City is a journal of provocative, cutting-edge and committed insights into, analysis of, and commentary on the contemporary urban world. We record and analyse ’the city’, cities and their futures, and urbanization from multiple perspectives....
Anna Carastathis &Myrto Tsilimpounidi
Published online: 08 Jul 2021
[a quick excerpt] In March 2011, large-scale demonstrations erupted in the city of Daraa, prompted by the arrest and detention of children who were accused of writing graffiti against the regime on the walls of their school. The protests in Daraa were said to have broken through the ‘wall of fear’ (Masalmeh quoted in Sterling 2012), sparking the people’s uprising across Syria. Watching these expressions of dissent unfold through our computer screens, we were reminded of a song we grew up singing, referring to the resistance to the colonels’ dictatorship in Greece (1967-1974): ‘the street had its own history/someone wrote it on the wall with paint/it was a single word: freedom/later they said that children wrote it’ (Mitropoulou 1974).
A few weeks ago, we got an email asking if the Stencil Archive featured stencil work from Brazilian artist Alex Vallauri. We didn't, so an instant online search ensued. In a brief Wikipedia entry, it is noted that Vallauri traveled to Sweden in 1975, saw graffiti, and returned to Brazil to paint walls. He then traveled to New York City in 1982 and landed in to the hot scenes of Manhattan while the city was covered in graffiti, stencils, and pop art. He flew back to Brazil and never stopped painting walls, mostly with stencils, until his untimely death in 1987. The book "Alex Vallauri Graffiti", by Joao Spinelli, was published in Brazil by Bei press in 2011.
As always, Stencil Archive appreciates it when loved ones, fans, and artists themselves reach out to us. Since art in urban streets has a history that runs deep, and precedes the all-seeing internet, this project continues to help connect the people, places, methods, and events that enrich the knowledge and celebrations of this technique and art form.
In the early 1990s, I spotted a stencil in Clemson, SC while driving to meet up with some friends. I knew what the stencil was a symbol for, because I knew what J.R. "Bob" Dobbs' head looked like. Turns out, the Church of SubGenius had put a stencil of "Bob" in their 1983 book The Book of SubGenius. For some reason, I thought about that Clemson stencil enough to drive back to the town weeks later with my camera so I could take a photograph of it. Like most illegal public art, "Bob" had been buffed.
Then, in 1995, I managed to save enough money before getting laid off in Atlanta, GA to take a budget trip to Europe. I had decided to make it an art, graphic design, and art history trip, which was a great self-taught way to learn and develop an eye for my own creations. Landing in Amsterdam, I found amazing rave flyers, fresh graffiti, and other imaginative public advertising. I also enjoyed the van Gough museum.
I found much of the same in Berlin and elsewhere, and then also started noticing stencils in the streets. I didn't find many; I did not go to Paris on this trip, but I did snap a few along with the graffiti, ads, etc. One of my first-ever stencil photos was in Budapest:
I had a roll of color film in my camera and snapped the above photo without thinking much of what it meant, what a stencil was, and even the now-forgotten "Bob" stencil from about four years earlier. On a later date, I snapped a few in Basel, Switzerland. They were obviously political images, and I didn't think much of them as I added these photos with the other art from the trip.
I finally got hooked when I randomly ended up moving to San Francisco in 1997. After a few weeks on a couch, I got a sublet in a house in the Mission District. Walking around all the time to discover the City, I found stencils everywhere. I started taking my big DSL camera with me, trying to conserve my photos to save money on film and development. I chose not to snap graffiti and murals, and began to focus only on snapping photos of stencils. Many of these early film snaps have been scanned and rescanned for the Stencil Archive project, and the best now have their own archive here.
One reason Stencil Archive has a "one stencil in one photo only" policy is partly because I tried to only take one photo of a stencil while using the film camera. Seeing the repetition, like Jr.'s Budapest stencil, was fascinating, but I didn't have the time or money to snap all the extras I saw during my wanderings. In 2002, at the beginning of the digital camera era, Stencil Revolution let anyone post as many photos of the same stencil as they wanted (much like social media today), so I took that film-based rule I had and made Stencil Archive a more curated site.
A rare note on submitting photos: The flicks keep coming! With almost 26,000 photos on Stencil Archive, they mostly come from our own photographs (you'll usually see the Stencil Archive logo watermark) and travels. Many friends have kept looking for stencils and sending me photos, while TXMX sends his annual photo hoard from Hamburg, Italy, and beyond, around January of every year. And, out of their kindness of sharing alike, Jaime Rojo at Brooklyn Street Art keep snapping stencils during his wanderings. Recently, many new stencil photos come from social media sources. As for artist-direct submissions, social media has mostly taken that over and our new artist uploads are from other sources. We try to give thanks to all of the above with every upload. And the work put into formatting the files, prepping the uploads, searching and organizing, and posting and sharing is always done while listening to music. The past five years or so, the work has been done while spinning vinyl. Getting up to flip sides makes a good break about every 20 minutes :P
Thanks to: Doug Gilford, Mark Cort, Brooklyn Street Art, @StreetArtUtopia; @Emily_Lykos; r/stencils; u/Mirudos
Over 20 years ago, before the Stencil Archive project appeared online, a few Bay Area folks kept bringing up another photographer and flicks collector from Chicago. Josh MacPhee had been cutting and painting stencils and making zines with his photos for years, but his main passion was the Celebrate People’s History poster project. He came through San Francisco often, tabling for Justseeds and CPH, and was known to take walks and snap photos of Anarchist circle-As, stencils, and other interesting tags and markings.
Eventually, Josh and I met and started taking walks to shoot art in the streets. He had a digital camera before I did, had more internet awareness than I did, and was extremely generous in sharing tips, knowledge, and how-tos. My enthusiasm also led to his letting me tag along and help out for a few art projects. This period of total openness to skills, tools, and methods set the standard for my future work and projects. When Stencil Archive started, Josh gave me table space at the Anarchist Book Fair to promote the project, became one of the first artists to submit work, and asked me to write an essay for his book “Stencil Pirates” in 2005.
Stencil Archive recently asked MacPhee to reflect back to the heady days of the early 2000s, before the term “street art” was coined by the money men, and he replied:
The early 2000s was a utopian moment for street art. The commercialization (and art-world-ification) of the previous wave of street art was so complete by that point that we didn’t really even see ourselves as connected to Haring or Holzer or Basquiat, which let us focus on using the medium as a tool for communication and experimentation, rather than chasing the “success stories” of the 1980s. It felt like there were few barriers to participation, which was great and led to a diversity of voices, and in turn a broad audience for the work.
Unfortunately by the mid to late 2000s the art became a victim of its own success, quickly moving from a marginal activity onto the front page of the New York Times. Sadly fewer and fewer people were doing it because they had something to say, and instead saw it as an easy on-ramp to brand visibility and a gallery career. Since both of those are boring as fuck, quickly the broad audience evaporated, and by 2010 almost everyone invested in street art was just that, invested in street art.
With expensive art collections they needed a financial return from, the purveyors of street art generated an endless and exhausting parade of events, exhibitions, and press that promoted the art as a money maker more than something with any social value. Yawn. Hopefully we’re seeing the last demand for “braaaaains" from these zombies, and soon a new generation can retake the streets and do something interesting again.
Never short on opinions and critique, and always true to his beliefs, Josh has continued to put amazing art, history, and rad projects into a mainstream that continues to consume the sharp edges of culture. The following paragraphs detail Josh’s current work as well as summarizing his past projects that included those amazing photographs of the art in the streets from that “utopian moment” several decades ago.
Josh MacPhee is a designer, artist, and archivist. He is a founding member of both the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Interference Archive, a public collection of cultural materials produced by social movements based in Brooklyn, NY (InterferenceArchive.org). MacPhee is the author and editor of numerous publications, including Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now and Signal: A Journal of International Political Graphics and Culture. He has organized the Celebrate People's History poster series since 1998 and has been designing book covers for many publishers for the past decade (AntumbraDesign.org). His most recent book is An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels (Common Notions, 2019), a compendium of information about political music and radical cultural production.
Has it been 20 years?! Yes, it has. So much has changed, yet some things remain the same. Social media has eclipsed sites like the Stencil Archive, but nowhere else has quite the curated collection of all things stencils. From a clunky part of the HappyFeet project, where pages were made in Photoshop on a Mac clone, to possibly the fourth Drupal version, the fundamental core values of Stencil Archive are still "create, have fun, share, and dare to change the world".
And, like the 2002 email list notice says... the obsession continues!
April 1, 2012 Post
I just pulled up this old HappyFeet Communique email, dated April 2, 2002. Thought it would be fun to repost, especially since I haven't really celebrated this site's 10th Anniversary.
Prior to putting the photos on this web address, my blog www.happyfeettravels.org hosted Photoshop-created albums of the early archives (some photos from that era, tiny postage stamps to save size, still exist on to this day). It got too big for the blog, so I moved it over here.
This site's mission is still simple, and pretty much the sadme as the original concept. Interestingly, Phase II began without my prompting it. People found the site and began to submit on their own. It was a pleasant surprise to see people get involved (early contributors included: Chris Stain, Josh MacPhee, TXMX, ecce, Klutch, Logan Hicks, Lord Hao, Jef Aerosol, Claude Moller, Adam5100, Peat Wollaeger and many more).
++StencilArchive.org world premiere launch April 1, 2002
Since 1995 stencil art has been a HappyFeet obsession. Now the obsession is online for the world to share. Our mission is simple: create a tighter stencil art community and watch it grow. Stencils from around the world are posted on here, and will be added frequently.
How to/FAQ will be updated frequently as well.
In Phase II, submission pics will be accepted and posted.
While researching stencil history for the "Stencil Nation" book back around 2004, John Fekner's word works in NYC loomed large. I contacted him, and we had a great discussion. After talking about his own stencil work, Fekner helped flesh out the timeline for early art in the streets. This conversation also sent me to San Francisco's Main Library to research other artists who experimented with negative space. A major highlight of my decades of stencil fun was painting one of Fekner's cut-out stencils around SF.
Juxtapoz recently spoke with Fekner, who is still as outspoken as ever. Here is their blurb for the podcast epsiode:
John Fekner is both a historian and pivotal artists who transformed the ways we looked at street art and graffiti. You know him for his work in the Bronx in the 1970s and early '80s, the massive stencil works that read BROKEN PROMISES and DECAY, painted upon what almost appeared to be the post-apocalyptic landscape of the city. His career started in the late 1960s, but found a voice working amongst the unique artists of the era that transformed the way we looked at the art on the streets.