When I pause to think about it, stickers have changed my life. It is hard to believe that paper and vinyl with adhesive backing can do so much. Repetition works, and stickers are a perfect medium to demonstrate this principle. As long as stickers are being put up faster than they weather or are cleaned, they are accumulating. For cities, it is a constant maintenance battle. Simple fact is, it’s a lot easier to put stickers up than to clean them off. People also seem unable to resist the urge to stick them on their belongings, car, stereo, skateboard, guitar, and the list goes on. What’s on stickers doesn’t even have to be that cool, they still manage to make their way into every nook and cranny on the planet.
What’s the deal with stickers anyway?
This article is supposed to be about stickers in the context of graffiti (more clearly defined as “aerosol art”), but the relevance of stickers extends far beyond just the graff world. Literally defined, by Webster’s, Graffiti means an inscription or drawing, message or slogan, made on some public surface. Under this broad definition, almost all stickers seen in public could be considered graffiti.
I’m not sure whether this article is supposed to be a more academic discussion, but I’m providing my history with stickers because it is very relevant to my point of view. My introduction to stickers as graffiti was not through the aerosol art graffiti scene. I grew up in South Carolina where graffiti was non-existent with the exception of the usual “Darnell loves Shanice” or “Go Bobcats.” I did however; start to notice skateboard and punk rock stickers here and there as soon as I took interest in these two things at the beginning of 1984. Since my friends were into punk and skateboarding as passing fads, only momentarily distracting them from their paths as respectable preps, I found sticker sightings an encouraging sign that there were more dedicated proponents of punk and skate culture lurking somewhere in the city. Stickers were evidence that I wasn’t living in a total void. I wanted stickers as badges of my culture. At first I would just buy skate stickers and put them on my stuff. I couldn’t even figure out how to get punk stickers, so I learned how to draw all the band logos. Then my mom bought a copier for the business she ran out of our house. It was on, now I could copy graphics from the skate mags and my album covers onto Crack n Peel and make my own stickers. Pretty soon everything I owned was covered with them. At the same time I was making paper-cut stencils of skate and band logos for spray paint and silkscreen application. These activities continued through high school, less as a way to make art than as a way to avoid actually having to pay for stickers and t shirts, many of which were not available in S. C. anyway. Besides, my parents had expressed their dislike of anything skate or punk related and would provide no financial support for additions to my wardrobe in these categories.
*Interesting side note: At this time, I still had not had real contact with “wild style” graffiti, with the exception of attending an art summer program with David Ellis, a.k.a. SKWERM, who would go on to start the acclaimed Barn Stormers graffiti project. At art camp, SKWERM was obsessed with tagging on everything, and showing off flicks of NYC and graff he’d done on barns. I didn’t understand his passion for graff or NYC and made fun of him by signing my name on his message board with a bunch of arrows coming off it. He soon explained to me that I was a “toy” and needed to “step off”. I was amused by his behavior at the time, but would get it later. In 1988 I moved to Providence, RI to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. I immediately linked up with all the punks and skaters. Stencils and stickers were business as usual, but with the addition of some more personalized alterations of the graphics I would rip-off. Providence had a tremendous art and music scene compared to what I was used to, and stickers were everywhere. There were tons of band stickers, political cause stickers (mostly college activists), and most interesting to me, a few art stickers and “hello my name is” tag stickers. A lot of the art stickers beckoned the question “to ponder the sticker as a means of expression and communication for an individual, instead of just representing a band, company, or movement. For years I had defined myself through associations with things that represented skate and punk culture. This path to forming an identity appealed in high school, but did little to alleviate the existential problem of anonymity once I had left high school and entered into an art school environment full of “alternative” people just like me. I liked the idea of having my own sticker, but couldn’t think of something clever enough to be worth executing. I looked at it almost as seriously as getting a tattoo. I paid very close attention to stickers and I would try to figure out who and what was behind any sticker that I saw. I even started photographing flyers, stickers, and other forms of graffiti. During a museum trip to New York that freshman year of college, I saw graffiti in risky places that gave me new respect for the dedication of the writers. Stickers and tags coated every surface in New York City. I left the city inspired, but I was somehow convinced graffiti was something you had to be born into, like a Black or Hispanic mafia, and a pale cracker like me could never be accepted in that culture. I did however, think that I could make stickers and accomplish some of the same things.
That summer I was working at a skate shop called The Watershed. The boss liked my homemade t-shirts and asked me to design some stickers and tees for the store. I was amazed; people actually liked my crude “Team Shed” designs more than the stuff my boss had made professionally. This provided some artistic validation, but I was still looking for my own thing. Everything fell into place somehow when my friend Eric asked me to teach him how to make paper cut stencils. I stumbled upon a funny picture of Andre the Giant, and I told Eric that Team Shed was “played” and he should make a stencil of Andre so we could be Andre’s “posse”. He tried to cut the image with an x-acto knife, but aborted the mission in frustration. I finished the job and wrote, “Andre the Giant has a Posse” on one side with his height and weight, 7’4″, 520 lbs., on the other side. The first Giant sticker was born, with many more to come. The Andre stickers started as a joke, but I became obsessed with sticking them everywhere both as a way to be mischievous and also put something out in the world anonymously but that I could call my own. Just as I had been made curious by many of the many stickers I’d seen, I now had my own sticker to taunt and/or stimulate the public. The sticker takeover of Providence only took that summer. The next fall the local indie paper printed a picture of the sticker offering a reward to the person who could reveal its source and meaning. The sticker campaign had worked so quickly locally, that I decided to strike out for Boston and New York, both within driving distance. The ball had begun to roll but the amazing thing is that I almost lacked the self-confidence to try to put something of my own out there. I didn’t even think I could make an impact in Providence and it is somewhat of a fluke that the Giant sticker stimulated me to try. However, once the first domino fell, I was addicted and had my sights set on world domination through stickers.
It amazed me just how liberating and easy stickering was. At first I would just run off a few hundred stickers a week at a copy center, using their sticker material. Then I figured out that I could get sticker material at an office supply store for half the price. Paper stickers were good for indoor use, a nightmare to remove, but weathered too quickly outdoors. I was taking some screen-printing classes, so I decided to look into making vinyl stickers. I bought vinyl ink and vinyl from a screen print supply wholeseller in Boston. The vinyl ink was ill toxic, but by printing them myself, the vinyl stickers worked out to be way cheaper than the paper ones. I also liked the confusion factor with having a low-fi image printed on the more professional vinyl material. Every sheet of stickers I printed felt like I was making the world a little smaller, I mean, all those stickers were gonna end up somewhere. The only thing that sucked was cutting the sheets into individual stickers. At first I used scissors, but then I gave in and bought a paper cutter and would just watch a movie and cut stickers. This process of production continued from ’89 to ’96, yielding over a million hand printed and cut stickers. When I moved to California, I decided I needed to keep the brain cells I had left, so I stopped printing with vinyl ink and started sending my stickers out to a printer.
As my production methods improved, so did my distribution. I began sending stickers to several enthusiastic friends who had caught sticker fever. Some writers only want their stickers to track their actual footsteps. For example, I printed some stickers for Phil Frost and he got mad at me for putting them up for him. Phil got a call from Twist reporting that he’d seen some Frost stickers in San Francisco and asked if he’d been there. Phil figured I’d put them up and told me he only wanted his stickers on the street as a document of where he’d traveled. I just wanted my stickers to go as far and wide as possible, so I would supply stickers to my friends who lived all over the country. I also began to run cheap classified ads in Slap skateboard magazine and the punk zine Flipside. The ads just had my images and said, “Send a self-addressed stamped envelope for stickers and the lowdown.” I was building a great grassroots network of people who wanted stickers. The only problem was that I was losing money on all of the stickers and ads. The stickers were always intended as an art project, and part of the charm was that there was nothing for sale, but I had to make some money back to keep producing. My solution was to ask for a mandatory donation of five cents per sticker (a price I basically maintain for black and white stickers to this day) and to produce some t-shirts to sell. That’s how my humble sticker and t shirt business got started. Almost every art and financial opportunity in my life has stemmed from my stickers and their poster and stencil relatives.
So, there’s more to my specific experience with stickers than that, but I’ve also developed a general overview of the sticker scene and made friends along the way who have opinions about stickers. Because I’m not an O.G. graff guy, I had to get the lowdown on stickers in graff prior to my introduction to the scene in 1989. Who better an authority to call than Zephyr, one of the pioneers of wild style graffiti and the man behind the “Wild Style” movie logo letters. According to Zephyr, no one in New York bombed stickers back in the day because piecing and tagging were so much easier then. Plus, the focus was more on the huge pieces on the outsides of trains. Zeph says the first stickers that started popping up a lot were commercially offset printed stickers that said “Why not?” He says, “The stickers were annoying but effective. The guy would put them up all over the runners of the trains. Ask Lee or any of the writers from that era They’ll remember, Why not? Even if writers were irritated at first by sticker guys jocking their spots, eventually stickers became part of the writer’s arsenal. Zephyr credits Revs and Cost with really demonstrating the power of the sticker (and paste-up) mediums in New York, and I would agree with him. Revs and Cost had mass-produced stickers and Xeroxed flyers on almost every crosswalk box in the city between 1991 and 1995. Their level of coverage was unprecedented, and their irritation to the city changed clean-up policies, insuring that such domination could never be achieved again. Revs and Cost approached promoting themselves through stickers seemingly less as typical graffiti than as a brand. They used bold, readable, no-frills type. The technique may not have been that stylish, but it was very effective, earning Revs and Cost the distinction of being two of the only writers whose names were well known outside of the graffiti community. My approach definitely takes cues from Revs and Cost, as well as the worlds of advertising and propaganda. I learned from Revs and Cost that simplicity and ubiquity can cut through all the visual noise and urban clutter. I attempted to take things one step further by using consistent color stories and icons on multiple sticker designs to allow people to experience a lot of repetition mixed with a little diversity to keep things intriguing.
Here is what a few other relative authorities have to say about stickers.
Dalek Graffiti writer, known for his space monkeys.
- Stickers are a great way to meet people.
- I like stickers because they are fun to slap all over the place.
- It is a great way to get your imagery out all over the world.
- People love stickers.
- I like to collect stickers. They are like toys…or trading cards.
- It’s like getting up.
- They look good in bathroom stalls.
- They are easier to carry about than a can of flat black.
- I just want to be like Shepard Fairey.
- Beats wheat pasting.
- They are great for taping up boxes.
- Can be used to get the lint off of my black shirts.
Giant One Graffiti writer and tattoo artist.
“I see stickers as one of the many mediums I can use to get up. The main reason I’ve always liked them is the fact that I can put them up during the day without much hassle. They’re also nice because they’re generally small and quick to apply. I certainly don’t think it’s important for writers to make stickers, but it can be a fun medium. Twist made great stickers. Bob Licky stickers are legendary. Shygirl put up a lot of nice stickers in SF. Geso used to make big stickers out of a few smaller ones, which I always thought was a great idea. I put a few hundred stickers in Japan last week. BNE was running Tokyo with his stickers. I saw lots of Andre the Giant stickers too, as expected”.
Roger Gastman Graffiti writer and publisher of While You Were Sleeping magazine. From a graffiti writers stand point.
“Stickers are just another tool in a graffiti writer’s arsenal. Another medium that works on all most any surface. My sticker captures the eye of the average person that might not notice your tags and throw-ups.” from a marketing stand point “Branding is the most important thing for a company. It doesn’t matter if the company is a start up or has been around for 100 years. Logo and name recognition is invaluable. Stickers create a very inexpensive and easy way to get that done.”
Dave Kinsey Artist and graphic designer, partner in BLKMRKT DESIGN.
“I like stickers because they leave a mark that can affect a persons mood, cause thought, and inspire a reaction. I like that my stickers become part of the movement of the street, absorbed by the population.”
Having talked to several people, the general consensus was that stickers are cheap, effective, and easier and less risky to put up than tags, throw-ups, etc… However, opinions differ drastically as to what sticker techniques are “keepin’ it real”. Some people feel that just like racking paint, stickers should be stolen. Whether it’s taking priority mail stickers from the post office, labels from FedEx or the airlines, or lifting “Hello my name is” joints from office supply stores, stickers can be acquired with the only cost being a potential shoplifting record. I prefer to take my risks installing the actual art, but for some people shoplifting is just part of the art of getting over. A lot of graff purists also feel that every sticker needs to be hand drawn and that printing stickers is cheating. People like Twist and Zephyr have printed their own variations of the “Hello my name is” sticker; Twist’s being an oversized version, Zephyr’s saying, “o hell my name is”, but they still hand tagged each sticker. Other people merely use the “Hello my name is” template as a stylistic nod to graffiti iconography. Jest, for example, produces a “Who the fuck is jest” screen-printed sticker which uses old English text where the tag would normally go. Jest has put his time in, and doesn’t have to prove his hand style by tagging every sticker. Some people, like Giant One, just consider making individual stickers an art form. Giant says, “Even when I’m just tagging on stickers, I take the time to make it tight. If I fuck up a tag I throw it in the trash. Everything I put up on the street should maintain that level of technical quality, from stickers to wild styles.” The game with graff is balancing getting up like mad, with a flavorful delivery. It could be argued that even if hand made stickers have the flavor, it’s too time consuming to make enough of them to really crush it. Some dedicated individuals have proven this incorrect. Twist always had San Francisco and any other city he spent more than a couple days in, on handmade sticker lockdown, not to mention tags and pieces. Pez, a bike messenger, has crushed every city he’s lived in with tag stickers. Serch One, Cult crew LA , has a unique method of using spray paint and stencils with hand tagged accents on his stickers. His stickers are more up in every part of Los Angeles than anyone else, graffiti or commercial. I met him once and asked him how he did it. He said, “I take the bus.”
The art of stickers isn’t just about what is on them, but also how they are integrated into the environment. The most common placement is poles and crosswalk boxes at eye level. These are also the fastest places to be cleaned. Climbing a couple feet higher really weeds out the city workers and vigilante citizens who aren’t dedicated to their jobs. Slightly bigger stickers are great for these high spots. Necessity is the mother of invention, right? I got so sick of my stickers being peeled that I looked into the kind of vinyl that the government uses for registration stickers so they can’t be stolen off of license plates. The stuff is called destructible vinyl and flakes off in teeny pieces when you try to peel it. It costs about twice as much but is very worth it in some cleaner cities. People have come up with other great ideas like the tags on the adhesive side of the sticker stuck on the inside of newspaper boxes facing out. Making stickers that are camouflaged keeps them running too. In New York, locksmiths put small contact info stickers in all the doorways. ESPO made some of his own that blend right in, to most of the public, but stand out to writers. I have made take offs subverting the typical “You are under surveillance” stickers. They look so official; they usually stay up, even in conspicuous places. I also made fake California Department of Weights and Measures stickers like the ones that go on all the gas pumps. They only change them once a year. The possibilities with sticker placement are endless.
The fact is, if you want to make stickers but aren’t, then you’re just lazy. Hand drawn stickers are time consuming but free. Photocopied stickers can be made in small quantities, I used to get my fix just making a couple bucks worth at a time. Offset printed stickers on a roll with standardized shapes are super cheap if you do a bunch of them. Screen printed stickers have expensive set-up costs, but if you split up a sheet with friends and make only square or rectangular shapes that don’t have to be die cut, you can bring the cost down per person, especially when you run volume. Ask the printers about volume price-breaks. In my opinion, stickers are the most effective promotional tool possible for the price. Don’t sleep on ‘em.
Published in Graphotism Magazine