a collaged photograph, with the headline “frat party.” The companion half to this was “wedding party” with a photograph of a Muslim procession carrying multiple coffins. The news image referenced a wedding party where fourteen members of the same family died by a missile strike, mistaken for a Taliban meeting in the first week of the Afghanistan war. Regretfully, it was not the only wedding targeted during this time.
mayflies and memes
Social media was still an experiment in 2002, Friendster had one million subscribers, Facebook was random code still being sewn together. We had the memes though. It was the closest comparison to the snipe. Defined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 as a “unit of cultural transmission,” the meme was quite reserved until 4chan and Reddit redefined it as “an amusing or interesting item.” Using unsuspecting cats as content, it eventually transformed into parents exploiting their children for entertainment. Memes rapidly found their way into politics. A simple gaff or awkward still by a politician would usually not even register on broadcast television, but on the Internet the ridicule serves as chum for the sharks and predator wannabes. Bernie Sanders reminded us at the presidential inauguration it is not always so cruel. The Bernie mitten memes were perhaps the longest trending in the collective consciousness of the Internet, lasting almost three weeks on the social media feed. Most memes have the lifespan of a Mayfly barely surviving overnight. Oddly the meme has a type of archival resilience, and with some digging you can find any meme on a server or bulletin board somewhere on Earth. The lifespan of snipes may yet have greater resilience as their goal is to embed in the mind of the audience at not just an emotional level, but a rational level where it will hopefully live on. However, their physicality is not resilient to time, with a life span slightly longer than a Mayfly. Municipalities and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have teams that go out in the mornings looking for graffiti and treat the snipes and posters with equal disdain. If a snipe survives the first night, it is then subject to the elements of its own manufacture. Poor gluing techniques the night before will lead to cracks and bubbles that will peel away and be lost.
The proliferation of meme technology has made them as abundant as the Mayfly. A phone app (application) can turn your selfie with a latte into a quip with the condensed heavy typeface outlined in black, headlined “hipster grandma,” You can post, giggle and forget. That drive-thru irony seems to have devalued the meme. Although, with a quick Google search, you can find the aggregate collection and value of Bernie memes in one epic website. The snipe may be another lost art with its design monks laboring into the night, banished. What a meme will never have is the camaraderie of shared action: a wheat pasting crew jumping out of the car like a formula one pit crew and covering a corner with dozens of posters. “Rinse. Repeat. Remember.”
: : : : : :