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.