Deep Thoughts on Bumper Stickers

Note: This post needs a ton of editing, but I’m going to throw it up so I can look at it later, cringe, and turn it into proper English.  If you see this notice, be ye warned.

It probably wasn’t conveyed very well in the last post, but one of my favorite things to mentally catalog are the bumper stickers that people put on their cars.  It seems like a pretty uniquely American thing – or at least I’ve never seen it in Japan and didn’t see it in the UK – and it always impresses me how much people choose to convey with a few bits of vinyl.

I will, at this point, set aside the stick-figure families of the world, whichever quirky variant has been chosen, because those are borderline annoying.  Likewise, political bumper stickers during election season just kind of fade into the noise.  I AM always impressed by someone who’s still displaying a political bumper sticker for the losing side months and years after the election.  It’s a beautifully passive-aggressive way to get a point across.

Mind you, if you’re still flying the flag of the WINNING side years later, that has always struck me as a little tacky.  But I digress.

What I DO love are the bumper stickers that are designed to be very meaningful to a particular in-group and to be fairly meaningless outside that group, and that’s a fascination that started for me a couple of decades ago when I saw a pair of co-workers bond over an “Easy Does It” sticker – the sort of thing that had always sort of faded into the background noise as a fairly banal saying to stick to the back of your car.  When they saw my confusion, they explained that it was an AA sticker, so if you saw it stuck to some guy’s car, you knew that he’d been through the same rough patch you’d been through.

It was an eye opener to be sure.  Up until that point, the only symbolism I’d understood was the Ichthys symbol and all of its variants – living in Oregon, which is a fairly liberal state, you see a lot of Darwin fish, and Truth Fish eating Darwin Fish, and FSM-fishes and the like.

So now, when I see a bumper sticker that just doesn’t seem to make sense, I am compelled to try to figure out what it means and who would find it meaningful.  It’s a kind of modern-day symbolism, and it’s even more interesting when it’s a group that doesn’t have any particular REASON to be obscure but is using slightly-obfuscated symbols to indicate their membership in the group only to other members of the group.

For example, seeing a HE>i sticker on a car instead of an Ichthys, or a ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ sticker instead of an “I’m the NRA, and I vote!”, when neither of these are particularly controversial views, even in Oregon.  We’re 70% Christian and we have a LOT of hunters and target-shooting enthusiasts.

There’s probably a decent thesis paper in there somewhere.  I am long since out of college.  If you have stumbled across this as a grad student in desperate need of something to write about, feel free to take the idea and run with it.

Likewise, while I’m not terribly fond of tarting up the back of your car with little white Apple logos, I get a kick from any car where the driver has dug up a vintage six-color “Apple Computer” sticker as a way to point out their corporate fandom while setting themselves apart from the iPod crowd.

On the other side of things, I have been somewhat embarrassed by accidentally flying the colors of a subculture and having very confusing conversations as a result, like when I stuck a shoshinsha mark on the back of my car as an “I love Japanese things”  sort of message and found out that it had been co-opted by people who were into tuning import cars and I was unintentionally projecting the image that I was, I dunno, into drifting or something.  I stick to just a university alumni sticker and a Dutch Brothers logo sticker now, which are fairly hard to misinterpret. 🙂


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