Crowded around a small table in a Downtown Starbucks, three entrepreneurs discussed how their “Slightly Insulting Poster” for Austin and other Chicago neighborhoods is not meant to offend residents, but humor them.
A poster they recently created for Austin reads: “Austin, Pros: Amazing architecture and stunning parks. Cons: LOTS, Some just released from prison.” It is posted on Tumblr.
RC Jones, who lives in Ravenswood, takes care of the team’s writing responsibilities. Lauren Schroer of Lincoln Park and Jeni Brendemuehl of the Ukrainian Village are the team’s designers. They all met in Chicago after moving from Idaho, Kansas and Milwaukee to work at Wunderman3, a Downtown advertising agency. Recently, they started working at the marketing firm Arc Worldwide.
Their posters feature intricate designs amid their unique brand of humor. So far, they have tackled 42 of Chicago’s 77 communities, and they just started in July. They said their business was never a thought-out business plan, but it just sort of happened and became something they do on the side.
“I was just joking and was talking about Logan Square and how there are lots of fun and trendy things to do and it’s a little sketchy, so I was like,‘Oh, Logan Square, come for the fun and stay because you got shot,’” Jones said.
He said his spur-of-the-moment commentary made Brendemuehl laugh, and she joked they should make a poster.
“We never meant for it to be a business … it started for our own entertainment purposes,” Brendemuehl said.
Each poster sells for $18 to equally divide the total by three. So far they have sold 140 posters. The Austin poster is not yet for sale, but Jones said it will be available for purchase depending on the demand. They put them on Tumblr and determine from the number of blog posts and messages if they will print and sell them through an online shop, Etsy.
The business expanded, Jones said, after people began tweeting about them and asking for their neighborhood to be featured next.
“If I find a little nugget Googling like, ‘Austin has great architecture,’ I’ll do some Google image searches and pull up buildings and be like,‘oh yeah, that’s true,’” Jones said.
“Now that so many more people are looking at it, I feel like I have to be much more accurate with the thing I’m making fun of,or else there will be tons of people [saying] that’s not true,” he said. Jones said he depends on his research when he has not actually been to a neighborhood.
As of yet, none of them have been to Austin.
The trio said they receive more positive responses on their posters than negative.
“There was only one time where people were kind of calling out RC on being racist, and that’s stuff that if you know him as a person, it’s totally false,” Schroer said.
The way they usually handle comments like these is to simply retweet something and allow the supporters to defend them, they said.
The group realizes there will always be someone who just does not see the humor and be offended.
“They’re maybe taking it too seriously. They may be more than slightly insulted, but I just think maybe they think our posters are doing more harm than good,” Schroer said.
“But really all we’re trying to do is make people laugh, and I think that’s all they are doing,” Schroer said.
Maro Roc, doctoral candidate, who teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said after reviewing the group’s posters, he found the Austin poster offensive.
“Not every single one of them was racially charged, but taken together there was certainly some racial overtones … it is reminiscent to me of what some folks have termed as ‘hipster racism,’” Roc said.
“It’s sort of used to describe the type of dry, sophisticated, subtle humor with racial overtones that people say that because it’s sophisticated, because it’s thought out, because no harm is meant or intended that it’s free from any type of reproach or critique, and if you don’t get it, it’s because you’re not sophisticated enough to get it or you don’t have that type of sense of humor,” Roc said.
The damage is not what the poster says because there are formerly incarcerated residents in Austin, but the damage is that there is no mention as to why or how communities like Austin receive a formerly incarcerated group, Roc said.
He said black communities “suffer” disproportionately in regards to racial profiling and drug offenses, which can lead African-Americans to prison.
He said America is living in a time where there is a notion of “color blindness” where some believe they are not being racist if they talk disparagingly about everyone.
“They feel like they are being equal opportunity comedians in a sense that they’re poking fun at all neighborhoods so therefore, their intent can’t be malicious,” Roc said.
Austin resident Serethea Reid said she can’t say whether the poster is offensive until she evaluates it in context. Reid said the poster definitely does not do a great job in summing up all her West Side community has to offer.
“I don’t know that two statements can define a community. One statement pro, one statement con. I don’t know if that vehicle does it,” Reid said.