How to Make a Stencil

  • 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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