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Grand designs: ‘Strikethrough’ chronicles the history of protest art in the Bay Area & beyond

Zahid Sardar, a designer, admires the preview of ‘Strikethrough,’ an exhibition of typographic protest art, in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, June 21, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

From Keith Haring to Shepard Fairey, many famous artists have put their stamps on political and protest art. 

But the mission of Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest—a new exhibit of social justice-focused art opening this weekend at the Letterform Archive—is to hold up grassroots artists/activists alongside professional image makers. 

That’s one of the themes throughout the show, actually,” said Stephen Coles, the Letterform Archive’s editorial director and associate curator. “Professional designers are sitting alongside everyday people who now have the tools to make something to get their message out.”

Coles, also co-curator of Strikethrough, assembled the collection of broadsides, buttons, signs, T-shirts, posters and ephemera spanning the 1800s to today with guest curator Silas Munro of the Los Angeles-based design studio Polymode.

Tim Paschke, a local graphic designer, admires 'Strikethrough,' an exhibition of typographic protest art, in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, June 21, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Broken into five different sections of activist action—“VOTE!,” “RESIST!,” “LOVE!,” “TEACH!” and “STRIKE!”—the exhibit illustrates the power of protest art in social justice movements through a historical cross-section of image makers. 

A handmade collage created by a Black Lives Matter protester crosses paths with a typographic image produced by a nationally recognized graphic designer. Buttons and patches from anti-fascist and punk rock movements are displayed alongside protest posters made by professional artists. And the imagery and iconography of politically themed T-shirts carry as much weight as the messages blasted on the protest posters, underscoring another subtle theme of the show—the intersection of the body with protest art. 

“One of the things we wanted to show… is not just political posters or signs, but also the way that people have used typography, even on their bodies,” Coles said. “Typography isn’t removed from humans… A lot of these [items] are talking about very human personal issues, and one of the most personal ways to represent your message is to actually wear it.”

Stephen Coles, co-curator of 'Strikethrough,' an exhibition of typographic protest art at Letterform Archive, discusses the art with press in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, June 21, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

For instance, the performance art group Brick x Brick created a series of jumpsuits—one of which is on display in the exhibition—that its members would wear at demonstrations to protest former President Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The jumpsuits feature black and white squares in the shape of bricks, evoking a brick wall, and derogatory words and phrases Trump would use to describe women on colorful patches. 

Another notable item in the exhibition is a 1979 screen-printed tank top by an unknown designer commemorating San Francisco’s historic White Night Riots, which began in reaction to the light sentencing of former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, who assassinated Castro district Supervisor Harvey Milk and then San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. The item was donated to the Letterform Archive by a volunteer who lived in the Castro at the time. It sits alongside a striking “Silence = Death” T-shirt, which became an iconic slogan and piece of wearable iconography during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s

“That’s one of the most powerful ways to speak about what’s important to you is to actually have it on your body and just go throughout your day with this message on your chest,” Coles said.

And of course, take it out to the streets.

In the end, Munro and Coles hope that the exhibit can empower would-be artists and activists.  

“I think part of my hopes for this show is that the people who are not always invited to talk about design or are thinking about design are welcomed to participate in the exhibition,” Munro said.

“We just want people to come away from this thinking, ‘OK, you know, something is important to me.’ I can create art, too, even though I may not have any experience with it,” Coles said. 

‘Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest’ opens with a reception from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Letterform Archive’s Dogpatch gallery on Saturday, July 23. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. Visit to RSVP or check out a virtual preview of the show.