Gran Fury

Gran Fury was an agit-prop artist collective that began in early 1988 and officially disbanded in 1995.  The group used a combination of bold graphic design, guerilla dissemination tactics, sophisticated subversion of traditional marketing strategies, and visually striking confrontational works to spread medical and political messages during the AIDS crisis.  The collective was closely associated with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), originally serving as the marketing agency for the group, but later breaking away to form its own autonomous collective.   During its active years, the group was responsible for “some of the finest anti-AIDS campaigns ever realized” (Speretta, 12).  Their “viral interventions and sophisticated communication strategies helped activists makes the AIDS crisis visible, giving it a tangible, public form in society” (Speretta, 13).

The group began in 1988 and took its name from the model of car used by the NYPD (Gran Fury).  The group was initially open to anyone from ACT UP, but soon closed to a core group of about ten for several reasons: integrating new members was too time consuming, a smaller group meant that the team was aware of each other’s points of view and felt comfortable brainstorming new ideas, and by remaining a part of ACT UP, every piece had to be approved by an organization vote (Gran Fury) (Farrelly, 47).  Its initial projects were wheat-pasting posters on vacant signage, reflective of their limited funds.  They soon realized they could get financial and institutional support from the art community.  They recognized the support was transactional; art institutions benefitted by supporting AIDS work by a group that met their aesthetic standards and wouldn’t explicitly critique their sponsors, and Gran Fury benefitted from funding and an audience they wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.  However, the collective worked with the condition that its work would receive the greatest possible public access, working not in galleries but often outside the venue. Much of their funding came from art museums and foundations like the New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, LA MOCA, and Creative Time.  Additional funding came through guest lecturing, t-shirt and sticker sales through ACT UP, and minimal support from AIDS organizations.  All funding went directly towards the production of projects; no one in the group received a salary. (Gran Fury)

They often addressed the art world directly.  In September 1988, they designed the invitation card to the New York Dance and Performance Awards where ACT UP was receiving an award.  The card stated, “During This Performance At Least 6 People With AIDS Will Die,” and “cordially invited” the audience to “turn grief into action, arm yourself with facts.  Demand access to health care and experimental drugs, explicit AIDS education, and legal protection for everyone.”  Also in 1988, they designed Art Is Not Enough, a poster to be included in the program of events at The Kitchen exhibition space in New York from December 1988-January 1989, which stated, “With 42,000 dead, art is not enough.  Take collective direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” (Speretta, 173-175)

The group became famous for its visually striking, confrontational works that were presented as part of the visual texture of New York City (d’Addario).  One such example of viral artistic activism occurred in 1988, entitled The Government Has Blood On Its Hands.  To protest the incorrect reporting of AIDS statistics and the inadequate healthcare for AIDS victims, thousands of red-paint handprints were left on New York mailboxes, walls, subway trains, street signs, and shop shutters (Speretta, 9).  Another example was a work titled The New York Crimes, in which Gran Fury wrapped copies of The New York Times newspaper in a mock, four-page version reporting exclusively on the AIDS stories that tended to be overlooked by the press (Speretta, 7).

They were not unaware of the power of art to cause societal change; “Our culture is run on carefully crafted words and images.  They are given tremendous authority, and have the power to shape society’s responses” (Gran Fury).  They also didn’t view their work as one-sided; “by approaching art and communication as critical tools capable of instigating changes in cultural norms and opening up public discussion, they explicitly invoked the responsibilities and duties of citizens in a democratic society” (Speretta, 13).  Their works were used by ACT UP as an organizational tool, spreading information to supporters, the general public, AIDS victims, and media workers, but also to the movement itself by promoting slogans, identifying enemies, defining positions, and suggesting action (Speretta, 136).  “Drawing from American pop culture aesthetics, advertising semiotics, and mass media techniques, Gran Fury helped to free activist art…and to redefine what it meant to be an artist in a moment of profound social crisis” (Speretta, 164).

Gran Fury designed their first poster in response to a 1988 article in Cosmopolitan magazine titled “Reassuring News about AIDS: A Doctor Tells You Why You May Not Be at Risk.”  In the article, Dr. Robert E. Gould, an American psychiatrist (not a physician), reassured the roughly 15 million worldwide readers of the magazine – mostly young women – that heterosexual women were not at risk of AIDS, even if their partner was HIV positive, and that a condom was useless except in the case of vaginal lacerations.  In response, the group published AIDS: 1 in 61, which showed a splayed baby doll and stated in both English and Spanish: “One in every sixty-one babies in New York City is born with AIDS or born HIV antibody positive.  So why is the media telling us that heterosexuals aren’t at risk?  Because these babies are black.  These babies are Hispanic.  Ignoring color ignores the facts of AIDS.  STOP RACISM: FIGHT AIDS.” (Speretta, 146-148)

Using spectacle to gain attention, ACT UP and Gran Fury forced the media to more accurately cover AIDS, which until the 1990s was still represented as gay cancer, and those with AIDS were viewed as guilty, sick people.  They produced counter-information using typical advertising methods and journalistic language (Speretta, 137-139) to combat the false information or lack of information being shared in traditional media outlets.  They described themselves as a “band of individuals united in anger and dedicated to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis” (Felshin).  As member Loring McAlpin stated, “We are trying to fight for attention as had as Coca-Cola fights for attention” (Jacobs and Heller, 12).

The New York Crimes is an example.  On March 28, 1989, ACT UP organized a 5,000-person march to New York City Hall to protest Mayor Ed Koch.  The march was called Target City Hall, and Gran Fury helped spread awareness through posters around the city.  That morning, they also broke into newspaper dispensers around the city and folded copies of the Crimes around the day’s Times.  Gran Fury reproduced an exact copy of the newspaper for the demonstration, identical in shape, size, font, and outline, that included personal stories from AIDS victims and their family members, a series of articles relating the true facts about AIDS, and images and graphics designed by Gran Fury.  That day, regular readers were given far more accurate information about AIDS in the four pages of the Crimes than they had in seven years of mis-coverage or a failure to coverage in the Times.  The Crimes “mocked the seriousness of the New York Times and forced people to notice that the newspaper had intentionally kept its readers from learning more about problems connected to the AIDS crisis” (Speretta, 146-147).

They often used short, catchy phrases to convey a simple message:

  • All People With AIDS Are Innocent – used to critique those spreading the notion that there were innocent victims of AIDS (children, hemophiliacs and other recipients of blood transfusions), and guilty victims (homosexuals, prostitutes, drug addicts)
  • Men, Use Condoms or Beat It – printed in black on yellow and featured on t-shirts, pins, stickers, train seats, buses, taxis
  • We Need More Than Magic – referencing Magic Johnson, this called upon George Bush to help end the AIDS crisis, also featured the “Just Do It” Nike slogan
  • Women don’t get AIDS; they just die from it – criticizing often published misinformation that straight women were at no risk of getting AIDS

Their goal was not to terrify – although their messages were often terrifying – but to evoke anger that could be directed into political action (Speretta, 179).  The group didn’t shy away from targeting major figures, including Senator Jesse Helms, First Lady Barbara Bush, President Ronald Reagan, the CEO of the major Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical company, and even Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church.  They believed that the government, mass media, and the culture of profit was responsible for the AIDS crisis, whether due to their refusal to acknowledge or talk about the problem or their exploitation of the disease for financial gain (Speretta, 179).

Their final poster work, Four Questions, were four questions in small font stamped on a white background and posted repeatedly on walls throughout the city.  The questions were designed to probe the gay and straight community alike: “Do you resent people with AIDS?  Do you trust HIV-negatives?  Have you given up hope for a cure?  When was the last time you cried?”

Upon their disbanding, the group published an open letter entitled “Good Luck…Miss You.”  In it, the group offers a history of their work, and a warning for the future.  They were afraid that gay activists and allies had “adapted to the apparent permanence of the AIDS crisis,” and warned that “The notion that AIDS is here to stay threatens to overpower the idea that it should be fought” (Gran Fury).  They also called for a renewed sense of action “of all sorts and on all levels.”  When asked why they ended, one member responded, “We found that our way of working was inadequate to the situation, and we couldn’t change our way of working” (Crimp, 2003).  From the early 90s on, AIDS projects began receiving official sponsorship and financial support, and anti-AIDS campaigns became mainstream, created by advertising agencies and TV networks, and involving celebrities, government agencies, and important institutions.  During his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton repeatedly stated that AIDS would become a priority.

As a result of the change in dialogue, two changes occurred that made Gran Fury an ineffective outlet.  First, the needs of the AIDS movement changed.  Originally, ACT UP and Gran Fury were fighting for awareness and recognition.  But now, AIDS activists joined community organizations and government agencies, who often began running their own AIDS awareness campaigns.  But the issues at this point were much more complex, like drug trial design and protocol, financing services for people with AIDS, and insurance industry fraud.  These issues “became less readily communicable in sharp billboard copy.  Gran Fury’s original strategies were unable to communicate the complexities of AIDS issues in the mid-1990s” (Gran Fury).  Second, the gay community began focusing on other issues like gays in the military and marriage equality.  Without widespread support from within their own community or the ability to communicate the needs of the AIDS movement, Gran Fury couldn’t effectively function.


Crimp, Douglas. “Gran Fury talks to Douglas Crimp.” Artforum, Apr. 2003, pp. 70-71.

d’Addario, John. “AIDS, Art, and Activism: Remembering Gran Fury.” Hyperallergic, Dec. 1, 2011.

Farrelly, Liz. “Gran Fury.” Eye, vol. 2, no. 6, 1992, pp. 46-47.

Felshin, Nina. But Is It Art? The Spirit of Art As Activism. Bay Press, 1995.

Gran Fury. Good Luck…Miss You. 1995.

Jacobs, Karrie and Steven Heller. Angry Graphics: Protest Posters of the Reagan/Bush Era. Peregrine Smith Books, 1992.

Speretta, Tommaso. Rebels Rebel: AIDS, Art, and Activism in New York, 1979-1989. Mer. Paper Kunsthalle, Ghent, 2014.