Cianci Billboard

January 07, 2019

In September 1990, I had recently started a new semester at RISD in Providence and had wanted to do something on a larger scale. I had my eye on a billboard located at a busy intersection at the base of a hill near campus. It was a campaign ad for Buddy Cianci, who was running for mayor of Providence. His picture on the billboard was relatively small compared to the text above it: “Cianci: He never stopped caring about Providence.” I was taking an illustration class from my professor Fred Lynch, and our first assignment was to open a fortune cookie and illustrate whatever it said. Mine read: “To affect the quality of the day is no small achievement.” I figured I would affect the quality of the day with humor by pasting Andre’s face and name over Cianci’s.

My class was on a Friday, and the following Monday I went down to the billboard and spent five minutes measuring the head. I came back around nine in the evening, pasted up the four–foot head, and changed “Cianci” to “Andre.” By Wednesday, Cianci’s people had fixed the name and covered the picture with another one twice as big, with Cianci’s waving hand sticking out from the billboard. Of course, I had to hold down my spot, so I went back and measured the new head (eight–and–a–half feet) and went off to Kinko’s to make a new Andre head. I had never done any kind of pasting before; I mixed some Elmer’s glue with water in a jar, and brought a rolling pan and some tape to hold the pieces of paper together. I called up a couple friends: one to help me put it up, another to look out for cops. I also made a sign that said “Join the Posse” and put it over the hand, changed “Cianci” back to “Andre,” and put “7’4″, 520LB” over the lapel button. The next day, the story was all over the news: radio, TV, newspaper, everything. People at RISD were going crazy. It was just a prank, but people thought there was some political or moralistic motivation behind it. I didn’t even know it, but it turned out that Cianci had been the mayor years before, and was kicked out of office for beating up his ex–wife’s lover and putting a cigar out in the guy’s eye while city cops held him down. Everyone figured the image of a wrestler was supposed to be a way of calling Cianci a brute. Although I didn’t intend to make a statement, the incident opened my eyes to the power of propaganda. An ambiguous image can stir up so much curiosity that it functions as a sort of Rorschach test by stimulating interpretation and discussion.