The tasteless history of the peeing Calvin decal
But even though it’s tasteless, it still has a history. Towel off and read up.
A bootleg empire built on micturition
First things first—Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson says he has nothing to do with the lewd caricature of his beloved Calvin.
Watterson was vehemently against licensing his creation for merchandising, and that includes the stickers that “cheapened and corrupted” the comics. Watterson never gave the decals his OK. He later joked to his publisher, “I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo.”
So the bootlegs emerged. But that’s just the beginning of the story. Where did the bootlegs begin? What’s the source for the picture? And why did they stick around?
The birth of peeing Calvin decals. Spoiler: they probably come from Florida
Since the Calvin decals are all illegal copies, it’s difficult to know where they began, but the first media mention comes on November 26, 1995. Reporter Tom Zucco described “a 25-foot motor home with a sign showing Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes urinating on the letters FSU.” The urinating Calvin was part of the UF/FSU rivalry.
From there, the stickers spread quickly, with newspaper mentions across the South. The biggest boost? Somebody made stickers showing Calvin urinating on various NASCAR drivers’ numbers. Calvin became a racing phenomenon. One seller, Peggy Marshall, peddled the bootleg Calvins while saying, “I think it’s disgusting, but who am I to say it?”
It took only a few more steps for Calvin to begin urinating on Ford and Chevy logos. The rest is history.
A series of arrests and legal threats try to stop the intellectual property leakage
United Press Syndicate, the comic strip’s distributor, tried to stop the illegal Calvins, and NASCAR even helped out. But with the strip stopped and no rights to otherwise license the materials, they didn’t make a dent. It didn’t help that the stickers weren’t produced by a big company, but by many small bootleggers.
There weren’t just legal attempts at reclaiming the IP. There were also arrests.
The “pissing Calvin” represented a new level of public indecency, and a few officials didn’t like it. In 1996, a woman all the way up in St. Paul, Minnesota was jailed for wearing an offending Calvin t-shirt in court, and South Carolina cops repeatedly ticketed drivers who had the obscene decal. The same thing happened later in Alabama. The decal-owners protested that their first amendment rights had been violated (the ACLU did use the incident to challenge a law on indecent speech, though they said they weren’t involved in the copyright dispute).Calvin was peeing on their boss’s name.
But from the beginning, those who wanted Calvin to control his bladder were fighting a losing battle. That was clear as early as 1996, when two police officers were suspended without pay for putting Calvin decals on their own cars. The decals showed Calvin peeing on their boss’s name.
A flood of urinating Calvins
With little cultural and legal resistance, peeing Calvin became a phenomenon. There are countless variations featuring different targets, hats, and sayings.
Those peeing Calvins inspired an array of knockoffs that, while still tasteless, at least didn’t violate Watterson’s intellectual property.
Calvin inspired spin-offs, too. Praying Calvin now shows up on trucks (he’s also unlicensed).
There’s even a girl version of the lewd Calvin decals.
One thing’s clear from all the Calvin decals—Calvin will be going to the bathroom for a while.
How do the stickers sell when they’re illegal?
There’s one lingering question. How can the stickers still be sold when they’re obviously illegal?
IP violations like the Calvin stickers are enforced by lawsuits, not cops. An active legal team could probably crush the stickers. In 2006, United Press Syndicate made noise about doing just that.
“We aggressively pursue people stealing Calvin’s image,” spokeswoman Kathie Kerr said. “But most of them are fly-by-night operations that are hard to track down and prosecute.”
But a few years earlier, in 1998, Kerr was more candid:
If we see it happening with the stickers, then the attorneys can start their thing. But these are sort of fly-by-night operators. It moves around a lot, so you never really catch anyone. Bill Watterson decided not to license his characters, which eliminated some of the watchdogs. He didn’t want to have a lot of merchandise, but that’s kind of a double-edged sword. When you license a character, then you increase the number of attorneys who keep a lookout and protect the images.
Watterson recently joked, “Long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.”
Hopefully he’s wrong. But it’s an open question why he didn’t independently pursue the sticker-makers who did worse damage to Calvin than any officially-licensed plush doll would have. Our best guess at the answer? We can’t say it any better than the bottom half of that water-balloon strip that started it all.