Cheaper and cleaner than flyposting, less dangerous than billboard defacement (see Billboard Liberation Front)
, and not requiring nearly as much time and stealth
as complex graffiti bombing
, street stencil
s are often considered the perfect vectors through which individuals working within or exclusive of creative resistance groups (often boxed up in the annoying buzzword Culture Jammers)
get a message out to the public. Most often found underfoot on sidewalks, but occasionally smeared across a subway wall, a motor vehicle, or a high-profile building, street stencils are simply spraypainted prints from re-usable cutouts.
The anatomy of a street stencil isn't a very complex one, and therein lies its subtlety and charm; they're often simply phrases or pictures cut out of a large piece of cardboard or linoleum. From the limitations of a single plane and the complexities of having to keep everything in the image physically connected, a surprising variety of designs manifest themselves, from the simple (U R ALIVE) to the humorous (a mohawk'd stick figure with a hammer chasing a little legged television beneath the words SMASH YR TV) to mind-bogglingly intricate reliefs of famous activists, most commonly Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Commonly, a street stencil is applied in one color of spraypaint over the desired surface, but occasionally, little flares such as red eyes will be added to a Big Brother-eqsue policeman, or some insanely elaborate portrait will consist of several different layers of stencilry, each involving a different hue. Popularly, the most renowned craftsman of the street stencil would be Seth Tobocman who, in his books War In The Neighborhood and You Don't Have To Fuck People Over To Survive, provides hundreds of pages what is not only a cohesive diatribe against government and social repression but pristine fodder and inspiration for would-be stencillers.
For graffiti connoisseurs, the advantages of street stenciling to Sharpie tags and Krylon throwups and pieces are:
Anonymity: Rarely is there any sort of signature on a stencil, nor is there a shout-out to a crew (generic example: "MCMURDER! SHOUTS TO ADBUSTERS!!")
that can connect one to a local group and bite one in the ass later on when someone from it gets arrested.
Ease of application: The smoothest way to dump a street stencil on something is to cut out the bottom of a large, sturdy brown paper bag and replace it with the stencil; then simply stop and set the bag down on the sidewalk when strolling by a heavily trafficked area at night and pretend to bend down to tie your shoe. After confirming the coast is clear, one hand, concealed in the bag, saturates the bottom of it with spraypaint, the other fumbles at your laces or picks up that change you accidentally dropped. (Note: Black gloves help here, as the paint can spatter up and onto your hands, connecting you to the act if you're found out and need to ditch the bag & paint somewhere. Applying paint to large slabs of dull concrete that render the soil barren and uninhabitable by plantlife IS vandalism, kids.)
Networking: Popular street stencils are currently being digested and published in, amongst others, tiny zines called "10 Street Stencils" or "20 More Street Stencils", available in subversive bookstores or through obscure mail-order. Think about it! YOUR BEAUTIFUL IMAGE can grace the sidewalks of another city, or even another country! This, working with the Anonymity advantage, suggests to the public that there is a vast, far-reaching and intensely organized underground network doing all of this.
LEGIBILITY: John Q. Public cannot read heavily-masked, wild style graffiti. John Q. Public doesn't know who MUSCLE is, or why he scrawled his name with a little crown atop it on the back of his seat. John Q. Public really doesn't care that the crew AIR painted a gloriously complex mural of their crew name on a building facing the L tracks. John Q. Public is, however, mildly concerned when he passes a Starbucks with a smashed window and with the words, "WATCH YOUR BACKS FUCKERS, WE ARE EVERYWHERE" stenciled below the spiderwebbed glass.
(As an aside: Whether or not this is a constructive form of communication is debatable, and this is not a slam at graffiti for not being 'political' enough. I agree that, yes, any form of graffiti is a valid form of dissent. The problem is, a lot of graffiti ends up in squabbling little turf wars, and the pieces bearing easily-understandable, socially critical messages aren't often on easily-viewable walls, or aren't done up often in neighborhoods where a large, stratified and diverse portion of the public will see them, at least not in America.)
Recently, IBM decided to 'take it to the streets' with some of their own corporate stenciling and engaged in a mildly controversial ad campaign involving a peace symbol, a heart, and a little penguin sitting on its ass (see Peace, Love, and Linux). Even more recently, there have been reports of similar X-Box graffiti in Australia. This raises the question of economical viability of sidewalks as advertising spots versus the rights to uncluttered public space. While this is a topic best left to a large, open dialog, it's worth noting that such advertisement will certainly make it easier to recreate in actual life those bootleg Calvin stickers and piss on the competition.