It's one thing for a slogan to make you laugh. It's another to make you demand a better world. And it's another to tell established authorities to screw off. The slogans at Unamerican.com can do all three at once. We thought it was so cool that we wanted to talk to the person who put it together.
Strictly speaking, unamerican.com is just a place that sells bumper stickers, coffee mugs and T-shirts. But its founder, Srini Kumar, a 26-year-old in the San Francisco Bay area, described it as a "a punk rock band without the songs but with a lot of titles."
He's right: Just like a great punk rock band, the slogans at unamerican.com live in a hard-to-reach middle ground where everything is both sarcastic and earnest, cynical and idealistic, rebellious and responsible -- all at the same time.
"We help people advertise ideas that no corporation would ever sponsor, because, dude, fuck censorship," says the web site's introduction. If that doesn't make you smile, you might as well turn back now.
But if you want to know even more, stick around. I spoke with Srini for about an hour and half in October 1998. We talked about philosophy, the importance of Fort Wayne, Indiana, how he's quitting his job to pursue selling bumper stickers full-time, his plans for a Fuck Work book, and how unamerican.com is the most patriotic site on the web.
(Notes on the interview: Srini's quotes are intact, but I've rearranged the sequence of subjects into a logical order. Also, since I typed the interview as it happened, I didn't type my own questions, and I've reproduced them here from memory. Lame, but honest.)
SM: So how did unamerican start?
SK: I did stickers first. The idea was I hated a job that I had. I was flying all over the country installing computer programs and there was a record store in one of the places that I flew -- Fort Wayne, Ind. I was in a band and I gave a bunch a CDs to this guy and they didn't sell. So I wanted to create something that had a more universal appeal. So for $40 I made a stack of "Fuck Work" stickers and those BLEW out of the store and I realized that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. Because I would have an actual chance for a profit-making business that actually said something.
SM: When was this? When was Fort Wayne?
SK: October, 1994. The web site came in March. The stickers came before the web site. I actually did this: I had a table on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley and every weekend day I would put my stickers out there and watch as people laughed. My stickers did great there.
When the web came around, it gave me the opportunity to turn the stickers into something much deeper. I could make a web site that just projected an attitude in a sticky form, but with the web you could get into it more. Slowly, I incorporated community tools... like mailing lists, surveys.
SM: So how old are you now?
SK: I'm 26 now.
SM: You graduated in a relatively poor economic times for college grads to get a job. (1994)
SK: Totally bad. My experience with work is definitely an influence. I mean here I am, full scholarship to Stanford, here I am: golden child, and then six weeks later I was working at Kinko's... although the whole Kinko's thing kind of got me going on the DIY media.
I was so into my band. I got into desktop publishing to make promotional materials, and then I was like "you know, it's really fun!", and then slowly I realized that stickers were an unrealized medium. The web too; I got into it in 1994. I mean, I liked 'zines, but I was never a joiner. I had done some zines before and that was a lot of fun. When you're about to launch something and you want it to be a success it's a good idea to choose a medium that isn't well-explored. The web at one point wasn't well-explored. Bumper stickers is one that isn't, well, WE'RE the weirdest bumper sticker place that we've ever heard of.
SM: So is your web site the main thing now?
SK: The web is where we want to make business. I don't know why. It's cool, I know for a lot of people that it's the first thing that people have bought on line. Other people have been trying to do ads, or sell their words to another company. They write, and I think that's awesome... there's nothing wrong with doing something you love for your business.
But one of the things that really fuels my ability is paradigms. I'm not an essay kind of creature I'm a bullet-point kind of creature. I'm a phrase-maven. Slogans have a bad name. You can say that a slogan doesn't mean anything, but really, a slogan can change things. Look at Karl Marx. Just a couple of words, a couple of slogans....
Another thing I call my stickers is just a way to create conversations. So I don't have to tell people what to think, but I do have to help them what the agenda is. I would love to distribute that. Like someone says, "Hey, I really love 'Shut up Hippy' I would want to write that. Maybe even have a "Shut Up Hippy" listserv.[which is a dicussion that takes place over email - ed.]
At this point in my history we're doing e-commerce in a way that no one else is doing it. I've always thought of unamerican as more of a rock band than a publication. I think a lot of people thing of their zine as a publication and that's why they sell ads. You wouldn't see a band selling ads. We work on being engaging in a performance sort of way.
SM: Your site has a good balance between serious urgency and a sense of humor. You have a lot of things that let people sort of make fun of themselves -- "I guess I was punk once".
SK: It's playful and hopeful. Graduating when I did, it was very easy to create a hateful site, it was easy to be hateful and angry, and as time went on I realized that's a really small niche, I really wanted to give people a way to grow. I started to realize that a slogan like "Fuck Work" is really negative, and I've kind of jujitsu-ed it into something liberating. And there's nothing like creating an object and having people buy it.
I try to do whatever I do with as much inspiration as I can pack into 9 words. How else do you get people to listen? I chose a medium that no one else was doing right, in my opinion. What strikes people is that the wide variety that we have.
SM: Did you do the design?
SK: Yeah. It's a terrible design, dude, that's one reason I'm quitting so I can put it up (Srini had just quit his day job to pursue unamerican full-time). It took me a YEAR to figure out credit card ordering on line. I aim to make it more user-friendly.
Read the second half of the interview with Srini! Now!
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