Cardboard Vendors

100 silk-screened and free-standing cardboard salesmen, cut out with a box cutter, and distributed on the streets of SF & NYC

In most societies the street vendor is at once the untouchable as well as the confessional priest. When life is stable the street vendor is scum, but when life buckles the street vendor is the purveyor of potential solutions. Books, magazines, clothing, bikes, drugs, guns, sex, used toasters, etc, etc. I’ve had a first hand view into this world because I was a street vendor selling custom souvenirs my brother Gus and I designed outside Fenway Park for 8yrs (e).

My cardboard vendor project was intended to put a public and smiling face on this maligned but important outlet of capitalism. And, having often lived in “bad” neighborhoods that are the constant target of Police enforcement I wanted my vendors to reflect the true American spirit embodied by small business owners making a go of it in these hardscrabble ‘hoods. Our last two presidents were drug doers and the next one most likely will be as well. My cardboard vendors were the first appreciation of the Patriotism and public service provided by the street vendor

Distribution: I lived in the Lower Haight of SF for a year. At the time (the early 90’s) the Lower Haight was pretty sketch (i.e. drug infested, crime ridden, and sour…but still a good time!). The rounded glass window of my corner room on the third floor over a laundry-mat overlooked the action. A bullet came thru my window (when I wasn’t home) and another time a dead body was found in shopping cart in front of the door.

This period in SF in the lower neighborhoods is chronicled perfectly in the street artwork of then unknown SF artists Chris Johanson & TWIST (Barry McGee). Chris’s drawings/paintings of broken men & women, hunched over and clutching broken bottles with menace in mind (below left):

…and Twist’s giant black and white sad-sack faces of downtrodden men (above right). The artist Reminiscence offered a contrasting hopefulness with her wall paintings of life-size galloping horses (below).

From my window view I was occassionally inspired by things I saw: a beautiful young woman with one leg who walked on crutches to work from her apartment every morning (I never got the courage up to talk to her), and a seemingly sourceless fireball dancing alone in the street in the middle of day.

My addition to this sad and beautiful landscape were these self-standing cardboard street vendors, inspired by a junk vendor who set up shop across the street from my window. It was the tail end of the crack epidemic but the hobby of cracksters to put a rock thru a car window and empty out the backseat of anything that could be sold was still in effect. But who am I to disparage another person’s livelyhood. Crack thieving was simply another part of the ‘trickle back up economy’.

I watched this guy from my window everyday selling all kinds of backseat ditritous…rarely anything special. Having been making cardboard cut-out artworks of late, folk-art-esque signage with a nod to that Southern outsider artist who did the album art for the Talking Heads way back when (Reverend Finster?) I decided to approach the guy to see if he wanted to go into business. I showed him a few of the brand new DRUGS cardboard cut-outs I had just created (a., d.) and asked if he’d be interested in trying to sell them with the rest of his wares. I told him he could keep whatever money he made off them. I suggested a $5 retail price but he countered that “$2 is the lucky number”. Worked for me. I gave him five DRUGS vendors on the first day and then went back to my room to watch the sales.

The street traffic on Lower Haight is relatively brisk. On nice days the sunshine sucks the Upper Haight tourists down the hill. All five of my cardboard vendors sold within two hrs. Mostly they were bought by groups of two or more. The group would double take, bend down, smile, look to each other for confidence, pick it up, inspect for cooties, and ask the price. Walt, you should’a asked for $5!

I brought Walt five characters a day for ten days. He sold them all. Eventually, our arrangement came to an end when I got into a fist fight with a looney roommate. His name was on the lease so I had to go.

It was a year later that I began developing my Vinnie’s Tampon Case project. My initial idea was to combine menstrual products with the ubiquitous and very public persona of a street vendor (see h). I had my friend Rob Lee ( document this early incarnation of Vinnie the Tampon Case Distributor, back when I was still thinking about being a tampon distributor, but still shying away from using the word tampon due to its polarizing effect among many women. Vinnie’s Absorbent Plugs never really had the right flavor. It was my friend Krista who convinced me that I should reclaim the word tampon.