For the past couple of years, Lawrence Brown has rarely gotten into his car without carrying along a box cutter, a pair of sturdy gloves, some liquid spray adhesive and a pair of eagle eyes. At 6' 3" and 270 pounds, he isn't worried about protecting himself against road-ragers or carjackers. Rather, Brown's mobile tool kit is part of an ongoing battle against an invisible but ever-present adversary: guerrilla marketers who cover Denver-area cities with commercial signs advertising everything from rapid weight loss ("I lost 30 pounds in 30 days!") to ways to make a fortune from home.
During his rounds in his Aurora neighborhood, Brown routinely stops for a couple of lighting-quick intervals in which he removes offending signs from utility poles, Public Service boxes and stoplights. "I've gotten to the point where I can do it in as little as thirty seconds," he says. "If I'm at an intersection and there's enough time that I can get out safely before the light turns, I'll do it then. Just take the sign in my hands, pick it up, throw it in the car, and I'm off.
"My wife doesn't get it," he adds. "When I stop to get out and pull a sign, she thinks I'm nuts."
"Nuts" is one word that advertisers might use to describe Brown and others who practice sign removal as a public service, as well as a sort of sport. But "noble" and "necessary" are more likely to be evoked by an increasingly large group of locals who view the signs not just as visual blights, but as safety hazards.
Brown is a sign "shark" and a member of the Citizens Against Ugly Street Signs (CAUSS), a nationwide organization dedicated to the eradication of illegal street spam. Since forming in Dallas in the late '90s, CAUSS has found anti-spammers in every state, forming a kind of X-Acto-knife-toting army that relishes messing with a spammer's mind: Instead of simply removing a sign, some sharks indulge their creative side by slashing out or painting over a company's Web address or phone number. Often they'll leave just a corner of a sign behind to let those who posted them know that, rather than having blown away in the wind, their sign has been purposely removed.
"We'll leave a shard to remind them that we are here," Brown says. "It's a warning that we are not going away. Our goal is remove every sign within 24 hours of the time it is posted -- which is usually at night. Every morning these things just sprout up, like mushrooms in a field."
Sharks also enjoy talking about removing signs. In the message boards and community forums on CAUSS's Web site, causs.org, the discussion is impassioned, especially in Colorado. The local link receives hundreds of hits per week. Discussions cover everything from sign-related laws -- in Denver and surrounding cities, it's illegal to post signs on public property or to obstruct or interfere with the public right of way -- to the difficulty of disposing of collected contraband (most signs are printed on CorPlast, a non-recyclable material that usually ends up in landfills), to "hot corners" that spammers have taken over.
Like Brown, a recently laid-off computer-networking employee, many sharks use the site as a way to connect with others who share their distaste for visual clutter. And while there is a social aspect to their pursuit -- shark dialogue often reads like the strategic and chummy conspirings of a sports team -- most sharks know each other by nickname only and rarely meet in person. Tales of intimidation by sign-posters circulate in the CAUSS Web realm like ghost stories at a slumber party, and according to the group's Frequently Asked Questions link, a little anonymity goes a long way.
"We don't know who they are, and we prefer they don't know who we are," it reads. "We have families and houses to protect and would rather not have angry spammers confronting us at our homes.... Remember, we are dealing with a very low mentality here, there is no telling what they are capable of."
So far, no locals have encountered any trouble from spammers in person, but the CAUSS Web site has its share of visits from irate sign-posters. Sometimes the messages are downright confrontational.
"Consider this fair warning assholes," reads one recent salutation. "If I catch even one of you, man or woman, tearing down one of my signs...I can create serious damage. Be forewarned. You don't want me on your trail."
Sharks routinely suggest that such critics study the law, which allows citizens to remove any and all "trash" left abandoned in public areas. But their concern goes beyond mere aesthetics: They argue that because posted signs contribute to the already chaotic universe of signs, symbols and traffic devices that a driver has to deal with from behind the wheel, they present a real threat to a community's safety as well.
"We're not a bunch of vigilantes who go around ripping out signs in the middle of the night," says "DenverShark," who moderates many of the discussions on causs.org. "We are trying to help the city with the code enforcement of its own laws, because they only have a couple of officers who are expected to handle hundreds of signs."
"My wife and I have hated the signs for years," says "JeffCo Shark," a Jefferson County resident who travels the world as a consultant for a computer firm. "Now I hardly go anywhere without stopping to pick up one or two. And it's fun. Ripping those signs out is a very satisfying thing."
"I think for me," Brown says, "it's offensive in part because there's no truth in advertising. A lot of these signs are promising you can work from home and make $6,000. Well, what are you doing, selling crack?"
Liqueo.com doesn't sell crack, says Alan Tome, who has placed hundreds of signs around town since moving his company here from Austin, Texas, last fall. It offers Web-site design services and Internet hosting to clients on its server. Tone is aware that posting signs in Denver is illegal, but since only CAUSS members have complained, he sees it as a risk worth taking. Signs cost about fifty cents apiece to print, whereas the average client is likely to bring in hundreds of dollars in business. The math, if not the law, is on his side.
Tone incurred CAUSS's wrath in January, when the group became aware that he was advertising for "guerrilla" marketers. In the job description that originally appeared on Liqueo.com's Web site, the company said it needed people who were "willing to place 300-500 signs per week." A shark then posted Tone's company information and e-mail address on causs.org and encouraged others to dedicate themselves to removing his materials.
"The signs generate about 80 percent of our business," Tone says. "If I were to stop posting signs, I would have to lay everyone off. I wish that I didn't have to do it. I'm not crazy about signs, either, but they work."
On this point, Tone and CAUSS's Brown agree. The group has recently caught many a motorist's eye by posting its own stickers ("Stop Unwanted Signs...Please Remove This Trash") over the signage of particularly persistent plasterers. Like notices for garage sales and lost pets (which most sharks leave alone), Brown's stickers differ from commercial signs, he says, because he removes them after a day or two, and because they serve a community service.
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"It's a necessary evil sometimes," he says. "The message is really directed at the spammer, but also at citizens who might not realize that it is legal to take down these signs."
Julius Zsasko, the communications director for the City of Denver's Neighborhood Enforcement Department, doesn't see it that way. Though he appreciates the efforts of sharks -- they lessen the load of the city's thirty inspectors whose job it is to remove signs, among other tasks -- he is dubious of anyone who posts anything illegally. "To me, an illegal sign is an illegal sign," he explains. "We don't make any kind of aesthetic judgment or consider the content of the message or anything like that. If it is illegally posted, it will come down. I value what this group is doing, but as for putting up more signs, I would say that they are really adding to the problem."
For their part, Brown and his fellow sharks are steadfast in their quest. In fact, JeffCo Shark foresees a time when the mission might spread beyond domestic borders. On a recent consulting trip to Portugal, he says, he saw some familiar messages beckoning from intersections in Lisbon. "They said 'Work From Home,' with a phone number, just like here," he says. "And I thought, 'Well, great, now it's everywhere.'
"I don't know what the law in Lisbon is, so I didn't take it down," he adds. "But I wanted to."