"The idea was that nobody checks your credit-card signatures," explains Hargrave, who has been working on the Web site full-time since leaving a corporate job in February. "They're always asking you to sign, but no one actually looks at it."
To test his theory, he began scribbling all sorts of ridiculous things on receipts, including a grid, a stick figure in a landscape, "Zeus," and "Mariah Carey." Nobody said anything about these bogus signatures. Nor did anyone take him to task even when he signed "I stole this card."
"It's not that the idea itself is really that original," explains Stevens. "How many times have people said, 'I could probably just write anything I want down there'? The difference is, everybody says it — John does it."
Prince for a day
Hargrave's most ambitious stunt took place two years ago at the rain-soaked 2007 Super Bowl between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears. It was early February, a few days after Boston's Mooninite bomb scare made national news. Hargrave claims he and five other pranksters snuck a soft-drink delivery van — containing 2350 light-up devices they intended to hand out to football fans during the game — into the stadium. The devices were rigged to broadcast a secret message.
Hargrave says his stunt was supposed to be a statement about homeland security: "We do a lot of pranks about security. . . . It's like that credit-card thing. All of these things are sort of devices we use to make us feel safe. But they don't really make us significantly safer. We all buy into this collective reality that, like, 'Oh, we're safe now because we've got people guarding the Super Bowl,' but we're not."
Come game day, the crew passed out the light-up necklaces to gamegoers, who were instructed to put them on during halftime so as to spell out PRINCE.
Things get a little hazy from there. The rainy conditions ended up obscuring the message, Hargrave says, which was actually ZUG.COM. After footage of the stunt and a write-up were posted to that site, some critics called bullshit, saying it was all made up after the fact to dupe the media.
Hargrave is okay with that. After all, duping is what he does best. "It's not that I have a problem with authority," he wrote in his 2007 book Prank the Monkey, "it's that I have a problem with senseless authority."
In fact, the only thing Hargrave seems to have contempt for more than senseless authority is a crappy prank. He loathes, for example, Ashton Kutcher–style shenanigans, which he thinks "lowers the art form."
"Kutcher's idea of a clever prank is to find the car of an obscure rap star, run it over with a monster truck, then watch his reaction," declares Hargrave in Prank the Monkey. A truly inspired prank, he believes, is one that is tailor-made for its target and makes some kind of larger point.
With Walmart, Hargrave honed in on that store's penchant for censorship. Forging the store's barcode using Photoshop, he attached fake tags to a box full of items the megachain refused to sell at the time — a George Carlin book, a Sheryl Crow CD, etc. — and brought them to his local branch. Once inside, he began peppering his items throughout. The shining moment came later when he actually got a counterwoman to sell him his own planted copy of the porn mag Big Black Butts.