10 Billboard Campaigns That Aren't Trying To Sell You Anything

In a twist on the well-known Joyce Kilmer verse, Ogden Nash satirized, “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.”
Billboards: ever-present in-your-face advertising that we mostly wish would just go away. Except for when they’re awesome! From political statements to subliminal poetry, read on for ten billboards we wish we’d see instead of ads for the newest McDonald’s snack wrap.

The billboard of the future is an urban forest.

UrbanAir is a new project transforming urban skylines into “living, suspended bamboo gardens.” Born out of the studio of Los Angeles sculptor Stephen Glassman, who has been creating large-scale bamboo installations since the early 1990s, UrbanAir’s vision is to “transform the steel and wood of outdoor advertising into the infrastructure of urban sustainability around the globe,” making a statements about both the capabilities of urban art and looking toward a greener future.

For now, only several prototypes have gone up in Los Angeles, but UrbanAir’s Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded on December 12, so look for the first real wave of eco-billboards to go up in spring 2013.

Image: Jason in Hollywood

The “Smoking Deaths” billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles is a familiar site to locals, but doesn’t cease to make a bold statement to any passerby: a giant black billboard with “Smoking Deaths This Year,” with an upticking digital read that is continually updated (technically, it’s an approximation based on the fact that around 550 Americans die from lung cancer every day, or 22 an hour if you’re doing the math). Feeling depressed yet? Well, if you’re looking for New Year’s plans this year, head over to the billboard, and at the stroke of midnight, watch all the numbers erase, knocking it back to zero. Another year, another statistic (NOW you’re depressed!)

Image: Austin Kennedy

New York City’s High Line is making some of the biggest and boldest moves toward the integration of public art into urban areas. This month, its newest “exhibition” opened with experimental Italian artist Paola Pivi’s piece Untitled (zebras), two zebras pictured on a snowy mountain beneath a deep blue sky. This odd tableau serves to “question the viewer’s notion of what is real and what is fake, while at the same time evoking the absolute freedom of making a foolish idea real.”

The billboard is on display through January 2, 2013; you can view all past High Line Billboards here, including some of our favorites: John Baldessari’s $100,000 “Bill Board” and these freaky Maurizio Cattelan fingers.  

Dutch artist Bas Koopmans just wants to be appreciative in his art installation.

Image: Unurth

A project based in the southeastern Spanish city Murcia, Spain, where unused billboards spell out a (literally) subliminal message. Constructed by Spanish street artist “Sam3,” the fragments individually don’t make sense until they are juxtaposed (as in the image above), offering a bold statement on observing messages that are hiding in plain sight.

Looking for a little more interaction with your billboards? French-Portuguese architect Didier Fiuza Faustino proposes a solution in his “urban furniture” project Double Happiness, which installed the most epic swing set as part of Hong Kong’s “Biennial of Urbanism and Architecture.”

London artist Robert Montgomery uses billboards instead of notebooks to share his softly-speaking political poetry. All of Montgomery’s work is anonymous, making stumbling across his billboards in the streets full of both a sense of unexpected rawness and thought-provoking sincerity.

Images: Ian Gill

Driving near the US-Canada border in Blaine, Washington, you will pass a mysterious site: described as looking like TV static or a pile of hair clippings, the piece is an installation constructed from steel rods assembled to create an effect of a billboard’s negative space, only where most billboards draw attention away from the landscape, this one draws attention back to it.

Believe it or not, Non-Sign II was actually commissioned by the federal government: sponsored by the GSA Design Excellence program, it was the winning project in a campaign to install public art at a new border control station, executed by Lead Pencil Studio, an art and architectural collaborative based in Seattle.

Work by Kory Newkirk for Art In Stead.
Work by Kerry Tribe for “Art In Stead.” Image: Gerard Smulevich.

Sometimes “billboard art” is a more organized movement. For example, the MAK Center’s ambitions 2010 exhibition How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, which temporarily displaced advertising in Los Angeles with 21 newly-commissioned artist billboards around the city.

Work by Claire Accardo for the Billboard Art Project in Richmond.
Work by David J. Thompson for the Billboard Art Project in Albany

Another agency working to make your commute more bearable is the Billboard Art Project, a nonprofit that transforms standard billboards into pop-up art installations, some lasting as little as 24 hours. Founded around the somewhat obvious (yet still creepy) notion that few parts of our day are not influenced by advertising, the project curates billboard art all over the country; anyone is invited to apply for a spot.

Political street art can be campy and ridiculous, except when it’s not, and it’s amazing. Like these billboard installations by Peter Fuss, who Larry Gagosian stabs aside, offers commentary that is at times shocking, at times hilarious, and ultimately relevant.