How to Make a Stencil

Start with a manila folder, end up with street art

| May / June 2004

  • Collect your materials: a piece of card stock (I like manila file folders for small stencils), an X-acto knife with a very sharp blade, a can of spray paint, and an idea of what you want to tell the world.
  • Sketch out your idea on the card stock, or copy a picture out of a book and glue it to the card stock.
  • Decide which parts of your image to cut out, and then use the knife to do the actual cutting. This is the hardest part. The key to doing it well is practice, practice, practice.
  • Make a trial print of your stencil on paper. This will give you a chance to test the paint and fix anything on the stencil that you don't like before you're out on the street.
  • Wear comfortable clothes that don't stand out. Big enough pockets will hold a can of paint.
  • Find something to carry your stencil in. A folded-up newspaper works well; for larger or more complicated stencils, you can adapt pizza boxes, art portfolios, or grocery bags.
  • Decide when to paint. Some people like to paint really late at night; I prefer the early evening or Sunday afternoons. By the time anyone figures out what you're doing, you'll be gone. Move fast and don't stay on the same street for too long. I like to go out with another person, who can serve as a lookout for cops. A girl-boy pair can pose as an innocent couple.
  • Do what you are comfortable with. This is the most important guideline. Start small and work your way up. Practice on side streets before you're painting off the roofs of fast-food restaurants; try some 8-1/2 x 11 text stencils before you move on to three-color, four-foot images.

Josh MacPhee (see profile on page 62) is the author of Stencil Pirates (Soft Skull Press, 2004) and the man behind Just Seeds (, a radical art and culture distribution system that circulates T-shirts, posters, books, and music.

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