Free Gigi

Four guys set up a prank and become overnight celebrities, adored by two types of diverging subcultures. This is an urban legend, as true as it gets.

On April 2, 2009, four buddies – Cage, Aton, Ces and Bobină – gathered to spend a night, like many other nights before, in a flat in a neighborhood in Bucharest. A tall apartment building, with exfoliated plaster and ground floor walls adorned with colorful graffiti; a building like any other in the neighborhood, in Bucharest, and beyond. 

They hung out to chat, joke, and poke fun – all the things guys in their 20s do when they have their buddies over. Somewhere in the background you could hear the TV. Close to midnight, going from one story to another, from one TV channel to the next, they ended up watching OTV, a tabloid-like TV station. What they saw made them abandon the discussion they were having. OTV was broadcasting live from a justice court in Bucharest, and the news ticker at the bottom of the screen read “Gigi Becali handcuffed.”

Let’s stop for a moment so we can clarify some important aspects. Cage, Ces and Aton are graffiti artists. Bobină, Cage’s younger brother, is a skater. (Because they wish to remain anonymous we will refer to them solely by their nicknames.) They were all born in Bucharest, live with their parents and have been friends for as long as they can remember. Cage, the oldest, is the only one who has a day job. The others are students. They’re a group – in fact, they are the nucleus of a group of about 20 guys – who get together every night around a table, improvised out of a heavy, wooden cable drum, left behind by a company that installed optic fiber in the neighborhood. “At the drum,” they call it.      

If they were a resistance group, the drum would be their operational headquarters. This is the place where they plan their nighttime raids, their secret missions to transform the city – its building walls, poles, billboards, metal doors, subway trains, mostly any type of plain surface – with drawings and tags. Some think of them as vandals who disfigure the city, others consider them urban artists who fight against the gray concrete.

They’re neither – yet. For now, they’re halfway between those who, 20 years ago, used to write with brushes on the walls “Down with Iliescu!” or “Down with communism!”, and Banksy, the anonymous English graffer who succeeded, on purpose or by accident, to make graffiti mainstream and earn good money doing so. Our heroes don’t care about the system enough to leave the house and fight against it. They don’t feel the need to take responsibility for any message other than their names, written almost illegibly on some wall, in the middle of the night, or a more complex drawing, but with no activist significance whatsoever, on a wall in the outskirts. For now, they’re driven by a need, hard to explain to outsiders, which brings them together every night, around the drum.

On Thursday, April 2, they chose Cage’s apartment over the drum. It was the day Gigi Becali – landlord, owner of the football club Steaua Bucharest, businessman, member of the European Parliament and populist politician usually surrounded by a commando of bodyguards – was being detained by prosecutors. From dawn ‘til dusk, from Becali’s mansion and all the way to the court, video cameras and armies of reporters were broadcasting live. From the dissonant live reports, and more or less official information, one was able, however, to understand that Becali and some of his bodyguards were taken in for holding people captive and were brought to court.

OTV was broadcasting from outside the court. The images showed a mix of people, filling the screen like fish in an aquarium. Women and men, young and old, beggars and flower ladies; kids, grinning like Cheshire cats, looking into the camera with fascination, and  goons leaning against their SUVs parked somewhere to the side, watching people chant, sometimes in an organized manner, other times chaotically, slogans showing their support: “Gigi Becali! Gigi Becali!”, “Freedom!”, “We want Gigi free!”.

When they saw the images, the guys started making fun of the people there. Then they thought they recognized someone in the crowd, a supporter of Steaua whom they knew from the neighborhood. They were not exactly buddies, but they knew each other. “Hey, what’s he doing there? Let’s give him a call!”

If he had answered the phone, things would have probably ended there. But he didn’t. They continued their mockery, making fun of the mob for not even having a sign. What kind of protest was that?! 

“Let’s make one ourselves!” said one of them.

“What should we write?”

“Freedom for Gigi!”

“Too long.”

“Set Gigi free!”

No. They needed something shorter, written in caps, which would fit on the cardboard Cage kept behind the fridge. And, it had to be something smart, something funny, something that would be worth the effort of going all the way to the courthouse and infiltrating themselves among the thugs. Yes, they had to go. Cage, who works in media, knew what madness they would create in the press if a banner were to appear in the mob. But what should it say? It had to be smart enough to float above all those present, and also mock them, without them realizing it. They kept on brainstorming until one of them, Cage can’t remember who, said: “Free Gigi!”.

They looked at each other.

“Good one!”

Not only did it fit the cardboard, but the message was perfect. In slang, “gigi” means joint, marijuana, weed, ganja, pot, Mary Jane. “Free Gigi,” as the connoisseurs would tell you, would therefore suggest a call for the legalization of marijuana. It was the perfect slogan because it could speak to two sets of diverging people: Becali fans and Mary Jane fans. With this type of message, you cannot get your ass kicked. At least in theory.

Cage, Ces, Aton and Bobină don’t smoke pot. They tried, of course, but they’re not into it. Cage, who took up graffiti 10 years ago, when few knew what to do with a spraycan and an empty wall, doesn’t even drink alcohol. His kidney problems kept him in hospitals, away from graffiti, right when it started becoming a phenomenon in Bucharest. Football isn’t part of their interests either, and politics doesn’t appeal to them unless there’s something to be mocked.

The “Free Gigi” joke was way too good. How could anyone resist the chance of taking over a mob and turning it into a protest for legalizing marijuana? How could you resist the temptation of feeding newspapers and television with the two-word banner: “Free Gigi”? In other words, have them give a green light to weed, ganja, pot, Mary Jane. They took the piece of cardboard and a purple spray, got into Cage’s car and drove off to the courthouse. They didn’t know where it was, and being in a hurry, they didn’t have time to look it up online. So they drove through town, calling their friends and asking for directions. Eventually, they found it. They parked the car far from the building and went on a recon mission, without the cardboard and spray.

The mob was bigger than it seemed on TV and much more hostile. A few hundred, mostly men, some young and thin, others older and bigger, many of them wearing track suits. A swarming, angry crowd took over the stairs and parking lot outside the courthouse at midnight. The guys walked among them and started having second thoughts. If someone wanted to find some guys who didn’t fit in the picture, they were the ones.

They met up with the guy they knew and had seen on TV. “What are you guys doin’ here?”, he greeted them gladly. “You came for Mr. Gigi as well?” They answered yes, they were there for him. He totally bought it.

They gathered their courage and, after less than 10 minutes, returned to the car. With the spray in one hand, Cage bent over the cardboard that laid on the ground and started writing. First the F, then the R, then E, and again E. Then the G, and I, and again G, and again I. Then back and forth a couple of times so it would really stand out.   

“Hey, do you guys smell weed?”, one of them suddenly asked.

Indeed they did. They were in a parking lot behind an apartment block, and a few meters away was a blue car, which they had just noticed, with four or five guys crammed inside.

Bobină lifted the freshly painted cardboard and walked with it to the car. When he got close, he lifted it and held it high for a couple of seconds, so those inside could read. People in the car got riled up, probably thinking they were victims of a colective halucination. The guys laughed and wanted to return to the mob, when someone from the car got out.

“Who are you? What’s the deal?” 

They asked him if he hadn’t heard what was happening a few hundred meters away. He hadn’t. They told him that Gigi Becali had been arrested and that there were hundreds of people in front of the courthouse asking for his release. And they wanted to go there and hold up the sign. The guy laughed and told them he wanted to take a picture with them. They refused, but told him to check their blog, lamosor.blogspot.com (la mosor = at the drum) the next day to see images of what was about to happen.

When they made it back to Becali’s supporting mob, they didn’t have many doubts. They just thought that English would maybe puzzle the folks there. They quickly found a spot, somewhere in the back, in a more compact group, and lifted the sign.

“Hey, what does it say? What does it mean?” they asked.

“It means Gigi free!” they answered.

“That’s it, kids, c’mon, shout it out loud! These assholes must free Mr. Gigi!”

The people got behind the message. They snatched the sign from their hands and started screaming “Gigi Becali! Gigi Becali!” and “Freedom!” A few seconds later, Bobină was the only one still holding on to a corner of the banner.

As soon as the group where they had planted the cardboard started screaming and waving their new sign, the photographers and cameramen covered them in spotlights and flashes.

Cage, the media man and the one in charge of communication inside the small guerilla pack, quickly climbed the stairs of the courthouse to take pictures. Pictures of Becali’s fans waving the Free Gigi banner, of the photographers photographing Becali’s fans waving the Free Gigi banner. Their banner. Their message.

Less than 30 minutes had passed since they had arrived. Cage went down the stairs and together with the other two returned to the car. The guys in the blue car were gone.

On their way back home, they laughed their asses off. They couldn’t believe what just happened. When they arrived home, they sat down in front of the TV and started zapping – this time with the sole purpose of watching the images of Free Gigi.

The next day, pictures and videos of Becali fans waving their sign were everywhere in the newspapers and on news websites. ProSport.ro, a sports newspaper that covered the events in front of the courthouse all night, wrote at 1:30 a.m.: “Becali’s fans took out a huge banner with the following slogan: FREE GIGI! All those present screamed “Freedom!” and “We want Gigi to go free!”. On the Mediafax wire-agency site: “All the props were there, nothing was missing. They even had banners. One of them simply said: Free Gigi.” In a video shot that night by reporters of satirical weekly Academia Caţavencu, there was an interview with a man holding the Free Gigi sign.

The guys detailed their adventure on their blog the very same night. They posted some pictures and even wrote a text that clearly stated their opinion about those who wanted Gigi free. It was a biting satire that made fun of soccer hooligans with beer bellies, who eat sunflower seeds and wear jakets and big gold chains. It was a text about Gigi and weed.

That Friday, their blog, which had an average of about 1,000 visitors per month, went up to 10,000. Once the initial euphoria dissipated, they started putting things into perspective. The TV channels were continuously showing Free Gigi images. It had already become the favorite slogan of the entire pro-Becali movement. But Evenimentul Zilei, a broadsheet, and the Antena 3, a news channel, had found out that it had been a prank and posted links to their blog.

The guys got scared. What if Steaua supporters find us? Or Becali’s army of bodyguards? I mean, he did get arrested for sending out his goons to punish some guys who humiliated him by stealing his car. What if the police catch on to us? They could accuse us of pro-marijuana propaganda. 

On Friday night, they took the blog down. Not only the Free Gigi post, but everything. They told no one else what they did, and watched their backs for three days, each time they walked down the street, looking around carefully, waiting to see a thug or a police car. Slowly, they calmed down. After careful discussions with Steaua supporters in the neighborhood, they found out that even they couldn’t stand Becali anymore.

Still, there was the police. But why would the police bother to investigate their prank? It’s not like they smoked weed on live TV. Moreover, they didn’t invent the term “gigi”. They just used it to make a joke. To cover their backs, Cage went online to an urban dictionary and found the definition of “gigi” – synonym to joint, weed, as in “Hey, man, let’s roll a gigi!” It was posted in 2007, two years prior to them taking advantage of the Gigi Becali situation and spreading the term. He made a printscreen of that page and saved it under the file name “Evidence for trial.”

Three days later, on April 6, after rewriting their post, they put the blog back online. Almost all reactions they have received since are of praise and congratulations. Both from those who wanted Gigi free, after they found out it was a prank, and from those who understood the double entendre of “Gigi.”

That posting brought them over 30,000 views, and Free Gigi took on a life of its own. It became the name of a movement that, for as long as Becali was arrested, asked for his release. There were T-shirts, websites, and for a brief period, even a Facebook cause. The slogan turned full circle when the rapper Grasu XXL wore a Free Gigi T-shirt in his video for the song Mai mult fum (More smoke), more than a month after the guys’ stunt. The T-shirt print then became a stencil – Free and Gigi were written one under the other, with the contour of a joint in between – which later appeared on the walls around downtown Bucharest.

Cage, Aton, Ces and Bobină, the three graffers and the skater, didn’t brag much about their stunt. Soon after, in the subway or on the streets, they happened to hear conversations about Free Gigi. Indeed, it was a pleasant feeling, but they never felt the need to turn around and say: “I did it.” It’s the lesson every graffiti artist, wherever he may be, learns fast. Don’t brag in public. Moreover, what’s there to brag about? They know perfectly well it was an accident that cannot be reproduced or topped.

Everything, from Gigi Becali’s popularity, to the gullibility of his fans, to the impatient media’s thirst for images, to the meaning of “gigi” in slang, everything was perfectly arranged in a cocktail impossible to turn into a recipe. And why would they even try to do it again? They lived through the perfect story, the type of crazy adventure you only experience once in a lifetime. 

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