In the past 10 years, a new image joined the bumper sticker pantheon, right next to gratuitous honor student boasts and outdated political endorsements: Coexist.
A smorgasbord of religious and political signifiers, with a few seemingly random symbols thrown in for good measure, it's become its own symbol of a banal, graphically incoherent 21st-century hippie.
But the Coexist logo wasn't always just a trip to the semiotic bargain bin. At one time, it was vested with powerful design and real meaning. It's also the center of a long battle over who owns it and what it really means.
The Coexist logo began as part of a contest — and it actually looked good
The Coexist logo didn't begin as an inelegant medley of beliefs and symbols. It began as a depiction of three religions:
Piotr Mlodozeniec designed it (you can see portions of our interview in the video above). I reached him in his house in Warsaw, Poland, and he spoke to me from a room decorated with colorful posters by him and his father, renowned Polish poster designer Jan Mlodozeniec.
The Coexist logo was created in 2000, in response to a contest held by the Museum of the Seam, a contemporary art museum in Jerusalem. The theme, "coexistence," was nice, but there were other reasons to enter too.
"The prize was really good," Mlodozeniec says. "I started to think about that, and I always work with letters. I started to write this 'coexistence' in many ways."
He soon pulled together a design that incorporated symbols and letters (a few years before, when he'd designed a logo for a rock band, he'd already used a Christian cross to substitute for a T). The logo he designed was one of the last works he showed to his father before Jan died in 2000.
Mlodozeniec's design didn't win first in the contest, but it did become part of a 20-poster touring exhibition. For viewers, it was the standout entry in Jerusalem and around the world. But for Mlodozeniec, it was one design of many — a successful one, but not one that was particularly notable.
"I have many themes," Mlodozenic says. "When I was doing this poster in 2000, I liked this meaning of the word, because it's obvious. ... I was really pleased that I did this in a universal way."
He couldn't guess that it would become a viral symbol.
"I don't know what will happen — if it will get power or die after two days," he says. "I was very pleased that they liked it so much, that they blow it up to this big size ... and then I forgot about this."
Five years later, though, Coexist came back.
The Coexist logo starts a legal battle
In 2005, Mlodozeniec got a letter from the United States.
He was confused — a fashion label in the United States was seeking his permission to use the Coexist logo. The company wanted that permission so it could sue another company for using the logo.
"I didn't know what was going on," he says. "They registered it as their own logo."
That year, Billboard summarized the conflict: A group of Indiana University students said they'd seen the Coexist logo floating around on the internet. They made some minor modifications and trademarked it for their own lifestyle brand.
Their T-shirts were a hit — on March 12, 2005, the Bloomington International Herald-Times said that the entrepreneurs spotted Ashton Kutcher wearing their logo. Its success helped one of their models earn a modeling contract, and it allowed the recent graduates to become fashion mini moguls. The T-shirts retailed for $50 or more.
But with that success came a need to protect the trademark. Charitably, the group may have had an overzealous legal team eager to protect a booming business. Less charitably, they fought to strangle an idea they didn't come up with. (I reached out to one of the designers for comment but didn't hear back.) Now Mlodozeniec was embroiled in the legal battles of some designers from a faraway place called "Indiana."
"They wrote to me and asked for help. I was really mad at this. Nobody asked me for permission," Mlodozeniec says, even though one of the co-founders told Newsday that Mlodozeniec had given them his blessing. Eventually he engaged his own lawyers to make sure the logo wasn't registered by others around the world.
By that point, the Coexist design was already a phenomenon. U2's Bono said he saw the symbol graffitied in Chicago, and he quickly made it a focal point of the band's 2005 Vertigo tour (it shows up on the DVD label as well).
As the Indiana Coexist contingent scrambled to get branded gear on Bono's head (or on merch tables for the rest of the tour), Mlodozeniec and the Museum of the Seam simply wanted an acknowledgment of the original designer. They eventually got it as a small credit in one of the DVD releases.
But by then, Mlodozeniec's elegant design had taken on a life of its own.
The Coexist logo becomes a cluttered mess
When Mlodozeniec first saw the bumper sticker design, he wasn't upset about copyright infringement. "They don't steal my own sign," he says, "but wanted to improve it and make it better." His problem with it wasn't legal but aesthetic.
"It looked really poor and bad."
Despite the differences, the new school of design faced its own legal issues from the Indiana luxury brand. (I talked to one Coexist seller who was hesitant to speak on the record, even today, because of the legal threats he faced in the mid-2000s.)
From there, the Coexist logo metastasized even further, forming new random appendages and philosophic and religious associations.
Suddenly, Mlodozeniec found his own professional identity was tied to a range of Coexist logos, none of which represented his aesthetic — including the one he designed.
The original Coexist logo was born from a long tradition of Polish design
Mlodozeniec's work is colorful and intentionally rough around the edges, and that look is part of a lively tradition of Polish poster making. To my American, art history dilettante eye, his work looked like a mix of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but it's really part of a tradition that predates both those artists.
I'd never thought about Polish graphic design royalty before talking to Piotr Mlodozeniec, but I came away understanding that he's part of it. He's a member of a strong aesthetic and political tradition (as seen in his 1990 poster for Polish leader Lech Walesa). Studying under Polish poster designer Henryk Tomaszewski, he developed his own approach to graphic design, and it rarely looked like his famous Coexist logo.
"I've worked as a graphic designer almost 36 years. What I do is rather different than this ascetic black and white, no letters, no color, nothing," he says. "This image Coexist is a little different from my genre, my style."
"Articles always talk about me as creator of the Coexist logo. ... I make a lot of stuff. Many of them are as good as this Coexist sign, but in my opinion, many of them are even better."
Despite his ambivalent relationship with the viral logo, Mlodozeniec has found that it's become more, not less, meaningful over time.
Coexist means more now than it ever did
The Coexist logo doesn't just belong to scuffed Saab bumpers in co-op parking lots. Today, the legal battles are behind it and it's being used by new trademark owners to raise real money for change (not just make a profit for its sellers).
For Mlodozeniec, what began as a graphic design job became something more meaningful.
"In 2000, the situation was not so complicated as today," he says. But 9/11 changed world politics, and continuing crises in Europe made coexistence between different religious and ethnic groups more of a practical necessity. In 2016, there's real action to be taken on issues that were more abstract just 15 years ago.
"Today," Mlodozeniec says, "Coexist is a must. You have to do it."