The big fight over Coexist

This is the Coexist logo you might know:
star and crescent, peace sign, the well-known gender…e, star of David, Wiccan i, yin yang,
and Christian cross. It’s the bumper sticker gibberish you see
on that 1998 Volvo that just cut you off. But the real story doesn’t start in a co-op
in Montpelier, Vermont. The story of Coexist begins in Poland — and it’s had its own
battles. “My name is Piotr Mlodozeniec. I am a graphic
designer. I am making posters, book covers, record covers, some layouts. I paint also.”
This is his son’s room and here’s a poster designed by Piotr’s dad. In 2000, a contemporary
art museum in Jerusalem held a competition. The theme was coexistence. And Mlodozeniec
decided to enter. “I started to write this coexistence in many
ways. You know, handwritten, printed, and so on and so on.”
The C reminded him a typical Muslim sign of the crescent. T as the Christian cross. And
with the X, suddenly he imagined that he could do a Jewish star, so he took it and wrote
Coexistence. “But then I thought that I don’t need this
‘ence’ at the end.” The poster became part of a worldwide touring
exhibition, blown up to massive proportions, and that’s when other people saw an opportunity
to take it as their own. “I do the work, and I throw it into the open
world.” Mlodozeniec had let his design travel around
the world, but then he forgot about it. In 2005, he got the first news that something
was happening. Some Indiana University students trademarked an extremely similar design without
Mlodozeniec’s or the museum’s permission. They started to sue anybody else selling Coexist
gear. Average t-shirt price: $58. They registered it as their own logo. One used it to get his
“lifestyle design” degree from the university. Another co-founder told Newsday that Mlodozeniec
was “OK with its use.” “I was really mad at this, because nobody
asked me for permission.” Soon, Bono had made the logo a central part
of U2’s 2005 Vertigo tour. “Some graffiti sprayed up on a wall not too
far from here. This is Co-Ex-Ist.” The Indiana guys told reporters they got a
call that Bono was wearing a headband with “your” logo.
“Jesus, jew, Muhammed, it’s true. Jesus, jew…” “And when I heard that leader of U2, Mr. Bono,
is using this sign, I even was pleased.” But they didn’t ask him for permission, and
after the contact with him, they gave him a tiny credit on the DVD label. Soon, another
Coexist logo showed up with completely nonsensical additions.
“The better is the enemy of the good. Whoa, I will put the Tao sign in it, I will put
the hippie sign in it, I will put Osiris sign. Oh it will be great! It will be all the religions!
Whenever you have something good and you want to make it better—it will spoil and it will
be worse than the original.” Mlodozeniec had been lumped in with lawsuit-happy
luxury shirt sellers and a bad design from California, and it wasn’t what his work was
really even about. Mlodozeniec comes from a school of Polish
poster-making that emphasizes color and organic looking pictures. It’s really vibrant. It’s
not the ascetic, black and white appearance of the Coexist sign — it’s something more
alive and more representative of the work that he’s a fan of.
But even though Coexist is different from most of his work, it has a lot of meaning.
Coexist isn’t just a bumper sticker everywhere. To a graphic designer living in Poland, post
9/11, with refugees coming in from an unstable Syria, it means a lot more.
“In 2000, the situation was not so…complicated like today. This logo was not so, maybe…actual.
I didn’t know that the world will go in this direction. That, you know, this coexist is,
you know, a must. You have to do it.” So maybe you couldn’t quite see that poster
in the background. Fortunately, early on we had some camera adjustment time where it was
clear. This is Horse and Plume, and it’s a CYRK poster — CYRK — which means “circus.”
Because this poster and many posters like it were made to promote the Polish circus
and they quickly became representative of an entire school of really expressive Polish
poster design.

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