Stencil Archive at 20: Some of the First Street Flicks

Mao in Basel
One of the first!: Basel, CH (1995)

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.