A Talk with Chris Stain

"I cut stencils as a way of documenting life; as a proof of my own
existence and how I deal with that existence." - from Stencil Graffiti
by Tristan Manco

SA: How did you get into stencil art?

CS: I just kinda wanted to do something else with the spray paint. I wanted to do screen-printing and I didn’t have any money to buy my own equipment. I had learned how to screen print in high school, and I wanted to do it at home, because I had seen the work of Frank Kozik and I really liked it. I got inspired and thought, “aw, I used to screen print in high school and I should do it again.” And then realizing how much money I had wasn’t enough to buy equipment, I thought, “well, how can I reproduce the images?” and the best way to do it was to cut stencils.

So I started cutting stencils, just real simple. Actually, I had some old Fisher Price Learning How to Write stencils that were already cut that came with the old Fisher Price desk that had the magnetic letters and the chalk. I don’t know if you remember that.

You could carry it around and everything was already die cut and it would say “paint” and the word paint would be cut out in stencil form and there’d be a picture of a little kid painting on an easel.

So somehow I came across this stuff when I was moving from one house to another, and it was some stuff that my mother had saved. So I came across that, and got inspired. “Oh, I should just start cutting these stencils.” It’s a way to reproduce the image. Those Fisher Price images are really basic, so I just started copying those to get the hang of it and see what was going on.

Right around the same time, there was the big Shepard Fairey explosion, and his stuff was everywhere. I saw his stuff in the city paper where I lived, and he was in Tattoo magazine. He was in Juxtapose and different things. I got really excited. Then, I met more people locally in Baltimore who were doing stencils: Workhorse Visuals, at that time, Chris Francis. Christopher Bettig was there. Those guys really got me pumped up, because they encouraged me to keep doing the stencils.

I tried some screen-printing. Logan Hicks had equipment, so I picked up some of that stuff. It all worked out. I guess that was around ‘98.

SA: That was in Baltimore?

CS: Yeah.

SA: One of the web sites that I found, probably around ‘98, was about a street art show in Baltimore where there were a lot of stencils.

CS: There was a show then and I actually missed it. I saw pictures of that show. Seth Tobocman, he’s another really good guy, definitely got me pumped up. If you’ve ever seen that book “You Don’t Have to ***** People Over to Survive,” it’s a great book.

SA: I have photographs of that stencil.
CS: Oh, you do.

SA: Yeah.

CS: That’s a good one. So basically, the switch from graffiti to stencils came from a desire to do screen-printing. Things just seemed to start happening around that time. I just kept meeting different people and started out cutting stencils with poster board.

SA: Just regular poster board?

CS: Yeah, I actually worked at a bookstore and they’d put signs up for events. After the date expired, I’d take the sign home and use the back of it. I’d spray adhesive the back, put my image on it and just cut it right out with regular box cutter blades.

SA: Do you use a lot of different materials now?

CS: From having some experience with screen-printing, I got into using mylar and clear acetates. What I use now is a 5 mil mylar and I use x-acto knife blades. The real sturdy hobby tool blades. It’s [the mylar] really easy to work with, because it’s clear and pliable. If I use anything too thin for the detail that I try to get, the stuff just splits and pops. It doesn’t hold it.

SA: The first thing I tried using was the thin mylar, and I laid the stencil out on the sidewalk. I sprayed it and it curled up and stuck together with the paint.

You put your image on the mylar?

CS: If I’m cutting stencils to make a painting at home, I use the 5 mil mylar. I’ll spray tack the image down onto the artist board, I can’t think of the name of that stuff.

SA: Is it gator board?

CS: It’s something like that. It’s brown and real heavy. I can’t remember the name. I spray tack the image down on that, and then I lay the mylar on top and tape it all down. I’ll cut away the colors. I always cut my black first. Then I’ll cut away the other colors.

Most of my images are old family photographs or photos from old FSA (Farm Security Administration?) materials. All those working class images are from the Great Depression up to around World War II era photographs.

SA: Where did you find those?

CS: FSA has a web site on the internet. You can download a lot of the pictures. I usually go to used bookstores and try to get old books that were published around the 40s that cover that topic.

So that’s the inside stuff. For the outside stuff, some home appliance stores and hardware stores sell this plastic. It’s a cutting board material that they use. You know, you can buy a wooden cutting board or you can buy the thick resin fiberglass cutting boards.

They also sell these thick sheets of plastic cutting board size, like 14x9.

SA: I actually have one of those in my kitchen.

CS: I use that to cut stencils with. They seem to not curl up as much. After the paint dries, I just put something heavy on it to flatten it out. You can run around with that pretty good. It seems to last better than the cardboard. If you use a poster board to run around with, it gets dogged up, or it sticks together.

I’m always looking for something that’s more durable to go out with. If you search around on the internet, you may find companies that sell vinyl or mylar for sandblasting signs. Any kind of sign supply place. I contacted a place recently and they sent me a 15 mil and a 7 mil mylar. It seemed like it was pretty durable. They use it for sandblasting signs and laser cutting.

SA: When you cut the thick plastic, how do you get the detail? Do you just use lots of sharp blades?

CS: Yeah, I go through blades (Laughs) You go through blades like crazy. Sometimes I use a dremel tool with the bigger stencils. I’ve made 6.5 feet stencils, and used a dremel tool on those. Recently, I saw something advertised that said, “stencil burner”, so I thought “what the hell, I’ll give it a try”. That seems to work out OK with the bigger things. With the smaller things it melts the plastic too quick, for me anyway.

SA: Is it like a hot wire?

CS: You know those old wood-burning kits you used to get when you were a kid? It’s just like that. It just has different tips. You can use it for soldering and other things like that. I just got it recently, and I haven’t had too much time to mess around with it. It seems like it’d work well on bigger things, or if you’re cutting out something more solid. But to get in with some detail, it seems like just hand cutting it with an x-acto knife works the best.

And I try to use 11m; a series of different blades that x-acto has, because they’re real sturdy. You snap the tip on those things so much.

SA: Do you have a storage method? Do you have a pile of stencils and how do you keep them organized?

CS: I’ve got about 50 stencils or more, ranging from one color to ten colors, and what I really want to get is a flat file. That would be the best thing, but those damn things are so expensive. Forget it, unless you can build something.

Right now I have everything in folders, labeled and paper clipped together. I have a piece of chipboard or a piece of paper between each color to separate it and keep it from sticking together. When we moved, I had all my layers separated by paper, and the heat caused the paint to stick together. I had to go back through and soak each color so I could peel the paper away without damaging the stencil.

Luckily, people have wanted to see the things that I’ve been doing, so I had to get it more organized with all the different colors. I think the best way to keep it separate would be to have some sort of flat file depending on size, whether it’s something you rig yourself, or you get some sort of wire rack, like the kind you put pots and pans on. That’s what I have my stencils on now, a wire rack for the kitchen. I just have everything separated and labeled “six colors” or “four colors”.

Growing up in Highland Town is the name of one of my paintings, so I just have it all separated.

SA: You just mentioned colors. I assume that you use spray paint. Do you use airbrush?

CS: I use spray paint. I use Rustoleum American Accents paint, because they have a wide range of colors and lay down real nice on metal. Rustoleum seems to be a better paint for painting on metal than Krylon. Krylon tends to be a little bit watered down.

I do use Krylon semiflat black and then I coat the whole thing with Krylon clearmat when I’m finished to protect the life of it.

SA: Do you have a big, phat fan blowing all of that toxic stuff out?

CS: Yes I do. I wear a respirator when I paint. Right now, I’m painting in the basement. I’m trying to move out and set up the garage as a studio in my house. I have a ventilation system. I paint right by a window and a big fan is stuck in the window. And I keep a door or window open so there’s a constant flow of air going in and out. Not only does paint damage your lungs, it damages your whole house. You get that mist all over the floor and all over whatever it can cling to. That paint gets on everything.

SA: As far as color selection goes, do you feel limited with spray cans?

CS: I don’t feel limited. If you really want to get technical, you could buy Montana and a couple of those other real fancy spray paints. They’ve got the crazy colors.

I just use the regular stuff you can get at the hardware store. I mix my colors as I’m going to achieve different tones and values.

If you look at the color palate of the colors that I use, they all have the same earthy, darker color. That’s because those are the colors that I like. I feel that those colors fit best the image that I’m trying to paint.

SA: You mentioned painting on sheet metal earlier. Was that experimental, or did you do that intentionally?

CS: I was just spray painting the stencils that I had at the time, they were just one and two color stencils, on poster board or on cardboard, and a friend had mentioned “you know, stencils are supposed to be on other things. It’s not like printing posters that you only print on paper.” And I thought, “oh, OK.” So I happened to be at the hardware store one day and I was in the aisle that had all the heating and ventilation stuff, like the ductwork materials. I saw big sheets of sheet metal, so I thought “Oh, what the heck. I’ll give it a try.”

I bought a lot of sheet metal and started painting on that, and it seemed to work really well. I’m always looking for rusted metal and busted up wood and things like that.

SA: It’s interesting that you paint on sheet metal because probably the first stencils that anybody sees, you might not remember it, is probably the M*A*S*H television show. You know all the jeeps with stencils and trucks.

CS: Right. I do remember that actually. A lot of that military stuff is really nice looking.

SA: I think that it’s really cool that you paint on sheet metal.

CS: Thanks.

SA: Almost all the stencils that are utilitarian are always on metal, so it makes sense to me. While I was fishing around on the internet, trying to research your stuff, I saw that you’re selling through a poster dealer, or a screen-printing collective. It was you, Shepard Fairey, and three or four other artists selling prints of your stuff.

CS: Was it Workhorse Visuals?

SA: It was. Are those screen-printed posters?

CS: You can buy the actual paintings. Logan [Hicks of Workhorse Visuals] has that set up so you can buy the actual painting off of his site, with Shepard Fairey and Chris Francis. They were going to be selling screen-printed versions of the stencils, but with my stuff, you would buy the painting.

SA: Do you have any desire to make screen prints?

CS: I do screen print on the side. I have a show coming up in July and I printed all the posters and postcards for that. I do a little graphic design stuff on the side and poster printing on the side. I have my own equipment.

SA: You have screen-printing equipment?

CS: Yes.

SA: How big is your press?

CS: It’s a four-head, one station tabletop. Everything fits in the garage. It’s real simple. I have an exposure unit and a small dryer. And for a while I had my own business and printed t-shirts for bands and businesses.

The poster thing is a different process than t-shirt printing. There’re different inks, and different substrates that you’d be printing on.

SA: Do you see any similarities with screen-printing and stencil art?

CS: Yes, definitely. When you expose the screen after you’ve coated it with the photo-emulsion, and you expose the image with light, you’re basically creating a stencil. Once you pull the squeegee and push the ink through the screen, that screen is your stencil, and that’s what lays down your image.

That’s where I got the idea to do the color separations, because I’ve been screen-printing for12 years now. Most of my stencil ideas came from that. Basically, what is screen-printing? You’re making separate stencils. Instead of using spray paint, you’re using ink.

SA: That’s true. It’s all about the negative space.

CS: In screen-printing, you can get away with more. You don’t have to make sure that you cut a certain section out that the whole thing doesn’t fall apart.

SA: With the FSA pictures, do you put them on the computer to get separations?

CS: I find the image, if it’s in a book or from a photograph, and I’ll print it out and take it and blow it up at the copy place. I cut out what I see. First I cut out all the dark space, and then I’ll cut out where the shirt is, and then I’ll just make the shirt whatever color I want. I do it all by eye, and all by hand. The only time I use the computer would be to download the image and print it off.

SA: What do you enjoy about seeing other people’s stencils on the street?

CS: I actually like to see the things in the street more than in the gallery. Most of the work I’ve done has been gallery work, but to me, it’s more exciting to see the street work. The thing I enjoy about that is to see the life that people bring to the street from their work.

It’s nice to see new stuff out there that’s not a liquor ad or a Pepsi ad or a cigarette ad or a car ad. It’s nice to see people going out.

SA: If you had any basic tips for a beginner [stencil artist], what would you tell them?

CS: Find a simple image that you really like. Find something that really speaks to you. Have it be really bold and basic, and I would try it on a chipboard. It’s like poster board and a little bit sturdier. Chipboard is the stuff that, if you buy a pack of t-shirts, it separates the t-shirts. Or if you go to a copy place and make a bunch of copies, they usually put it on top and on bottom. Get yourself a pack of box cutter blades. Watch your fingers. I’ve definitely cut my fingers up holding those things without the box cutter. I just hold the blade. Just go for it. If you’re going to be painting inside, definitely wear some kind of respirator.

SA: Seems like the hardest thing for me was to discern the negative space from the positive space to make everything connect together so it wouldn’t fall apart. Do you have any easy tips for that? I think its pretty much trial and error.

CS: It’s a trial and error thing, but what you could also do is before you start cutting, make a couple of copies of what you’re doing. Take some whiteout and look at what you have in front of you. Say you have a zero and want to cut a zero out. Instead of cutting the whole thing out, making it fall through, take the whiteout and draw the lines in where it could be held together by the rest of the paper.

I do that sometimes if its real crazy design, but it works. Just a little whiteout and go over the spaces. You can see it’ll hold together.

Also paper cutting, if you look up Japanese paper cutting, has a lot of similarities to stencil cutting. Basically, they’re cutting a stencil, but they’re not using it as a stencil. They’re using it as for what it is.

SA: That’s true. I live in the Mission District, and part of the Dead of the Dead ceremony is paper cutouts. They’re really nice, probably done with a die cut. There are homemade altars all over the place, and a lot of those are homemade and really beautiful.

CS: Yeah, those are really nice. The most recent issue of Juxtapose magazine has a really nice paper cut artist in there.

SA: What other artists are influencing you right now?

CS: Chris Francis. He is definitely, definitely one of my favorites. Not only that, he’s a really nice guy. I had the pleasure to meet him in Baltimore when Workhorse was there, and he was working out there a little bit. He’s really talented and he inspires me a lot. The themes of his work, and his style, are really good.

Margaret Killgalen is another one of my favorite artists that I like. And, obviously, Barry McGee. His stuff is really innovative.

SA: What’s in store for you coming up?

CS: I have some shows coming up locally up in New York. The Stencil Graffiti book came out, which was nice. For the next few months, we’re just planning to keep painting. A friend of mine, Scout, up in New York, who is my partner, we’re just trying to go out and get different shows in small galleries. And maybe hang some public art in abandoned places.

What we’d like to do, what we talked about doing, was trying to find as many small galleries as possible and set up a little tour. You know, set up different dates like a small band would tour to play different clubs. We want to try to set up something like that with art. We figure that there are possibly some small spaces, small galleries, that might be interested in doing something like that. We’ll book something, take a few days, and go. It’s rough, because we both have kids.

SA: That’s a neat idea.

CS: That’s what we’d like to do. If you know anybody that has a small gallery space that might be interested in showing some of our work. Scout also paints stencils and old sings, and prints posters. He’s been printing for a long time too, so we kinda work off of each other, the same kinda vibe. It’s good.

SA: There are fringe galleries all over the Mission that might be interested.

CS: Later down the road, what we really want to do, is get a building and have an arts center that local kids can come to and have workshops set up and give kids their own studio space. Have a gallery so they can have shows, and have it real community oriented. The kind of workshops and classes we want to have aren’t necessarily like figure drawing or still lifes, but more like an open creative space that kids can come into if they want to paint or spray paint, whatever. It’s almost like art therapy without all the psychology behind it. Have kids come in and paint, give them the space if they’re serious about painting, and have shows, and maybe rent space out to other artists that would like to come in and do things.

SA: There’s an art collective out here called CELLspace, and they try to do just that. It’s a 10,000 square foot warehouse with a metal shop, wood shop, studios, and an art gallery. There’s an event today, a youth event, called Y2K, and it’s a tabling convention where youth programs table and kids are going to come in and pick programs that can get involved in. There’s a national break dancing competition every year. There’s a mural project on the walls where painters can put up murals. There’s a Skate Dojo that provides skateboarding every week for the kids, because there’s nowhere to skateboard in San Francisco. There’s no legal space in San Francisco to skateboard except at CELLspace.

CS: Wow, that is crazy. You guys sound like you’re really busy out there. You got it going on.

SA: It’s an amazing place. I think what you want to do is right down that alley. They don’t give kids their own studios, so I think that’s amazing.

CS: We want kids to have a space that they can come and paint in, because, growing up, I got into graffiti because I saw Beat Street. I was 11 when that movie came out, and it left such an impression on me. Before that, I was just into playing soccer. There is a lot out there, but it depends on what’s really going on. I think if you throw something else in the mix, maybe not every is into sports. Maybe not everybody is into drugs, or whatever. Some people might be into art, so I think if you just give kids an opportunity to do something different, they might want to get involved.

SA: It’s a helpful thing. I from a really small town in the Southeast, and the stuff that I see here in the City I would of never dreamed seeing as a kid. To be a kid growing up around that, I think it’s a pretty big influence on them. You give them an artistic outlet. San Francisco has so may programs for youth. There are dj classes and probably even graffiti classes. To give inner city kids that, and even suburban kids…

CS: Yeah, everybody. Obviously, hip-hop isn’t in the city anymore. It’s definitely spread out. When I was growing up in Baltimore, when that movie came out, everybody I knew was trying to break dance. Everybody I knew was starting to show some interest in graffiti. It just happened, just like you join a baseball team, or a soccer team. People were just getting together and doing it themselves. It actually seemed better than sports because kids were organizing it. It really got swept up.

I definitely pay my respect to all those early dudes who brought all that stuff on. And the people that are still keeping it going.

SA: A lot of people believe that hip hop culture is the universal culture, because you go to third world countries and the hip hop influence is there. There’s Latino rap. Everybody seems to have accepted the culture and, if you listen to the transformative rappers, like Spearhead, it’s definitely a higher consciousness thing.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

CS: I’d like to talk about your stuff. I don’t know if I’ve seen any of it.

SA: I’ve got some on my web site. I tend to do more iconic things. There’s a hand, when you go to the stencil web site, up in the masthead. It’s called a hamsa. It’s one of the few words in Arabic and Hebrew that’s the same. It’s an ancient symbol that wards off evil with the eye in the palm. Making that stencil was really when I broke through in my style.

I made that for an artwork that was at Burning Man. Have you ever heard of Burning Man?

CS: Oh, yeah. Some friends of mine went out to it.

SA: Believe it or not, there were stencils there.

CS: Really?

SA: Yeah, they tag things with stencils. I had a disposable camera the last time I went, and came home with ten photographs of stencils. Stencils are easy to make and decorate things with.

The artwork that I was part of was a piece of fabric, about 200 feet long. It was wired up with cables to blow in the wind, and the theme was the body. So I did the hand design for that. It had to be a stencil because it was on there about 30 times.

So I do icons. I was in Europe, photographing stencils along the way, and I kept seeing this graffiti in Barcelona. It was the “@” sign with a fuse on it. Somebody had made a bomb out of it. So I came home and put it on the back of a cereal box.

I’m an [Adobe] Illustrator junky, so I make these icons on the computer, make them big, trace them, put them down and cut them.

The last stencil I made was an image from a Celtic knot work key chain. I scanned it, blew it up really big, and put “peace” in four different languages, Arabic, Spanish, Hebrew, and English, around it.

When you do street work, do you go out with a crew?

CS: No. I go out with a friend, that’s about it. Where I’m at, there aren’t that many people to have a crew. So I just go out with a friend.

SA: Do intentially pick industrial areas?

CS: Sometimes. I try to hit stuff that’s boarded up. I don’t just hit any old thing or everything. I try to hit stuff that’s boarded up. From doing graffiti for so long, you just write on everything and anything. I became a little more selective over time.

SA: Do you frame it out before you do it? Like look at a wall and go “OK, it’ll work there.”

CS: It depends. Sometimes it’s spontaneous. Sometimes I do check it out a little bit more. We go and take measurements, do the paintings at home, and just go screw them in. A lot of those have been taken.

SA: You do all sizes in public?

CS: Yeah. We’ll do big ones, and small ones. Sometimes friends will get a legal wall, and they’ll be doing full-blown burners. They’ll say “hey, why don’t you do a stencil for us and throw it in.” I’ve done some stuff like that too. That was a 6.5 foot one I did.

SA: Did you tape that down with duct tape?

CS: Actually, I cut the stencil by hand, and sent it to Maryland to get put up. What I suggested was use the duct tape and any kind of spray adhesives to possibly help it stick to the wall a little bit better.

SA: Out here in San Francisco, about 90% of the stencils are on the sidewalk.

CS: There’s a lot of sidewalk stuff in Baltimore too. That’s a good place for it because half the time it doesn’t get busted, it just gets worn away by people’s feet over time. You don’t see it when you’re driving around, but at the same time, it’s kinda nice for people who are just walking around.

There’s a trend out here for advertising on the sidewalk with stencils.

SA: Sometimes you see stencils on trains too, besides the stencils that are already there that were put on there by the freight companies.

You have a lot of train themes in your art. It seems like you go out to the tracks a lot.

CS: Sometimes we walk the tracks. It’s nice to walk the tracks if you’re painting or just walking. It’s kinda nice to get out there, away from things, and watch the trains go by. Maybe you’ll see something by somebody that you know.

We get out to the tracks every once and a while, lay some stuff up. Sometimes it doesn’t last. If you don’t get pictures of it, you’ll probably never see it again.

SA: Do you document a lot of your stuff?

CS: I try to. I try to get as much of it down on film as possible. You can put it in shows, and it’s nice to have to show that you did it.

SA: My site came into existence because I realized how temporary all the stencil pieces were, so I just started shooting everything that I saw. That’s how I ended up with the collection.

CS: Not only is all that stuff temporary, but life is so temporary. Time just goes by so quick and you might not have a chance to go back out and do this kind of stuff again. You never know. It’s good to get it all down as much as you can. You never know who could get something up and get something out of it that you might inspire.

Just seeing stuff inspires me. The hobo-type scrawling really gets me going.

SA: I’ve just recently started looking at that on the internet. The hobo code, all these scrawls that mean things, is cool.

CS: Margaret Killgalen and Barry McGee stuff on the trains looks really good there. Their streaks that they do look really nice. They both have such a good hand. That gets into the whole sign-painter type of thing.

Then there’s the stuff that you always see. You always see the Rambler and you always see Long Gone John. I’ve seen some Rail Head stuff. Just walking around on the tracks, you see stuff. Scout and I were walking on the tracks one day and we say this map drawn by Rail Head. It was a hobo map: “This way to Boston. This way to Chicago. This way to …” It was awesome.

SA: Hopefully there are people out there documenting that.

CS: I know a lot of people that do.

SA: I just got a digital camera, and it has completely revolutionized my life. Now I don’t have to go to the developer and spend $13 developing rolls of stencils.

CS: You can just delete the ones that don’t come out. It’s so immediate too. I get real anxious, like “ah, I want to see it.”

SA: It’s very immediate. You can photograph it and look at it in the little screen, and go “wow, that didn’t work.” And then try it again. As digital cameras get cheaper, I highly recommend it to people that want to document their stuff.

I take digital pics of my actual stencils. Just tack them on a white door and shoot.

CS: What kind of material are your stencils made out of?

SA: The treated stencil paper.

CS: The oil board?

SA: Yeah.

CS: How does that work?

SA: You can get the sheets of it from art supply places. It’s paper, so you can get amazing detail. It smells a little bit at first, and then it goes away.

There’s a CELLspace logo stencil that I made, that is kept at CELLspace. People use it for all kinds of labeling. The metal shop uses it to tag stuff. There’s a couch that’s stenciled with it. It’s been used on some curtains. It’s been used dozens of times, and, you just get a blade and cut off the excess paint. You can wear those things out. I’m amazed at how many time you can use it.

It doesn’t curl up. It’s durable paper. With the detail that I use, it works great. I like that.

CS: I’ll have to check that out.

SA: I need to find the right kind of mylar. It always curls.

CS: Mine hasn’t cracked. Event the 5mil will definitely curl up on me. I keep most of my stuff stored flat with some kind of weight on top of it to keep it down after it dries. For what I do, I like the mylar. I work on it a long time. I like the fact that its clear and I just lay it down and don’t have to worry about it.

But that oil board sounds really interesting.

SA: I love doing lettering, so I like getting detailed with the oil board.

CS: I was also thinking of Banksy as somebody who has inspired me recently. I haven’t seen his stuff until the Stencil Graffiti book came out. I thought “wow” and then got that book he put out called “Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall” and it’s good stuff.

SA: I really liked his “legally posted graffiti zone” stencil and the progression of the tagging after he put the stencil up.