A meme is born: Real Australians Say Welcome

By Peter Drew

How one artist’s posters about politics took on a life of their own – an extract

According to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, all forms of human culture can be broken down into units called memes. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins hypothesised that all culture is simply an abstraction of, and reducible to, the biological mechanisms of gene replication. At the time his idea didn’t exactly catch fire, but 40 years later the idea of the meme found its soaring vindication in the world of online jokes and trolling. I like to think of Mr Dawkins casually perusing these offspring of his intellectual labours. Perhaps he wonders whether the aesthetic quality of Pepe the Frog or Grumpy Cat reflects poorly upon his ultra-rationalist worldview?

I created my first meme back in 2009, while I was going through a stage in which all my work was bike related. After I sprayed the above stencil (top right) on a few dozen footpaths in Adelaide, I uploaded the image to Facebook and it quickly found its way onto cycling blogs. People around the world started printing it onto T-shirts, coffee cups, bike helmets and tea towels. At the time it was a thrill to witness the idea take off and find a life of its own. If you google “this one runs on fat” you’ll see that it’s still alive and well.

To most people, a meme is simply an image-based joke. However, to a certain subculture of millennials, meme creation and dissemination are almost what rock’n’roll was to the baby boomers. They hang out on online forums, trading, adapting and evolving memes to shock, amuse and sway their friends. Occasionally a meme floats to the mainstream world of social media, where it attracts a much broader audience. The meme is a powerful concept for thinking about the way culture operates in a post-internet world where every consumer is also a creator, and the entire cultural landscape is democratised into one big toilet wall. In theory, they seem like an attempt to collapse culture into materialism. In practice, though, memes are rarely edifying. Commonly they’re malicious. They’re all about reduction and debasement.

I’ve been fascinated with the idea of memes ever since I read Dawkins while I was studying Philosophy back in 2003. And I was thinking about memes the day I designed “Real Australians Say Welcome”. That’s why I made it absurdly plain. The design is almost fascistic in the way the text fills all the available space, leaving no room for any other thought. It’s partly that way to ape the xenophobia it aims to parody, but it’s also designed to be a successful meme. Without beauty of its own, it can’t be reduced. The obvious way it can be successfully adapted into a meme is by adding beauty, which is exactly what happened.

On April 12, 2015, I arrived in Melbourne with 200 “Real Australians Say Welcome” posters and quickly commenced the lonely task of sticking them up. Each day I’d try to convince people on the street to hold the poster for a photo. Sometimes people approached me, which made it easier. The point was to show that people supported the project, that ordinary Australians were literally getting behind the poster to demonstrate their resistance to rising xenophobia. Ultimately, I wanted other people to take ownership of the project. That way its momentum wouldn’t be reliant upon my ability to stick up posters. My effort would just be the fuse to light a larger explosion.

On April 16, my wife, Julie, called my phone after a rough few days of relentless postering.

“Ahhh, have you checked your Instagram recently?” she said.

“Why, what’s happening?” I’m usually pretty short with her if I’m in the middle of sticking up posters.

“Have you heard of The Design Files?” she asked.

“No. Should I have? Can you please get to the point!” 

Julie explained that The Design Files was the largest design blog in Australia, and they were encouraging their hundreds of thousands of followers to redesign my slogan. They’d issued a callout to “all the talented Australian artists, illustrators, designers, typographers, stylists, photographers and image makers out there”: “If YOU create a flyer for Facebook or Instagram bearing this message, we’ll share it across @thedesignfiles social media, and we’ll encourage our followers to share your image too. Any takers?”

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said with polite indifference. So Julie slowed down and gave it another try, the way a millennial might explain the internet to a grandparent. She told me that The Design Files is a platform that every young, aspiring creative in Australia dreams of being featured on. While I was approaching people one by one on the street, The Design Files had just incentivised mass creative participation in my project. In 2015, it was what annoying people called a “game changer”.

“Oh, cool,” I said again, stubbornly. I was probably irritated at the suggestion that Julie knew something I didn’t. Understandably, Julie gave up.

“You’ll see,” she said. “Check it again tomorrow and you’ll see what I mean.”

So I went to bed and slept the blissful sleep of wilful ignorance, only to receive a call from an ABC journalist the very next morning. The avalanche of attention that followed was pretty staggering. Dozens of artists, designers and illustrators, whom I’d never met, would re-create and embellish the slogan. My original design is crude to the point of comedy. By contrast, their creations were beautiful.

The project had become newsworthy. SBS, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Mashable, Junkee and ABC News all ran stories. It was beginning to look less like one artist’s crusade and more like a movement. #RealAustraliansSayWelcome was trending across every social media platform. It had taken on a life of its own. It had become a meme.

I promised to be honest, so I should tell you that all that attention was a rush. That kind of attention shakes you up a bit. It’s actually frightening, like a new drug. You don’t know what it will do to you, so you try not to think about it. You just enjoy the ride as it changes you into someone else. Everything in your mind jumps a gear as obstacles seem to vanish, replaced by opportunities. All the people who know you the best suddenly seem irrelevant, especially your family. Just when I should have called Julie to help calm me down, I didn’t. I’ve done it on my own, I told myself. This was exactly what I’d been hoping for. I was inflating into a big, stupid balloon.


This is an edited extract from Peter Drew’s new memoir, Poster Boy. Out now from Black Inc. Books.

Peter Drew

Peter Drew’s work has been exhibited at the Art Gallery of South Australia and the National Gallery of Australia, though his most prominent art is installed on city streets.

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