The Quiet Magic of Sticker Art

sticker_story01_cover350Sticker tags and sticker art have been around for a long time but they’re so ubiquitous that people stop noticing them. They’re often on newspaper boxes, the backs of street signs, light poles, utility boxes, bar and club bathrooms, toll plazas, bus shelters– anywhere you can stick something and have it seen. Sticker tags are a form of graffiti, street art, and sometimes commercial advertising.

There have been art book collections of them, blogs about them, magazines, websites, and even art gallery shows of them, like this one in Minneapolis. “Sticker bombing” or “slaps” as they are sometimes called have their own subculture with a wide variety of styles and applications. Some are slick vinyl, mass-produced images, ads or logos, sometimes printed in full color. Others are simple hand-drawn tags or little drawings, sometimes done on US Post Office labels, name tags or other found, blank stickers. These are known as “handmade slaps” or “postals.”

If you want to get your art, political message, logo or just your name out there, stickers offer a number of advantages over traditional spray paint or marker graffiti. Tagging or making an image on a wall with spray paint or a marker takes time– time that someone might see you and bust you. Stickers, by contrast, are quick. You can slap them on something, often surreptitiously, in just a second or two. You can take your time making them or print up a whole bunch and put them everywhere. In places where people have to walk, sit, or wait and don’t necessarily have much to look at their surroundings, it’s very likely that your image will get noticed.

Some people just want to get their name or a simple image out there. Like other kinds of street art made famous by the likes of Shepard Fairey, Banksy, and Keith Haring, the key to getting noticed is picking a unique image or image style and putting it absolutely everywhere. Shepard Fairey did this with large billboard-size, wheat-pasted murals and also through stickers. Some he put up himself, others were done by fans or surrogates who would copy and put his “Obey” stickers all over the place. It was a “viral” art medium before the internet even existed. Sticker artists often trade their work with each other in order to expand distribution. An artist’s stickers may be distributed worldwide and end up in places the artist has never been to.

sticker_story04_spain_taxispeta_As sticker art became more common, advertisers began using it to promote their goods or services. Walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, I saw tons of sticker tags advertising taxi and car services. In one small village I photographed a downspout that was covered in such ads, with the exception of a tiny public service message urging people to “Go Vegan” courtesy of “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” (PETA).

Because of their small size stickers are something that can only be seen by people who are on foot or paused somewhere in line. As such, sticker bombing is mostly an urban art form associated with walking, public transit, and human-scale public spaces.

As you walk around the Twin Cities look out for them; you’ll occasionally see amazing designs. There are handmade slaps, mass-produced printed images, political messages, cartoon characters, tags, ads for bands, and occasionally ads for goods and services. Some see stickers as an unsightly nuisance but I see them as a bit of urban archaeology and a form of chaotic, free, human expression– an attempt by people to reclaim sometimes boring and drab built environments.

A "Postal Slap", a political organizing message for Jamar Clark, a couple vinyl stickers and the manufacturer's sticker on the back of a Saint Paul road sign

A “postal slap”, a political organizing message for Jamar Clark, a couple vinyl stickers, and the manufacturer’s sticker on the back of a Saint Paul road sign


Nice printed image with reflective insert on Saint Paul road sign

Nice printed image with reflective insert on Saint Paul road sign


Random Stickers in Santiago Spain

Random Stickers in Santiago, Spain


Handmade Postal Slap in San Francisco

Handmade postal slap in San Francisco


Religious messages, handmade slaps and nice cat sticker in San Francisco

Religious messages, handmade slaps, and nice cat sticker in San Francisco


Back of a road sign in Berkeley, California

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11 Responses to The Quiet Magic of Sticker Art

  1. Joe October 14, 2016 at 10:00 am #

    Please don’t encourage this behavior. As someone that has had my property defaced by these stickers, they are horrible to remove – almost worse than spray paint. I’m all for art and promoting creativity, but have some respect for the property owners and don’t do this. Dress it up however you want, it’s vandalism plain and simple.

  2. Julia October 14, 2016 at 10:37 am #

    I agree with Joe. There are plenty of legal means to get creative expression out there in public space, and get paid for it too. Talk to Public Art St. Paul, the Minneapolis Arts Commission, or Forecast Public Art.

  3. A Different Joe October 14, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    Defacing private property is wrong, but I support public spaces that are open to this kind of activity. Andy all but names the excellent documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, which gives some nice examples of public art done right and wrong. For example, pasting Space Invaders mosaics onto city drains; it’s informal and unassuming, but adds a spot of interest to an otherwise purely functional good.

    I don’t think a legal structure can reasonably accommodate a workable system that separates public art from graffiti, so I think it’s up to a municipality to just strongly enforce respect for private property and tastefully enforce public property, however fraught with subjective judgment that may be.

    • Joe October 14, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

      It adds a spot of interest in your opinion. It is just as easily an eyesore to another. Keep art to places designed for the display of it, much better for a municipality to provide a space for art rather than have to judge each case of vandalism on whether or not it is acceptable. If you think your city/town/village doesn’t have enough space for art appeal to your representatives there and request something be created to house it.

      • A Different Joe October 14, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

        What if I have an art car that I park in free public parking for a day? Is that not allowable in your eyes? What if I recite poetry out loud in a public park? Art will always be subjective. You seem to take the view that public property is the government’s private property, and the government is an old man with a cane yelling “Get off my lawn!” I view public spaces as conditionally controlled places subject to reasonable use, for which sticker art probably qualifies. I won’t jettison a sense of proportion just because someone may not like the substance of what they see.

  4. Michael Latsch October 14, 2016 at 11:44 am #

    I was in Andalucia and Galicia in 2008, and I was amazed at the sheer volume of sticker and street art in Andalucia, especially Granada at that time. (Conversely, scrapers and spray-on paint solvents were often featured in urban hardware store shop-windows).

    Here’s one of relevance:

    • A Different Joe October 14, 2016 at 11:57 am #

      Very nice. I think naysayers tend to forget that normalizing art usually ends up civilizing it as well.

      And compulsory – John Cale’s “Andalusia” is amazing, and Yo La Tengo’s version is almost as good.

  5. David Markle
    David Markle October 14, 2016 at 11:52 am #

    For me, the first picture raises the trivial question, “What the heck is United Crushers?” Some daredevil also painted it on the upper edge of one of the big grain elevator towers just north of University Avenue S.E. Is United Crushers a band?

    Whatever, an anti-social nuiscance way to advertise.

  6. Scott October 14, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

    I love seeing these stickers in public, especially on the backs of sterile street signs, posts, etc. They add some vibrancy and usually have a unique take on the character of the neighborhood.
    There’s the argument that stickers, along with other forms of street art, is illegal and immoral. But on some level, the less-connected/poor/disenfranchised in any locality have virtually no say in how their built environment looks like. The government dictates what the street design is; the developer decides what buildings get built. In many ways, I see street art as an expression of people without that sort power to make their mark on the area where they live.
    It’s also pretty harmless. They are just stickers after all.

  7. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke October 15, 2016 at 9:33 am #

    The role of graffiti as art in our culture raises good questions. I’d like to thank people on both sides of this issue for engaging with each other and trying to understand each others’ perspective.

  8. David Markle
    David Markle October 15, 2016 at 11:10 am #

    Bill, I believe Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis used to try to deal with that issue.

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