In the late 1970s to early 1980s, there was a frenzy for Citizens Band (CB) radio in the UK. However, while it was legal to own such a device, it was not legal to operate on the airwaves. So an elaborate system of codes and pseudonyms were used by the “breakers” who communicated across miles to neighbor hobbyists and strangers. Alongside were active in-person meet ups where participants would exchange their calling cards, often printed with something like “You have eyeballed Joe Soap,” accompanied by an illustration of a soap bar. Thus they became known as “eyeball cards.”
Eyeball Cards: The Art of British CB Radio Culture by photographer David Titlow and writer William Hogan lovingly compiles hundreds of examples, with some portraits of the people behind the cards. Publisher Four Corners Books states that Eyeball Cards is “the first to document this late 70s and early 80s sub culture.” It’s part of their new Four Corners Irregulars series on modern British visual culture, joining recent titles like UFO Drawings From The National Archives.
“The cards themselves became the definition of accessibility to a coded world — rich with cartoon iconography and a DIY cut and paste ethos that inspired hundreds of thousands of people to take part,” writes Hogan in a book essay. He notes that while CB radio was associated with long distance truckers in the United States, it was very much a spare room and shed hobby in the UK. Over the static, you might chat with Rubber Duck, Grasshopper, Wild Wolf, Snow Drop, Little Woman, Midnight Drifter, Blythe Spirit, Skinny Ribs, or Tango Polecat, who probably had an eyeball card coyly riffing on their nickname.
Many of these seem to have been produced by the same printer, but others include DIY drawings or other custom collage art. Ad Man brought his day job to his design, with an illustration of a Superman-like figure busting through the paper, a ruler and pen in hand. Likewise, Pet Lover, Bookworm, and Labman hinted at their off-air identities in their cards, although never their exact location. Since it was illegal, there was extensive slang for broadcasting locations, such as “Castle City” for Edinburgh, or “Surf County” for Cornwall. Still, some local radio clubs had “bust funds” to pay fines for anyone caught on the air.
Each of these now arcane details recalls a brief, yet vibrant, renegade radio subculture, with overlapping social circles of communication that spanned the UK. “As a collection, you can almost hear the voices from the cards, appearing from the hissing ether like half-remembered punchlines or a playful wink to another, more exciting life for the owners,” Hogan writes. “As digital dominates attention spans and lives of young and old, whatever happens to analogue’s CB radio will live on forever through Eyeball cards.”