The first time I heard of AIDS, I stopped to pay a toll at a booth on the Saw Mill River Parkway in Westchester, NY. It wasn’t actually AIDS that captured my attention, but rather a small round sticker prominently placed in the bucket where I threw my quarter. This sticker—no larger than an old 50-cent piece, was adorned with a pink triangle on a black background and the phrase “Silence=Death” was dropped out in white—gave me pause. As the line of impatient drivers behind me in line began blowing their horns, I made a mental note and resolved to find out the meaning. I stepped on the gas.
When was the last time a piece of graphic ephemera posed a question that demanded similar (or any) attention? I did not need to do much research. Within a few weeks, more stickers and posters cropped up underscoring the “Silence=Death” theme: A new virus that was beginning to impact mostly gay men. The quick increase in infection fatalities began triggering action and awareness among some. Since HIV/AIDS victims were gay, silence was maintained until news outlets, including the New York Times began coverage.
Among other burgeoning activist groups, ACT-UP and its graphic arm, Gran Fury, launched awareness campaigns, including the sticker at the toll booth; and the awareness grew and grew spreading words of caution. AIDS facts, much in the form of posters, triggered an info epidemic of sorts—arguably the most energized campaigns of the latter 20th century.
The disease has not been entirely expunged but the posters are evidence of the global crisis that many victims lived and died through. A new book, Up Against The Wall: Art, Activism and the AIDS Poster (RIT Press), edited by Donald Albrecht and Jessica Laher-Feldman, with William M. Valenti, is a chronicle and catalog of the University of Rochester’s collection of AIDS education posters.
“The messages depicted in the posters represent and illustrate cultural, political, sexual and social differences in diverse communities and locations through language, image and messaging dating from 1982, the very beginnings of the AIDS crisis, through the present day,” write Jonathan P. Binstock and Mary Ann Mavrinac in their foreword.
Each nation hit by the virus has had different ways of broadcasting the concerns. Not one size or strategy fit all potential victims the same way. But one thing is clear: AIDS was (and continues to be) a killer, and silence, it has been shown, does not solve the crisis.
“Consider these staggering statistics,” writes Donald Albrecht in the introduction. “Since HIV/AIDS was first detected in the early 1980s, an estimated 78 million people have become infected with HIV, and 35 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses.”
While posters are not the cure, they are the first line of offense in the battle for awareness.