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Type Talk: Typographic Terrorism

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Pete McCracken reports from the underground sticker show Sticker Nerds #2.

[Reports from an undisclosed location in Portland, Oregon.]

Skam, Rx, The Lost Cause, Nasty Nate, Mr. Say, Kuloh, N.O. Bonzo. These are the noms de plume of the handful of street artists that came together last Fall to turn the basement of a skate and smoke shop into a massive sticker show with contributions from artists around the world.

Sticker Nerds #2 was a collaborative collage that covered entire walls and objects, including a television, wicker couch, stop signs, vending machine and male sex doll, to name a few, with thousands and thousands of stickers. It was a comboing of spectacular proportions. The stickers came in from cities beyond Portland through a network created on Flickr.

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Sticker Nerds #2 took over the entire basement of a Southeast Portland home.

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A television entirely covered in stickers.

The first Sticker Nerds show was held in Salem, Oregon and has its roots in skateboarding culture. This genre of street art is marked by sophisticated design with overt (or hidden) messages and concepts behind the work. The illustrations are beautiful and unique and the messages simple.

The type on most stickers is rough, hand set, and appropriate to the genre. It recollects the early years of Punk when posters were made by hand from words and letters cut from magazines and then photocopied, the goal being to reproduce the work at the lowest possible cost.

What originally drew me to take notice of the sticker movement was a FULL BLEED sticker. It was different than other examples I had seen of graffiti hand drawn lettering. The design was clearly considered: the type had been very carefully rendered. Its conceptual underpinnings might be lost on those who do not understand design.

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FULL BLEED Sticker

I talked with Skam and Rx, two of the organizers and creators of the Sticker Nerds show. They asked that their identities be kept confidential. For good reason: the penalties are high, running $250 per incident of vandalism, and up to thousand dollars and thirty days in jail for one occurrence. But this is how street artists express themselves: on the street, in public, not buried in a stuffy gallery. This loosely knit group of artists is proud of the visibility of their beautifully rendered illustrations and messages. Where would we be if we didn’t have this anti-authoritarian side of our society?

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Sticker artists are always looking for prime cutty spots, like this one, on a utility box in Portland.

The argument from municipal authorities and property owners is simple and clear: stickering is vandalism. These kids, they say, are putting something on someone’s property that they don’t want. But, if this were true, how should we think about telephone pole posters? Or about ads on the backs of receipts or FOOD DAY left on my porch?

Though there are many young artists that are only out to get their name on a sign, Skam and Rx say that they bring the art to stickering.

A grandpappy of the sticker genre is Shepard Fairey, who first gained a following with his Andre the Giant sticker. On the sticker was an iconic picture of the massive famous wrestler and the phrase “Andre has a posse.” The idea eventually morphed into the OBEY sticker, with a more stylized rendering of Andre and the word “OBEY.” The hype around the internationally recognized OBEY sticker created a perception that was bigger than the work, similar to the phenomena of heavily marketed global brands. Fairey was launched into the national spotlight in 2008 with his illustration of Obama with just one word – HOPE.

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A close up of one wall of Sticker Nerds #2, including a sticker in homage to Shepard Fairey’s OBEY design.

It takes skill for these artists to design and produce stickers that will not fade or peel away in rain. Typically, the stickers are screen printed with heavy industrial inks or lead-based paint. It is a painstaking process that takes the knowledge and the acumen of an artist to look great.

They are resourceful, preferring to use what they can find available for free. United States Postal Service mailing labels are one of the most common sticker materials. Also popular are UPS heat transfer labels that can be ordered by the thousands right to your doorstep for free.

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Detail from Sticker Nerds #2

The stickers carry well-crafted messages and boast considered typography. In other cities, I see only character-based stickers. Very little is done in the way of thought provoking ideas.

The Sticker Nerds #2 show was an underground, subversive celebration of this graphic and typographically rich art form. It showcased the high level of craft and discipline makes the Portland stickering community different from communities in other cities. But stickering is most at home on the streets – keep your eyes peeled.

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A short glossary of sticker art terms:

COMBOING – a number of other stickers from different that create a collage
CLIPPING – stickering over a previous sticker but only a part of the sticker
CUTTY SPOT – a sticker placed in a clever inconspicuous spot intentionally placed to create a surprise or discovery, creates an “I was here.” effect – the back of a street sign is not cutty
BOMBING, GET UP and GETTING UP – terms for going out and putting up the stickers, i.e. “Let’s go bomb;” “Wanna go Bombing?”
THE BUFF – people that clean off stickers
SLAP TAGGERS – derogatory term for street artists that sticker

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Free postal labels make perfect stickers.

by Pete McCracken

— Posted on 03/01 at 04:49 PM

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