Sticker 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.
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.