Five fascinating facts about the history of peeing calvin decals
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It took only a few more steps for Calvin to begin urinating on Ford and Chevy logos. The rest is history.

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As evidence, Edwards cites the earliest printed report he could find: A November 1995 story by longtime Tampa Bay Times writer Tom Zucco describing “a 25-foot motor home with a sign showing Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes urinating on the letters FSU.” Speaking as a Florida high schooler at the time, whose classmates wore garish pro-Seminoles shirts screaming “You’re Ugly… And Your Momma Dresses You in Orange and Blue,” I can attest to the likelihood that denizens of the Florida-Florida State rivalry were early Calvin-pee adopters.

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Those peeing Calvins inspired an array of knockoffs that, while still tasteless, at least didn’t violate Watterson’s intellectual property.

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1. The image is widely believed to come from a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic that Watterson published June 5, 1988.

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The birth of peeing Calvin decals. Spoiler: they probably come from Florida

2. The meme started in Florida, probably. Blame college football.

“I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo,” Bill Watterson is rumored to have told his publisher. Indeed. But what of the mythical history of this meme? Finally, someone has a few answers.

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“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.”

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Watterson recently joked, “Long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.”

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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?”

A series of arrests and legal threats try to stop the intellectual property leakage

One thing’s clear from all the Calvin decals—Calvin will be going to the bathroom for a while.

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.”

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See that water balloon panel on the left? It comes from the June 5, 1988 strip, and most Calvin fans peg that as the source of the peeing Calvin drawing. Of course, we can’t be sure because the drawing was made illegally.

 Watterson’s strip ended in 1995 and the decals started showing up shortly afterward.

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?

With little cultural and legal resistance, peeing Calvin became a phenomenon. There are countless variations featuring different targets, hats, and sayings.

Trivia Happy author Phil Edwards is now writing for Vox. You’ll find new amazing stories there. Like Phil Edwards on Facebook

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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.

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“We’ve contemplated legal action,” says Lee Salem, vice president and editor at Universal Press Syndicate, which distributed Calvin and Hobbes. But the cost involved in finding those who make and sell the decals would far exceed what Universal could win in damages. “Bill’s as frustrated as we are.”…

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Calvin inspired spin-offs, too. Praying Calvin now shows up on trucks (he’s also unlicensed).

One of Watterson’s admirable—and frustrating—qualities was his steadfast resistance to licensing Calvin and Hobbes’ likenesses for merchandise. “Hobbes is a stuffed tiger. ,” one Watterson profiler wrote for the Cleveland Scene in 2003. “What fan — kid or adult — wouldn’t want one of his or her very own?” But the creator wouldn’t hear of it, muttering about integrity-free sellouts in the ranks of professional cartoonists.

If you’re lucky, you’ve never seen it. The decal that shows Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes going to the bathroom has been stuck on the back of thousands of pick-up truck windows. It’s a tasteless sticker, with many variations, that tries to tarnish Calvin’s legacy and the reputation of anybody who slaps it on their window.

It shows Calvin peeing on, praying to, and grossly interacting with things that don’t have anything to do with the character.

But even though it’s tasteless, it still has a history. Towel off and read up.

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Just as Watterson was, Mallett is against rampant licensing of characters so that they appear on everything from calendars to underwear. Unlike Watterson, he believes some selective marketing may actually be helpful. “Because now look what we’re left with: Calvin pissing on a Ford logo.”

Five Fascinating Facts About the History of Peeing Calvin Decals

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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.

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Phil Edwards isn’t the first guy to plumb America’s golden stream of folklore for insights into the peeing-Calvin meme, but he’s certainly the most intrepid. His new online account of the decal trend offers us some tantalizing background. Here are the vital details:

The flip side of that equation is that licensed merchandisers, who have a clear financial interest in protecting their licensed images, are the best candidates to pursue and punish copyright violators. Watterson and United Press Syndicate owned the images he drew, it’s true; but absent a lot of legal firepower, money, and free time, corralling the Calvin-pee propagators was just too tall an order. As the Scene relates:

First things first—Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson says he has nothing to do with the lewd caricature of his beloved Calvin.

4. In a sense, Bill Watterson could have stopped all this, and made a lot of money to boot.

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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).

[Update: Edwards originally typo’d the date of the strip as 1998, which led me to write the following paragraph in the original post. He’s since corrected the record in the comments below, but we’ll keep the graf for transparency’s sake.]

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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.

Of course, there are problems with the timeline here: The earliest printed reports of a pissing Calvin come to us in 1995, so perhaps this strip was a reprint of an earlier comic, or a similar likeness appeared in papers much earlier. (Also, as Edwards points out in his post and I added in the comments below, Watterson retired from making original strips at the end of 1995, so the comic cited here is almost certainly a rerun.)

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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.

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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.

There is, of course, something undeniably and exaggeratedly masculine about an impish prepubescent boy peeing on things. It seems natural, then, that self-conscious advertisers of machismo—say, Dale Jr. fans and Chevy men—might see Calvin as a perfect cultural code through which to communicate their superior musk to beta males and Ford drivers. Edwards says newspaper references to Calvin grew rapidly across the South, often in connection with NASCAR and vehicle brand preferences.

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Images for our gallery come from a defunct page at Annoying.com, assembled by Kilwag at Skate and Annoy. If the page is restored, we’ll include a full link. Images from Calvin and Hobbes are intended purely for illustrative purposes.

[Images: Boing Boing; AlabamaRacingScene.net; JesseReviewsTheWorld.com]

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.

There’s one lingering question. How can the stickers still be sold when they’re obviously illegal?

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