Recently, the publication of a “253 handgun” logo design, along with a rash of gun violence around the Puget Sound, sparked strong, negative reactions from people in Tacoma. The response was heated and visceral, perhaps because the gun is on a hoodie (an item of clothing recently associated with the Trayvon Martin shooting), or maybe because the beloved “253 heart” is discomfiting as a gun.
Whatever the reasons may be, we wondered: what relationship does Tacoma really have with the number 253, and what does it mean to wear the image of an area code shaped like a gun?
A Gut Reaction
In the days after the logo’s release to the public, The News Tribune ran a story questioning the ethics of the design. The newspaper received roughly three pages worth of online comments, including a healthy dose of name-calling, judgment on the designers and sweeping generalizations about Tacoma, the design and those who made it. Here are just a few reader responses:
“Not only would I not wear or buy this, but I would be inclined to frown upon those who do.”
“Maybe you and [George] Zimmerman can get together to chat about your love for the second amendment”
“This hoodie isn’t art. It’s a cheap attempt to intimidate, stereotype, and bully 253 residents with violent symbolism. I would like to know who the artist and the printing studio is so I can boycott them.”
One could easily walk away from reading the reactions to this story with the notion that owners of firearms are without exception “pro-gun, crazy conservative radicals,” to quote another comment, and that any depiction of a firearm can only symbolize violence and death.
A person who disdains firearms will likely look at the image with fear and contempt, while someone who shoots targets at a range may view the image as a symbol of his or her favorite hobby. In either case, the image has no definitive meaning, and is not entirely dissimilar from other common designs seen around town.
The 253 Handgun hoodie is not really an anomaly. But does a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of brass knuckles under the word “Tacoma” offend as much as the gun? If we view it as “violent symbolism”, it should – yet no one is up in arms over that particular design and nobody is threatening to boycott Bleach, its creators.
What’s in an Area Code?
The “253 handgun” design features numbers and has no words; it’s up to the viewer to decide what it all means. What does this handgun image symbolize? And what did the creator want us to infer from the area code integrated into it? How is a handgun related to our telephone numbers?
The design is atypical for a logo, in that it grabs attention without conveying a message. Some assume the message is the gun. Does this design glorify gun violence? The argument can be made that our city has a violent history and that the image glorifies that history. However, this argument misses the fact that the 253 area code does not belong only to Tacoma, and we would be arrogant to assume otherwise.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with someone who expressed displeasure at seeing a “253 heart” sticker in Puyallup. Yet people in Puyallup have every right to claim 253 as their own: our area code represents many cities such as Algona, Orting, Bonney Lake and Gig Harbor. Would people in Sumner be nearly as upset as about the gun image as people in Tacoma seem to be?
Gun as Symbol
In 2007, I produced a limited run of T-shirts and stickers with the words “Defend Tacoma” wrapped around an AK-47. With the word “defend” as part of the context of the image, it becomes one of unity. The message it suggests is “It’s us against the world.” As Tacomans, given our sometime stepchild complex toward Seattle, it was received quite well.
The AK-47 potentially evokes a different kind of symbolism than a handgun when viewed on its own. It is the single-most produced firearm in human history. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the AK has come to represent revolution and rebellion. It has given the oppressed the ability to rise up against tyrants and blood-thirsty regimes. On the other hand, make no mistake, it has also granted those very same regimes the ability to wage war and kill countless innocents at low cost.
The “Defend Tacoma” design was never advocating murder or glorifying gun violence; it signified community pride. It was a design that allowed you to put a middle finger up to all the people who said, “Oh, you live THERE?” in the snide tone that Tacomans know so well. There’s an innate self-conscious humor in it; in fact, the concept started as a joke between my friends and I regarding zombies, but I digress.*
If we compare the “253 handgun” hoodie to this and other designs, we may still ask if the fear evoked by guns is relevant to this debate. Just because a firearm scares someone doesn’t automatically mean that its presence equals danger. We tend to be more afraid of terrorist attacks and sharks than we are of cars, smoking and unhealthy dietary choices; yet the latter are responsible for more deaths every year than all of the former combined. Would a 253 Twinkie inspire boycotts?
Branded by Choice
Ultimately, you will never be forced to put a sticker on your car or purchase a particular shirt, and frankly, it’s none of your business what other people choose to wear. The fact that someone would “frown upon those” who would choose to wear something they don’t agree with is astounding to me. There are plenty of things that may upset you in life, but what does or does not get printed on a T-shirt need not be anywhere near the top of that list.
Ironically, the absolute outrage over this design and the outcry for banning it is what actually gave it popularity. That’s how counterculture works. The more people shout with dismay at the offensiveness of a design, the more publicity it receives. Controversy creates demand.
We may question the quality of a design, its execution and effect, but we don’t need to be up in arms over firearms that look like the beginning of our phone numbers.
Pro-gun crazy liberal/socialist radical
*Full disclosure: “Defend Tacoma” was not an original design. There are countless “defend whatever” shirts and stickers out there. Mine was taken from a band called Most Precious Blood who had a T-shirt that read “Defend Hardcore.”