An Interview with TrustoCorp

by Ken HarmanPosted on

The first time I stumbled across the street art of TrustoCorp, I found myself doing almost exactly that: tripping while walking. The piece that caught my eye, attention, and eventual balance appeared to be upon first glance nothing more than a legitimate, state-sanctioned street sign. However, instead of informing me as to when and where I could or couldn’t park my car as it should have been doing, this particular sign seemed to be making a lifestyle recommendation I can say I certainly didn’t see coming.

“Substance Abuse” the sign read, emblazoned with two cartoony characters: a mischievous looking fifth of booze and a surly bottle of pills. “Makes it all go away” and “Sobriety is Un-American” the sign read on the bottom, driving the point home. After a chuckle and some photographs I continued on my stroll. A block later, another street sign; this particular one encouraging the viewer with the phrase “It’s okay… to play with yourself”.

So my stroll through Miami’s Wynwood Arts District during Art Basel 2009 continued. Block after block, sign after sign. Some of the signs were politically charged, some provided biting social commentary, others simply utilized good design and a positive message. Much like Hansel and Gretel following a trail of breadcrumbs, my search eventually led me to my destination, TrustoCorp brazenly installing another sign on a busy Miami street in broad daylight.

Since this first encounter, TrustoCorp has been on a rampage, a nationwide corporate hostile takeover worthy of anti-monopoly trusts and federal intervention. Manhattan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Oakland, Philadelphia, Berkeley, Detroit and Atlanta have all fallen prey to the conglomerate’s aggressive expansion plan, a transcontinental takeover executed in just 4 months spanning almost every major metropolitan area in the United States

It’s not just signs that Trusto’s making either, recently the shadowy group created their own line of rebranded products; a popular candy bar had it’s recognizable brand name changed to “OBESITY” and was slipped back on the shelves of delis and bodegas across New York City. With new projects happening on a near weekly basis, it became pretty apparent that TrustoCorp would be around much longer than I, or the city’s upward battle to remove their signs, would have ever originally guessed.

Hi-Fructose had an opportunity to sit down with TrustoCorp to discuss the origins of the concept, how TrustoCorp does it, what’s in store for the future, and most importantly, why?

First off, thanks for taking time out of your schedule to sit down with us, would you mind introducing yourself to our readers, telling us whatever you can about who you are and what you do?

Greetings. We are TrustoCorp. We make illegal art as commentary on the state of American culture. Typically, we aim to camouflage our work into the landscape of imagery created by our authorities. Thus far, this has been street signs, fake products and site specific sculpture. We are based in New York but have gained a network of volunteers across the United States.

Culture jamming isn’t anything new: it is said that when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel he slyly subverted the work by painting patron’s faces on the damned, as well possibly incorporating various anatomical and symbolic subversive elements. More recently, you have the Situationists of the late 1950s, the Billboard Liberation Front’s first subvertisement in ’77, the launch of Adbusters in ’89, and of course contemporaries such as the Guerilla Girls, the Yes Men, Ron English, Shepard Fairey’s Obey Giant campaign, the Barbie Liberation Front, the list goes on.. Each of these artists and jammers is fueled by their own reasons for the messages in their work, what are your thoughts on the history of the movement, and what is it that drives you personally?

Those are definitely people we look up to and admire. The drive behind TrustoCorp comes from a natural reaction to the state of our country and the current political process (or lack thereof). When you feel strongly about something you have to take your free speech to a whole new level of action. Ours may be illegal, but people hear us loud and clear.

The first phase of the TrustoCorp takeover began with subversive street signs of a professional quality on government-issue metal signs. How did this project initially unfold? Would you mind breaking down the production process?

The production process is quite simple. It involves a Roland vinyl sticker cutter, Adobe Illustrator, exacto blades, spray paint and a huge amount of sarcasm. We use the vinyl as a stencil to spray paint the signs with perfect accuracy, then hand weather them to give them an aged look. Sometimes we’ll use Government grade reflective vinyls to mimic the street sign effect perfectly, other times we’ll make the signs entirely out of vinyl if we know they’ll be stolen quickly in a certain area.

The sheer scope of TrustoCorp’s nationwide reach is indicative of something greater than an occasional prank, TrustoCorp has gotten exposure on both national and local media levels… how do you do it, how can you be in LA one week, NY the next, Atlanta the week following? Big Brother may be watching everyone all at once, are you watching Big Brother?

This part of TrustoCorp happened as a surprise. We started our campaign as 1 person, then 2 people and were quickly flooded with volunteers wanting to get involved. So, we created a beefy ‘volunteer kit’ with signs, hardware and bombing instructions, then mailed them out to a carefully selected group of volunteers across the country. Every person came through and successfully put up signs in Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit and Boston.

We were surprised at the level of enthusiasm from our volunteers, but we see it as a testament to the state of America right now. We’re not the only ones who want to call out the hypocrisy and total bullshit happening in our country. Our signs became a way for people to get something off their chest and speak up. We felt honored to give them the tools to do so. That is what we call public service!

The word “meme” was coined in 1976 by British scientist Richard Dawkins. Since then, as the internet age arose and spread, the concept of meme has taken on new meanings and definitions. One such way of looking at a contemporary meme is as that of a virus, something that spreads in a cultural context from one person to another, a sensory contagion. When someone passes a TrustoCorp sign and does not notice it amidst the visual overload of civic signage, does that prove a point in and of itself? What sort of responses have you noticed or received from those who do manage to spot the ripples in the matrix? What are you aiming to incite in the people who do notice, what’s the dialogue?

One one level, we’re happy to simply put a smile on people’s faces and break up the monotony of their daily routine. Other times, the message is a little more serious and we are hoping to make people think a little deeper about what’s happening around them. If people agree with our message, seeing bold public statements like ours can possibly help build social consensus toward a common goal, conversely if you don’t agree, then maybe our work will make you think about the issues a little further or in another light.

While one typically doesn’t associate TrustoCorp’s tactics or methodology with that of traditional graffiti or even vandalism, the fact of the matter is that the repercussions of your actions do bear some heavy weight. Posterboy was recently sentenced to 11 months of jail time on Rikers, and some of the things that Trusto is involved in, such as the alteration of food products, can fall under the jurisdiction of federal bodies and could be perceived as federal crimes.. Is what you’re doing worth the risk? Do you have an escape plan if shit hits the fan? Do you even consider TrustoCorp’s work to be graffiti?

We don’t consider what we do graffiti. The work is illegal, but that’s where the comparison ends. Obviously the risks are very high but you have to go to extreme lengths to make yourself heard in America these days. The risk is also relative to the reward, which for us is public response. The response has been so positive that we feel like we’re on the right track and won’t stop until we’ve hit every state in the US.

TrustoCorp’s work is entirely American in that it’s by the people, for the people. That makes it worthwhile and extremely important to us.

In addition to tackling some pretty serious real world issues, TrustoCorp also recently took on celebrity artist Mr. Brainwash. Any official comment on that campaign? With the upcoming Gallery 1988 LA show on the horizon, will Trusto be bringing the battle to MBW’s turf?

Hmmm. I think TrustoCorp was a little grumpy that weekend. Some of us do have graffiti roots so the beef came naturally. However, we’re not planning on continuing that beef unless Mr. Bla Bla Bla retaliates. We hit him pretty hard and after the 3rd round it felt like we were beating a puppy. We got our point across and got his work out of our neighborhood, mission accomplished. End of story.

 TrustoCorp recently took on the eduction system as part of Yosi Sargent’s Re:Form School, what would you say are the three most important changes that need to be made in the current status quo?

1. Financial mismanagement. There are cases where schools have to bribe city officials to get supplies and funding allocated to them. The system has so many layers that theft is easily hidden in the bureaucracy. It’s disgusting.

2. Corruption. People like Detroit ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick can use the education system and it’s funding like an ATM machine. This is so rampant and common that it’s frequently done out in public with no fear of repercussion.

3. Teachers are not held accountable for their performance. This is outrageous. There are horrible teachers under performing for years, under teaching our nations children and they CAN NOT be fired by law. It’s crazy.

Following a pretty epic showing in Brooklyn earlier this year at Brooklyn Brothers Gallery, you’ve got a two-day show coming up in Los Angeles at Gallery 1988. What can you tell us about the show?

It’s going to be larger and crazier then anything we’ve done yet. We built a TrustoCorp Immigration office carnival game where you can win your citizenship (or get deported if you lose) as well as a fully custom, lowrider shopping cart with remote control hydraulics. The cart has gold plating, sound system, ground effects , plush interior – everything you need for the ultimate shopping experience. We are also debuting 5 new paintings, 5 new products and about 15 new street signs. All together it should be some good old American anarchy.

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