Walking through central Edinburgh one day in September 2020, my eye is caught by a small, round sticker on a rubbish bin. Going over to take a closer look, I find black text across a faded background of a heart-shaped St. Andrews flag. The text reads: “No To – Mandatory Masks – Mandatory Vaccines – No More Lockdowns” (see Figure 1, top left sticker). I took a picture of the sticker on my phone, amused by the sticker’s awkward wording (“No To No More Lockdowns” could be phrased better) and carried on with my walk. I did a bit of research when I got home, and found out that the sticker had been produced by Saving Scotland Scottish Unity, a “non-political grassroots movement” set up to campaign against the measures taken to fight Covid-19. Little did I know at the time, this was just the first of dozens of similar stickers that I have come across in Edinburgh’s streets and public spaces over the last 9 months (see Figure 1).
I have been photographing protest stickers wherever I go since 2014, resulting in a collection of more than 6000 images from more than 50 locations. When I tell people that I research these small pieces of self-adhesive paper or vinyl which are stuck to lamp posts, rubbish bins, and other street architecture, people used to be surprised. “Oh really? I’ve never noticed them!” was a common response. Yet over the last few months though, I have started to get a different reply: “Like those anti-vaxxer stickers I’ve seen all over the place?” Opponents of measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, including vaccinations, lock downs, and mask wearing, are putting up a large number of stickers in public space, and people are starting to notice.
But why does this matter? And why is it interesting to Geographers? I have explored these questions in my recent article published in Area, drawing on my archive of photographs from before the pandemic, where key issues included Brexit and climate change. But these insights also allow us to think about the stickers related to Covid-19.
Relatively easy and cheap to produce and distribute, protest stickers are a common tactic of social movements from both ends of the political spectrum in the Global North. Whether left wing, right wing, or neither, the views expressed on protest stickers are often extreme. Early on, most of the stickers about Covid related to working conditions and pay for key workers, many of them produced by the Anarchist Communist Group as part of their No Safety No Work campaign. Over the last 6 months, however, stickers promoting conspiracy theories about the pandemic have become increasingly common. The stickers question multiple elements of the pandemic and society’s response to it, including the safety and necessity of masks; the necessity of social distancing and lock downs; and the safety of the vaccines. Many of the stickers suggest that the virus is a deliberate attempt to control the population or reduce overpopulation. Some even go so far as to argue that Covid-19 doesn’t even exist, and the whole thing is an elaborate hoax.
The popularity of stickers is due to the fact that they allow activists to declare their presence and express an opinion or belief in public space. More traditional methods of participating in public debates – doing an interview on television, writing an article for a newspaper or website, or advertising on billboards or bus stops, for example – requires power, resources, or both. Protest stickers are a democratic, if imperfect, way for those who are not part of the social and political elite to participate in public discussions. As such, protest stickers often reflect the most controversial issues facing society at any one time, and Covid-19 is no exception.
The Geography of protest stickers
There are several reasons why geography matters to protest stickers.
First, the distribution of stickers varies across space. You are more likely to find stickers in city centres than residential areas for example, and different issues are more popular in some places than others. Stickers can also reflect local issues, such as opposition to a new development, or promoting a local activist group. Covid-19 has affected all of us, so stickers relating to it have been appearing all over the country.
The second reason that geographers should be interested in protest stickers is public space. Having open and accessible public space is important for recreation and social interaction, but it is also essential for social movements. Public space is where activists express their opinions, beliefs, and demands, whether that is through marches, rallies, or stickers. As such, protest stickers can tell us a lot about how activists interact with, express themselves through, and perceive public space.
The large number of Covid-19 conspiracy stickers in public spaces at the moment can give the impression that these beliefs are widespread, a concerning thought for those of us who appreciate that Covid-19 can have serious impacts on both individuals and society. This is not necessarily the case however, as a single person can put up a lot of stickers in a short space of time. Large numbers of protest stickers appearing in public space is not a sign that lots of people feel a certain way, but rather that a small number of people feel strongly. In addition, there are frequent signs of disagreement on the stickers themselves. Putting up a sticker is not the only way to use them to express an opinion. Some people interact with stickers they disagree with by scratching them off, writing on them, or covering them up – a literal example of how protest stickers allow people to participate in public debates. The Covid conspiracy stickers tend to be defaced in one or more of these ways quickly (see Figure 3). Depending on what stickers are made from, it can be quite difficult to interact with them in these ways, so it should be a comforting thought that people find the Covid conspiracy stickers so objectionable that they take the time to obscure, deface, or remove them.
Protest stickers are useful to geographers because of what they can tell us about social movements, public space, and public discourse. We might not always agree with their messages, but we need to start giving them the attention they deserve all the same.
About the author: Hannah Awcock is a University Teacher in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh. She completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2018. The PhD thesis is entitled Contesting the Capital: Space, Place, and Protest in London, 1780-2010. Hannah is interested in the historical, cultural, political and urban geographies of resistance and public space, both past and present. Currently, she is researching the geographies of protest stickers. She blogs at TurbulentLondon.com, and her twitter handle is @Faxsly.
Suggested further reading
Awcock, H. (2021) Stickin’ it to the man: The geographies of protest stickers. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12720