Minnesota artists, pro-choice activists are taking back the billboard

Tired of abortion-bashing billboards in St. Paul, two friends got artists to create positive, pro-choice designs.

Tired of abortion-bashing billboards in St. Paul, two friends got artists to create positive, pro-choice designs. Katherine T. Lindemann, Minnesota Billboard Project

Kristin Brietzke lives in St. Paul, where she works for the state. But one part of St. Paul life bugs her: “I’m really frustrated with the amount of anti-choice billboards going up.” 

Perhaps you've seen the massive signs that say “A baby is a baby, born and unborn” or “I could smile 12 weeks from conception.” Or Brietzke’s least favorite: “Real men love babies.”

“Real men have conversations with their partners about sex and reproduction,” Brietzke says.

Brietzke's partner, University of Minnesota assistant professor Kelly Searle, feels the same way. There can be something obnoxious, even aggressive, about these ads. They’re huge, take up public space, and sometimes even contain shame tactics or misinformation about pregnancy and abortion. 

That got them thinking – maybe they could put up some billboards of their own.

“I think it can be just as effective with a different message,” Searle says.

So they launched the Minnesota Billboard Project, a mission to counter these ads with more “positive, inclusive” ones. They’d reach out to artists to create eye-catching, pro-choice designs, raise enough money to pay for them, and show them off in time for the Minnesota State Fair, when they’d get the most traffic.

When they put out initial probes on Facebook and Instagram, they were astounded by the response. Thousands of people liked and shared the posts, and they got hundreds of direct messages and donations. Within a month, they raised the $3,400 required for operating expenses and paying the artists, and they had winnowed a crowd of submissions down to 10 finalists.

They let social media do the rest, allowing people to vote on their favorite pieces. Among them was a bright yellow design with a strong, Paul Bunyan-looking femme hanging out with a big blue pit bull. The caption reads, “No bans here – keep abortion safe and legal in Minnesota.”

Another, in funky, ‘70s script, says simply, “Abortion is healthcare.”

These and others were placed on 6-by-12 billboards this week for everyone to see. Brietzke and Searle aren’t revealing exact locations, except that they’re near the fairgrounds. They want people to experience them organically, and they don’t want to invite vandalism or tampering from people who may be angry.

But for the most part, they’ve been swarmed with praise and thanks. “A lot of people have a need for it,” Searle says.

They’re still fundraising, and none of the money is going to them. Instead, it will be donated to Planned Parenthood, given to the artists, or saved for future endeavors. After this initial success, they’d love to do this again, especially as we head into the 2020 election. Reproductive health is going to be a battleground as candidates opine and states set draconian restrictions. There’s never been a better time, they say, to get the word out. 

Here are the five winning designs: