Deciphering 1% Free


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The Poster

In the first weeks of 1968, a mysterious six-foot tall poster airbrushed in jade blue on brown butcher paper appeared overnight pasted to abandoned fences, bank walls, and public spaces all around San Francisco. The image showed two stylized Tong warriors standing against a street corner with a Chinese logogram in the upper corner and the words "1% Free" in bold lettering at the bottom. This became a trademark image of the Diggers in their Free City phase, and it was reprinted in numerous versions and editions over subsequent years. This page will help decipher some of the details of this iconic image and the speculation that has swirled around its meaning ever since its first appearance.

At the time, as with all Digger activities, the poster was produced and distributed anonymously. It was instantly seen as a provocative statement with enigmatic meaning — something the Oracle at Delphi might have answered to fateful questions posed by tremulous seekers. There have been many interpretations over time. Peter Berg and Don Cochran designed the elements of the poster, including choosing the image and the phrase "1% free" and a group of Diggers participated in the artistic production and subsequent posting. Peter Berg talked about the poster in an interview under the oral history section on this site:

Peter Berg: Somebody had a great idea — let’s make something and put it on the walls and it will be like our “Digger ad.” The Diggers should have an ad, right? Let’s just make an ad that is absolutely cryptic. It was bigger than anything else. It doesn’t look like anything else. And let’s put it on freeway stanchions, and, you know we put some on men’s room doors in the park, just weird, Bank of America right over their plate glass windows. Just went out one morning, just the way we made the posters, we distributed them. We gave one to all the storekeepers on Haight Street. They all thought it was a threat. [Laughing] They thought 1% Free meant we were the mafia. We'd beat them up if they didn't give it to us. [Laughter.] And being around Billy Fritsch would give you that impression. One hundred and seventy of those put on walls all over the city one day. It was a great idea, right? People would say, “What does 1% Free mean?” And I’d always say, “I’m glad you asked that. It was supposed to make you ask me what it meant.” “Well, that’s being deliberately confusing.” “No, it’s not. It’s being inspiring.”

Emmett Grogan also recounted the making of the poster in Ringolevio. Here is what he had to say:

Emmett Grogan: The cover of the document was titled "The Digger Papers," and ... on the outside back cover was what many people who knew him thought was the Hun's most brilliant and poignant statement in art. It was a black-and-white reproduction of a six-by-three-foot, blue-and-white poster of two Tong assassins, calmly biding their time, leaning against the corner of a brick building. Above them hung a sign with the Chinese character from the I Ching that spelled revolution, and written below their feet in black letters was the slogan I% FREE. The Hun designed the original poster with a friend called Red-Cock Don and with several others posted them on walls throughout Chinatown and all over the city, to the consternation of the Chinese and the wonderment of everyone.

Interview of Peter Berg here.

Emmett Grogan's Ringolevio here. [Note: "Hun" and "Red-Cock Don" were Emmett Grogan's pseudonyms for Berg and Cochran in Ringolevio.]

1% Free poster
Reproduction in the Digger Papers
Peter Berg, 1968
Peter Berg in Nowsreal (1968)
Don Cochran, 1968
Don Cochran in Nowsreal (1968)
1% Free poster pasted to wall
Original poster pasted on storefront wall.

The Inspiration


Peter Berg, 2004
Peter Berg talks about the elements of the "1% Free" poster in this interview from 2009 by Shaping San Francisco. Photo by eric, 2004.

The Photo

In Peter's interview, he ascribes the inspiration for the air-brushed image of the two Tong warriors to a photograph by Arnold Genthe. Genthe was a turn-of-the-century photographer whose vast collection of Chinatown images are a treasure from a long-lost period in pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco. His photographs have been reprinted in numerous editions, and his memoir is another jewel for anyone interested in the life of this peripatetic artist.

The Hatchet Men cover However, Berg's memory of Genthe as the photographer of the Tong warriors is not correct. The image (seen to the right) was published in The Hatchet Men by Richard Dillon. Note the authorship states, "With photographs by Arnold Genthe and others." If you look closely at the caption of the "two highlanders" it was taken by Louis J. Stellman, and he signed the original photo. Nevertheless, it was an easy mistake. [Interestingly, various editions of Dillon's book do not include the same set of images. The Stellman photo of the Tong warriors is one that is variously missing.]

Tong Warriors in Chinatown
"Two Highlanders" photo used by Berg as the model for the poster. (Photo by Louis J. Stellman)

The Slogan

Peter also mentions in the Shaping SF interview that the idea for the "1%" part of the slogan came from a patch the Hells Angels had devised. The history of the involvement of the Diggers and the Hells Angels is a whole other topic for discussion. But, for the purposes of this treatment, it is enough to note that this collaboration (perhaps more at arm's length than not) led to the marriage of FREE with the image of an Angels "1%er" patch. In other places, Berg talked about the power of combining FREE with everyday words. "Free Food, Free Bank, Free Store" etc.

There have been innumerable interpretations over the years of "1% Free" and one of my favorites is in a long-lost interview of Arthur Lisch who had this to say:

Arthur Lisch

Arthur Lisch: The initial beginning [of the Earth Circle he was creating in a public commons] goes back to that poster that was made that said ‘1% Free’ … The idea of being “1% free” means that, to me, we can take that initiative, we can take that step, and then things will fall into place around it. This was initially 1% free. It’s not 100% free now, but so many people have come here, worked here, care for the place, they’ve claimed this circle of land in the name of community and the name of the sacred in life, in the name of a higher way of being. … In other words, to see the higher in each other, for each of us to see what is better, what is hopeful, what is possible in each other. And this small circle is dedicated to that.

See the full Arthur Lisch interview here.

The Production

The making of the poster was a collaborative event that involved not only Peter Berg and Don Cochran as the the designers but also Freeman House and David Simpson who were publishing the Free City News sheets. Their contribution was the printing of the heads and hands that were cut out and pasted onto the airbrushed sheets of butcher paper. Here is Freeman's description of the event:

Freeman House: Right as we were moving into the house, David and I were starting Free News, which we operated for the first few weeks out of an office above the Straight Theater. And it was just at the time that we moved into this house that things really began to pop in terms of moving together and doing things together and moving out into the city as it grew. It was about that time that Peter Berg first made the big 1% Free poster which was a beautiful piece of work, it really was. He took a photograph of those two Tong warriors lounging on a street corner, enforcers, blew them up, cut out the outlines, and spray painted the bodies with a ... you know, the compressor? Spray gun? Xeroxed these faces and hands and they were pasted on there.

Heads and Hands of Tong Warriors
The faces and hands for the 1% Free poster were printed on the Gestetner mimeograph that was used for Free City News.



The Ideogram

Emmett Grogan described the Chinese ideogram in the upper right-hand corner of the poster as the "Chinese character from the I Ching that spelled revolution." In the reproduction of the poster (for example, in the Digger Papers), the ideogram is highly stylized. But on the original butcher paper (as seen here) the brushstrokes are much clearer. And, compared to the character for Hexagram 49 of the I Ching ("Revolution") in the Wilhelm edition (see below) Grogan got it right.

I Ching Hexagram 40

Photo of the original poster showing Chinese ideogram
Photo of the upper right corner of an original 1% Free poster. Note the detail of the Chinese ideogram.

The Reverberations

Freeman House: And then one night, I think there were something like a hundred of those done, one night we got them all on walls all over the city. And I was very excited. Peter has a talent for doing things that seem at the moment theatrical but somehow turn out to be just the right key at the right moment, you know, and that was one of them. All of us were trying to figure out what that poster meant, you know. I was in on the spray painting and I didn’t know what it meant. And it was only a few weeks later that we came up with that page that appeared in the Express Times which said what it meant. It was like a financing idea. The financing idea never worked at all. Occasionally you’d get some money out of those merchants and record makers and bands and dope dealers but not very often. But that image, somehow, just everybody knew, somehow, in an inarticulate way, what it was. You’d relate to people through that image. It was very strange. Very magical, very magical. You can still, somebody blew them down and put them on little cards. You could go almost anywhere with those cards and people would pick up on them, even Washington. You could put them in the window of your car, you know, and people would come up to you and say, “Wow, you’re one of these people.”

Read the full Freeman House interview here.

As Freeman mentioned, immediately after the original six-foot-tall 1% Free poster appeared, it was copied and printed in numerous formats. Emmett Grogan (it was told me) was responsible for the 17" x 22" version which is occasionally (though rarely) seen on the rare ephemera market. Likewise, different sized versions were printed in card format. I've even seen cloth patches. The San Francisco Express Times printed the full page Free City Bank ad (seen to the upper right) on February 29, 1968. And then here is  most interesting article written by Marjorie Heins who seems to have missed the whole Digger/Free City phenomenon, not arriving in San Francisco until the end of 1968. Nevertheless she has an analysis of the Diggers (mainly from reading the Digger Papers) that juxtaposes Free with Black Power and with anthropological theory. Notice that the "1% Free" label of the poster has gone missing from this reproduction, one year after its first appearance. [Added 2024-02-22]

Right (upper image): Full page notice for the Free City Bank that appeared in the San Francisco Express Times, February 29, 1968.

Right (lower image): "Who's Going to Collect the Garbage?" by Marjorie Heins, SF Express Times, January 7, 1969.

Express Times page for Free City Bank

Heins article in Jan 7 1968 SF ExpT

The Connection

After I posted the first iteration of this page, Billy Murcott wrote and said that, for him, the image on the 1% Free poster was emblematic of Gregory Corso's poem "Standing on a street corner waiting for no one is power." Yes! Of course. Let me emend this page to amplify Billy's reminder.

In going through the vast collection of Digger street sheets that Freeman House donated to the archive after his apartment fire, I found a sheet that had been overlooked until then. Titled "term paper" it laid out one of the fundamental inspirations for the Diggers. Here is an excerpt from this amazing document:

term paper: the relationship between poetry and revolution has lost its ambiguity — Gregory Corso's poem POWER was the sole reason behind concept of the Diggers: autonomy. ... power is standing on a streetcorner waiting for no one

That last sentence was one the Diggers used in various contexts. And they quoted it from Corso's poem. The only problem was I couldn't find the poem. Corso wrote a play, "Standing on the Street Corner" but where was the poem that quoted the line? Finally, in putting together a presentation on the life and times of Irving Rosenthal, I found it. In 1958, Irving was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and editor of the nationally recognized literary magazine, the Chicago Review. Irving had overturned the traditional focus on academic poetry and had included the San Francisco Beats along with the first publication of Burroughs' Naked Lunch. In response, the university administration banned the next issue of the Review. Irving resigned as editor, fled to New York City, and, under Allen Ginsberg's sponsorship, published the first issue of Big Table with the manuscripts he took with him. One of those was a collection of three poems by Corso, including POWER. Here is the pertinent stanza from this long poem:

Excerpt from POWER by Gregory Corso

Excerpt from Corso's poem POWER that appeared in Big Table 1 with the line that the Diggers would adopt as a model of autonomy: "Standing on a street corner waiting for no one is Power" 

Digger street sheet 'term paper'
"term paper" — a text that holds the key to understanding early Digger Papers.
Big Table 1 cover
Cover of Big Table 1, containing the material that Irving Rosenthal had solicited for the Winter 1958 issue of Chicago Review before it was banned by the U of Chicago admin.
Click here for a PDF of Corso's poems in Big Table 1 (16mb).


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