Historical Item

Stencil Art: A Revolutionary Meme

This essay was originally written for Josh MacPhee's Stencil Pirates book. Parts of the text were used in the book's final run, but here it is in its entirety. Note: this is in no way a comprehensive history of stencil art. Hopefully it is the beginning of the artform's history.

"We need to learn how to spread the vision of liberation and life everywhere in humble, small, invisible ways. Like grass slowly growing up through the cracks in the concrete, perhaps our counterinformation can eventually sneak up on the mighty machine and topple it."
- PB Floyd, Slingshot, Summer 2003

Video: The (de)Appropriation Project Archive (SF, CA)

For well over 10 years now, I have been documenting stencils on Bruce Tomb's wall on Valencia Street (If you search the Archives for "DAP" they will appear). I have also put art up there and enjoyed all the other art that I do not document. Tomb may not confess to actually owning this wall, because over the years it has become a wall of Free Speech for many artists, neighbors, and organizations. Some call it the Democracy Wall, but Tomb named it the (de)Appropriation Wall, especially since he resides in a former SF Police Department building. The building had a literally tortured past (Chicanos and Latinos were treated poorly by the mostly Irish police in the last century), and a bomb was placed at its back door during the violent era of radical factions in the Bay Area. Tomb decided to use the facade of this building as a force of freedom, more specifically of speech.

Tomb had a brief tussle with the City authorities over his free access to whomever wants to get up on this wall. When the City realized that it could potentially be a Constitutional matter, they backed down. The DAP wall shows up in my book "Stencil Nation" about half a dozen times. He has written about it in the book "Mission Muralismo," where it was featured. Before the book came out, some of the contributors had a show at ATA. I showed a slide presentation of Mission District stencils. Tomb showed the following video of the photographs he has taken over the years. I believe he stands in the same exact place about once a week and snaps a photo of the wall. Being a historian and documentor, I asked him to post this video for others to enjoy and analyze. For a reference of time, notice how the tree grows in front of the wall!

And for a better explanation of Tomb's concepts and ideas around the wall, go to his site: http://www.deappropriationproject.net/


The (de)Appropriation Project Archive will be participating in the Theoretical Archaeology Group Meeting held at the University of California Berkeley from May 6-8, 2011.
Resident archaeologist on the project, Phoebe France will present a paper for session 15: Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary.
This is an exciting chance to present the project in a new context, and to get feedback on the most recent iterations of the web resources and tools. Please join us!
http://arf.berkeley.edu/TAG2011/

1976 Street Lightnin' Gang Stencil Bust, Illustrated

David Willis just emailed scans of drawings, artifacts, and photos of his 1976, Street Lightnin' Gang, stencil-graffiti bust (the written story is here):


David Wills in Street Lightnin' Gang uniform outside Camden Town Underground station


Wills sprays the traffic light control box in Notting Hill Gate.


Busted by Sergeant Bootsy!

Grateful Dead "Steal Your Face" Logo First Stenciled

Was reading an interesting article/interview about LSD pioneer chemist Owsley "the Bear" Stanley and hopped over to his site for further reading. In 1969, Stanley and artist Bob Thomas worked out the Grateful Dead logo to mark the band's equipment (here's his story). At first, it was just the three-colored lightening bolt, and was used as a stencil.

In the account, Stanley describes how it became a stencil:

"At the warehouse I told Bob the idea that I had, and he made a quick sketch. A mutual friend, Ernie Fischbach, who was visiting with Bob, said 'Give it to me, I'll show you an easy way to put it on the boxes.' Whereupon he proceeded to cut holes in a couple of pieces of stencil paper. One was a circular hole, about 5 1/2 inches in diameter, and the other was a part of a circle 5 inches in diameter. But it was a half circle with a jagged edge. Then he held the stencil to an amp and sprayed a circle of white paint. Then with one side up, the red half circle went on top of the dried white paint and after wiping off the red and turning the stencil over, the blue was applied. This was the first version, and we put it on to all our gear. It helped make it easier to find our stuff in the crunch. I still have an old toolbox with one of the stencils on it."

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