Rob Walker | Essays

Boris, Subverted

Walking the dog around my Savannah, GA, neighborhood a few months back, I noticed a Neighborhood Watch sign left on the porch of a vacant, run-down house. I found this somewhat darkly amusing: Could there be a less reassuring symbol of neighborhood watchfulness than a pilfered and abandoned Neighborhood Watch sign?

As I considered that question, I realized these signs are one of those stealth icons that periodically interest me — something that, through sheer repetition, we are all familiar with, even though we never stopped and thought about it explicitly.

As is often the case with stealth iconography, I promptly started to notice this signage all over the place.

In this case the icon, really, is that shadowy figure — absurdly decked out in a hat and trench coat, like a cartoon spy from the Cold War era. (Certainly if you saw this character lurking about your home, you’d call the cops.)

It turns out this figure has a name: Boris the Burglar has been around for decades. The design is trademarked by the National Sheriffs' Association, which created the Neighborhood Watch program in 1972. Should you wish to start your own Neighborhood Watch, you’ll work with local law enforcement, and ultimately if you want official signage or stickers or pamphlets, you’ll go through the NSA. (Not the newsy spy agency; the sheriffs' group.)

After weeks of pestering, the NSA finally told me they had no idea who actually created the Boris image.1

That’s a shame. The Neighborhood Watch program has additional iconography, but upon consideration I now see these signs, particularly the Boris version, as an unusually widespread and long-lasting example of a form of official social-design intervention. The signs obviously intend to communicate a community-building message, signaling that you’re in a safe place that the locals care about (thus discouraging trouble-making if you’re a bad guy, or offering reassurance if you are not).

But like any social-design intervention, you can’t just put up a bunch of signs and call it a day. What happens to the intended graphic communication, for instance, when Boris is subverted? While actually stealing a Neighborhood Watch sign and abandoning it in public view is an extreme case, I’ve noticed a number of subverted or defaced Borises as I've gone about my routine business in recent months.

In a number of cases, the signs were also sort of filthy, but that's perhaps another story.

Anyway, clearly the same defacing hand is it work in some instances — marring Boris with identical tags in multiple locations.

The first time I saw this small blemish (below) I thought it was a remnant of something.

But the second time I looked closely enough to see that it’s a sticker of some sort of street-art symbol.

It is of course precisely the effectiveness of Boris as a familiar and highly pervasive symbol that quite likely makes him such an inviting target. And, left unfixed, these defaced signs are subverted rather decisively: Now they send the message that, actually, you’re in a place where it’s anybody’s guess who is paying attention, and where evidence of a broken law stands in plain sight, indefinitely.2 The promise that "suspicious activities" will be "reported to police" becomes hollow and ridiculous.

This offers a useful lesson, or reminder, about socially minded design interventions in general — the practice can't just be about intervening, but about who takes responsibility over time. Otherwise, what was supposed to be a symbol of caring can instead devolve into a symbol of indifference.

This, too, is a shame. I’ve grown rather fond of Boris since I started paying overt attention to him a few months ago. He deserves better.


1. I also did some trademark searching in my quest to find Boris' maker, and I owe thanks to Randy Ludacer and James I. Bowie for their help on that front. I've also put out inquries to lawyers mentioned in trademark filings, but haven't heard back. If you have any clues about who created Boris, please let me know: [email protected]

2. I am not suggesting, in this post, that Savannah is some sort of deteriorating or crime-ridden place. It is not. It is beautiful. Come visit. You will be impressed. And for the record, most of the Neighborhood Watch signs I've seen here are unblemished. Similarly, I am not criticizing the Neighborhood Watch program; it's a perfectly useful idea. (Although I suppose if I am picking on anybody, it would be whatever local-level groups are responsible for these specific signs.) Neither of these caveats are strictly necessary, as the point I'm actually making is perfectly clear. But there you have it.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Social Good

Comments [4]

I am glad to know the name of this guy. Thank you. Also, symbols rely on frames of reference and both of my children when they were toddlers (several years apart) thought Boris the Burglar was a cat when they saw the Neighborhood Watch signs. (Not a cat burglar, but a cat. The tips of the fedora are the cat's ears in this case.) Again, very glad to read your research and thoughts about this sign.
Kristen Smith

I've seen these signs everywhere! Nice post, shows the limits of graphic design when its not backed up by reality. It's like any logo or brand--when it has been subverted you know that nobody is really watching.
R. Mackintosh

Rob, great photos.
Just a guess, but it looks like this logo was inspired by the work of cartoonist Alex Anderson who created (with producer Jay Ward) spy Boris Badenov, “the world’s greatest no-goodnick,” for the The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Boris Badenov was created over 50 years ago for the TV audience during the height of the Cold War. He was from “Pottsylvanian” and his surname is a play on 16th-century Russian Tsar Boris Godunov. His character was revealed in an advertisement as an active member of the Local 12 of the Villains, Thieves, and Scoundrels Union.”

Carl W. Smith

Thanks all.

Kristen: Actually, your children have a point -- he does look like a cat!

Carl: This is one of the reasons I so wish I could figure out who created Boris, I am specifically curious about the possible Badenov influence! (And also very curious about what other designs might have been considered).
Rob Walker

Jobs | July 19