Throughout history, humans have used the power of a visual in order to send a message without saying a word. In 1963 Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc of Vietnam, burned himself to death in the middle of downtown Saigon in order to bring attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic Diem regime. More recently, the NOH8 Campaign has utilized visual protesting through influential photographs featuring subjects with duct-taped mouths, which silently promote marriage, gender, and human equality. Now, with an abundance of precedents to inspire them, designers Matthew Ryan and Tim Geoghegan have decided to turn visual protests into a product called 4th Amendment Wear.
Motivated by the controversial implementation of the TSA X-Ray body scanners, the creative duo’s 4th Amendment Wear allows people to silently protest these “intrusive tactics,” as many would call them. Ryan and Geoghegan felt America’s homeland security measures were going too far and exchanging our basic rights as citizens for airport safety, so they wanted to find a way to express this using design. Consequently, the two designed undergarments, which range from bra and panty sets to boxers and undershirts that feature portions of the US Constitution on them. The special metallic ink, used to create the text, displays the following message on TSA scanner screens: “Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
This design uses the impact of a visual to intervene in the sensitive area of human dignity versus politics. The silent protest allows people to stand up for their rights without resorting to bolder measures. Bolder measures like the one 23-year-old, Aaron Tobey, took at Richmond, Virginia’s airport while flying to his grandfather’s funeral in December 2010. Tobey, a University of Cincinnati architecture student at the time, was about to pass through TSA body scanners when he stripped down to his boxers revealing a portion of the 4th Amendment, which he had written across his chest. He was promptly handcuffed, arrested, and questioned for 90 minutes before being charged with disorderly conduct. Eventually the charges were dropped, but it did not change the fact that Tobey was unduly seized in violation of the 4th Amendment just for using a visual aid to express his feelings toward the TSA scanners. Now, a graduate student of architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, he still defends the decision he made:
1. WHEN YOU STRIPPED DOWN TO YOUR UNDERWEAR IN THE MIDDLE OF AN AIRPORT, WHAT WERE YOU INTENDING TO ACCOMPLISH?
“I had been out of the country for a while but seen reports about the scanning technology. It concerned me that there wasn’t a broader discussion happening about what that means for our personal privacy when the government is interrupting our lives. I really wanted to bring awareness to this violation by the government, where I felt they were creating an atmosphere of fear and justifying this invasion of privacy. It made me wonder if this was happening, how could the government use this power and push the limits of the constitution in other ways? It is one thing for them to invade our privacy for the security of air travel but when is enough, enough? I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it’s really about the ownership of our bodies – I mean, it’s a touchy subject for us to be seen naked by a total stranger. Personally, I was willing to be seen naked so it was not a modesty issue, but that I was forced to be seen naked was the issue. And considering that most people weren’t informed of the extent of the TSA body scanners, they weren’t willingly or knowingly giving up their rights. It really came down to making people aware so they would have the opportunity to use their rights and make a choice.”
2. DO YOU FEEL THAT TSA SECURITY AND/OR THE PRESS SUCCESSFULLY INTERPRETED THE MESSAGE YOU WERE TRYING TO MAKE?
“Well, people finally took notice of what was going on. At least now they can say, ‘yes, I am comfortable with the government doing this’ or ‘no, I am not comfortable.’ Basically, it can be spoken about in the open. I was pretty happy with the outcome, although, I was surprised at the negative feedback I received from some people. A lot of the bad reactions were off the cuff and came from people who didn’t read into the details of my protest. They just saw ‘disorderly conduct’ from a disruptive college student in an airport and didn’t really listen to any of the reasoning behind my actions.”
3. HAVE YOU HEARD OF MATTHEW RYAN AND TIM GEOGHEGAN’S FOURTH AMENDMENT WEAR? WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THEIR PRODUCT?
“Actually, they contacted me shortly after my protest to talk. I think their product is very clever and appropriate. Its usefulness in airports will probably be short-lived once the government changes security policies, but I definitely encourage people to wear their products just as normal shirts. I know some people who have bought them for that reason and I would support other people to do so, as well. You know, it’s a big deal for people to stand up to the government like they are and say ‘I’m not okay with what you are doing.’ I also appreciate the product because for many it’s a way to express their issue with the government’s policies without having to take as much risk as I did. And I think its specifically great for those people who really want to keep their bodies to themselves or who have experienced sexual assault or other traumatic violations of their body. It’s just a safe way for them to be subversive without interfering with security.”
4. YOU MADE QUITE THE GRAPHIC STATEMENT WHEN YOU WROTE THE 4TH AMENDMENT ACROSS YOUR CHEST. DO YOU FEEL THAT DESIGN, AND GRAPHIC DESIGN SPECIFICALLY, CAN BE USED AS AN EFFECTIVE TOOL TO IMPLEMENT SOCIAL CHANGE? WHY OR WHY NOT?
“I think it can. You know, communication is the backbone of social change and it won’t work if you can’t communicate. Look at twitter, for example. People tweet ideas that are important to them and they can outwardly communicate those ideas to others. And look at propaganda posters. In WWII, they used those graphics to convince people to do things and encourage them. Some visuals even allow people to communicate an idea and identify with a group, like the American flag. That, alone, says so much. Honestly, symbols are such a large part of how we function and communicate universally, they definitely could lead to social change.”
I would like to give a special thanks to Aaron Tobey for taking the time to do this interview with me and sharing his passionate and insightful feelings about his silent protest.
*Please note that some interview answers have been paraphrased. However, the original ideas of the interviewee were not compromised.