The national rate of HIV diagnoses has fallen by one-third in the last decade, giving public health officials hope that the deadly virus has been abated. Little has changed, however, in some pockets of the country — particularly in urban, multicultural enclaves — where people of color account for nearly 70 percent of new infections each year.
That grim reality has compelled a national producer of condoms and nearly two dozen graffiti artists to take messages of safe sex to the streets of New York during National Condom Month in the form of stop signs. Their message to affected communities: STOP and think before having unprotected sex.
“The reality is that a lot of time in urban communities, there’s greater stigma against condoms so the important thing we can do is change people’s opinions,” Davin Wedel, president of Global Protection Corporation, the parent company of ONE Condoms, told ThinkProgress. “That’s what we do as a company in general and that’s what we’re doing with this campaign: changing the identity of the condom to increase acceptance.”
On Friday, ONE Condoms kicked off its Lust for Life Campaign, an effort to endorse safe sex through original street artwork. The launch event in Manhattan featured the work of 22 graffiti artists, each of whom revamped a full-sized STOP sign to convey themes of self-love, social responsibility, and prudence.
The campaign aims to target the people disproportionately affected by the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis in 2010 found a concentration of HIV/AIDS diagnoses in urban areas of the United States — including Miami, New York, and Washington, D.C. Young people of color account for the largest proportion of HIV diagnoses in the Midwest, Northeast, and South.
Eight of the STOP sign designs featured during National Condom Month will appear on ONE Condom #LustforLife wrappers to be distributed around the country through public health organizations. The works of art will also be sold in an online auction for the next two weeks with proceeds to go to Lifebeat-Music Fights HIV/AIDS, a national nonprofit that has educated American youth about HIV/AIDS for more than 20 years.
“If people can relate to a piece of artwork on a condom, they’re more likely to pick it up,” Wedel explained. “I like seeing the different things that come from the artists, and it’s going to be fun to see what people in urban communities like and relate to.”
Although condom use has increased among young men and women of color, researchers acknowledge that encouraging consistent use of contraception remains a challenge. Factors associated with low condom use among teenagers, according to a 2012 report by the Child Trends DataBank, include a large age difference between partners, experiences of sexual trauma, and substance abuse. A study based on focus group interviews years earlier determined that young men often don’t want to wear condoms because they think it’s inconvenient and might kill the mood.
Graffiti artist Mike Baca said those feelings about condoms stem from a lack of awareness campaigns that emphasize the dangers of unprotected sex to youth. During an interview with ThinkProgress, Baca, who goes by 2ESAE, nostalgically likened the Lust for Life campaign to the “Wrap It Up” initiatives and other outreach programs of the 1980s and 1990s that explicitly implored young people to use condoms.
CREDIT: Lust for Life
“[Awareness] has been put on the backburner because I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen an HIV commercial that was focused on the youth,” Baca told ThinkProgress.
Baca and his colleague Fernando Romero, members of URNY, created a piece entitled “Never Stop Loving.” The duo said they want to take the simple message of love globally so that it resonates in everything people do — including practicing safe sex.
“A lot of children are having unprotected sex. By taking the street art route with condoms, we can show the kids that safe sex is cool. We even used protection while making this art by wearing gloves,” Baca said. “We didn’t want to make our hands dirty so you wouldn’t want to make your penis dirty. If we translate that message through our artwork, then we’re doing a good job.”
CREDIT: Lust for Life
Brooklyn-based graffiti artist El Sol 25 shared Baca’s sentiments. He said he relished the opportunity to tackle what has become an uncomfortable issue for people to discuss.
El Sol 25’s piece “Less is More” enhances the letters of the word STOP, a strategy he said culminates years of his study of typography. By making the STOP sign bolder, El Sol 25 said he hopes to compel young people and their elders to have more honest conversations about safe sex.
“My artwork is not just about [practicing] safe sex, but knowing and exploring our human essence,” El Sol 25 told ThinkProgress. “Only when we have a sense of self and love for ourselves can we practice self-preservation and learn to [honestly communicate] with our young people. There’s still a certain taboo about sex that keeps most people from feeling comfortable about discussing [how to practice it safely.] This is the reason projects like Lust for Life are so important. Young people to have a reason to engage with and talk about modern sex culture and other issues that can enrich or destroy our species.”
And the Lust for Life campaign doesn’t end in New York. Similar initiatives will take place in urban communities throughout the country. For contemporary street artist Billi Kid, the timing couldn’t have been better to provide what he believes are messages that better resonate with people of color.
CREDIT: Lust for Life
“[This is] a movement that comes in an art form,” contemporary street artist Billi Kid told ThinkProgress. Kid, who teamed up with Wedel to launch the Lust for Life Campaign more than a year ago, pays homage to the classical arts in his piece “Cupid’s Kiss.” He said that he wanted to remind people about the fragility of love and the difference that not wearing a condom makes for a couple. Kid expressed optimism about what the future held for the street art-based safe sex awareness campaign.
“Other campaigns have missed the mark. I know when I see AIDS outreach programs trying to reach the Latino community, it’s a health advisory message rather than a lifesaving message. There’s more that needs to be done. Using popular artists helps cut through the clutter. The message comes from their perspective. [The artists featured] live in these communities and this is their way of helping their brothers and sisters.”