Sunday, October 17, 2010

Urban Mythologies: "The Great Barjacking"

Among many of the reasons I find Portland to be such an interesting and fun place to live, is the fact that Portland is one of the original playgrounds of the “Flash Mob”. As text messaging and social networking have developed over the last 10 years, so too have the ability for mass numbers of people to congregate in a given place VERY quickly. In Portland, we’ve seen the popularity of these once very underground and “in the know” type of events become much more than just one-off renegade flash mobs. They are now becoming yearly events, which draw hundreds of people to the streets in a seemingly random display of ridiculousness.

Notable events which now occur yearly are the Zombie walk (where everyone dresses up like zombies and goes downtown to hang out), Santacon (where everyone dresses up like Santa, and barhops downtown)—and more recently, the offshoot/competitive challenge to the now overpopular Santacon—Bananarchy (where people dress up as bananas, during Santacon, and mess with the Santas).

Other flash mobs have occurred in more obscure forms, such as high concentration pillow-fights, random dance troupe formations, and a slew of psychological experiments which can be viewed on youtube. But most notable, and unique to the Portland area is the “Bar Jacking”.

Bar Jacking originated out of necessity as the bastard child of the underground rave scene and the recession. With anti-rave legislation marring their ability to access quality venues, and an already bruised reputation for invading non-licensed venues around town, the aging raver population and it’s forefathers (the soundsystem owners) decided that in an economic downturn, there was power in numbers. The answer was the hurting bar owner.

Disguised as a potential birthday party customer, the soundsystem owner/party facilitator would scope out venues around town. Particularly ones which could hold a lot of people, and were generally ghost towns on a Saturday night. The facilitator would walk into the bar, start up a conversation with the bar owner about having a “birthday party” there for a “lot of people” who would “be VERY thirsty”—such that the barkeeps would need to be able to make some money, and serve plenty of party-inducing alchohol to their potential patrons. All the while, the facilitator was surrepticiously scoping the venue out for proper electrical outlets and dancefloor space. They would tentatively set a date, and no more would be said to the operators of the bar.

The week of the Barjacking, text messages and emails went out en masse, as “save the date” and “barjacking…XX/XX/XXX” and to meet up at 10:30pm at a predisclosed location (usually at a large place such as The Lucky Lab on SE 10th and Hawthorne) as a staging area for all of the participants. All gathered an accounted for, at 11:00pm the facilitator would announce on a megaphone the bar “to be jacked”, and everyone departed immediately after for the spot.

The idea being, that the massive onslaught of thirsty party-goers would get whipped up into a frenzy of excitement at the first bar, what with all the mystery involved and secrecy regarding the venue, and would mob the place once announced, causing complete anarchy for the bartenders and owners.

So much so, that a ridiculously large soundsytem could be set up quickly (less than 10 minutes) and fired up during the confusion. (much to either the chagrin or elation of the bar owner—which was the rub. You’d never know if they would call the police, or just roll with it and make money hand over fist).

Most of the time, the venue owners LOVED it, as they were able to make plenty of money. But every now and again, there’s a stick in the mud, requiring a secondary backup venue to be jacked.

Regardless of whether it worked or not, the renegade-naughty-nature of this type of party infected it’s participants in a way which became hard not to talk about. Word of mouth spread over the years, and Barjackings became the watch-word of the underground party elite.
This elite brand of party is why I love Portland. Simply having been to one of these makes you just that much cooler than the average hipster.

Now, after it’s been done quite a few times, the edge has worn off for many of the facilitators. The reason being, it takes a lot of work, and involves quite a bit of risk. And why push it? Stop while you’re ahead! Stay classy, Portland!

Today, we know the “Barjacking” as an urban legend. While people may attempt such things, the core of the vibesters who were the originals are now on to other, bigger, better projects. It was all a fleeting, and synergistic combination of bored and aging ravers who knew how to “do it right”, and an urban economy which could support it.

Of note, in comparison to my current study of urban mythologies and Barthe’s semiotic approach to describing how meaning is assigned to such terminology (signification), it appears that the agreed upon verbiage in all of these cases tends to denote some sort of excitement. The words “flash”, “mob”, “jacking”, and even the suffixes “-icon”, and “-anarchy” elicit socially constructed visions of an elevated mode of existence, where uncertainty, renegade spirit, and sudden fun coalesce into a vision of events to come. The words are the sign. The event is the signified, and the facilitator’s mode of communication is the signifier, whether that be email, text, or social network.

The term “Barjacking” thus carries both an interpretive element of connotation and myth in its meaning, as well as a descriptive element, which defines what is to take place.


  1. It's a little unclear to me whether you are claiming that barjacking is a real phenomenon or an "urban legend" something that people talk about but which didn't really happen. My operating assumption is that it is a real phenomenon and also a worthy one for this kind of analysis.

  2. What's really interesting about barjacking as an urban phenomenon is that it subverts a conventional understanding of public and private. We have a "private" place, which is claimed by a mobile "public." Or is it a public place that is claimed for private use by the mob? And the mob is an interesting example of public/privacy, since participation is mediated and negotiated by a virtual network of insiders.

  3. So let's talk about Barthes a little bit. Starting from the description you've offered, would he not see barjacking as a revolution that guarantees the power of the established order, an assault that succeeds by failing to make a change?

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  5. Firstly, sorry I wasn't clear, Barjacking IS real, and I do think that it would make for an amazing study! --problem is, they've kinda died out as of recently.

    As it pertains to power structures and the economic influence the public weilds, yes, the mob does seem to have some degree of influence as to whether or not it works out--however, the bar owners DO have ultimate control of their own destiny--and some of them have proven that they would rather keep their respective bars ideologically inclined to their current clientelle. I will cite the attempted barjacking of "The Slingshot Lounge" in SE PDX as a scenario in which the owner caught wind of the barjacking, and instituted a cover charge right then and there. Thus deterring the mob effectively.