Street Artists Speak Up

By Staff

With the mainstream media growing more timid by the minute, artists with a conscience are going public in bold new ways

Are editorial cartoonists going the way of the dodo bird? Increasingly, yes. Newspaper mergers and subsequent downsizing have left many major dailies with no staff cartoonist. And, if the media consolidation doesn’t get you, observers warn, the politically conservative post-September 11 climate just might.

Last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman famously resigned from The New Yorker to protest what he viewed as the magazine’s political cowardice in light of 9/11.

“From the time that the Twin Towers fell, it seems as if I’ve been living in internal exile, or like a political dissident confined to an island,” he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “I no longer feel in harmony with American culture, especially now that the entire media has become conservative and tremendously timid.”

In a world where mainstream editorial cartooning is on the downswing, where people who exercise their right to free speech are shunted into remote “protest zones,” and where the FCC’s Michael Powell sees a greater threat in Janet Jackson’s breast than in media monopolies, it’s getting harder and harder to hear dissenting voices. To paraphrase the Doobie Brothers, perhaps it’s time we take our message to the streets.

After all, how else to puncture the cacophony of images and sounds (mostly corporate) we encounter every day? As the artists profiled in this section make clear, street art — an agitprop poster nailed to a store wall, an unexpected chalk message scraped into a sidewalk, a banner unfurled over a freeway — can reinvigorate the political arena.

“We need to use all the arts to bring it to the streets, to the schools, on the walls,” artist Eric Drooker recently told the Oakland-based zine Kitchen Sink. “It’s about who’s going to win the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the masses.”

Stencils, stickers, and murals are not only about claiming turf or declaring “I was here,” they’re about building community. Think of the first American political cartoon — a 1754 Ben Franklin sketch titled “Join or Die” that depicted a snake severed into eight pieces, each representing a colony — or the Wobblies’ use of pro-worker stickers (a.k.a. “silent agitators”) in the 1920s, and you realize the power of the visual.

“When we make art in the studio, we assert our humanity,” the labor muralist Mike Alewitz has said. “When we make art in public, we assert our existence as social beings.” — The Editors

Vending a Message

Miguel Luciano

Alongside bubble gum and toy vending machines in Newark, New Jersey’s El Pueblo Meat Supermarket sits Miguel Luciano’s art — a customized vending machine containing a bright plastic hen. The work, called When Hens Pee, is based on a Caribbean phrase used to shush children: “You can speak when hens pee.”

“Since hens never pee, children are never supposed to speak, so it’s like an early form of learned censorship or repression,” Luciano told the zine Clamor (Jan./Feb. 2004).

Born in Puerto Rico, Luciano views his art as a way to speak to his community, both there and in and around New York City. His work is shown not only in galleries, but also in public spaces, in stores, and even on the sidewalk — engaging many who might never set foot in a gallery.

Put a quarter in Luciano’s vending machine, and the hen lights up and lays an egg. Inside the egg is a message created by someone in the community. Luciano asked folks from Newark to brainstorm ideas they felt they weren’t allowed or encouraged to express in their daily lives and condense them into a picture or object that could fit inside an egg. Most of the eggs contain antiwar messages, like a button with a crossed-out picture of a bomb or a picture of a boy holding a gun with an American flag sticking out of it. The quarters are donated to a local social service agency and the Newark Museum to fund the acquisition of works by Puerto Rican artists.

What is wonderful about the vending machine, Luciano says, is that you literally have to buy into it. “In order to engage the work, you have to participate,” he says.

“By participating, you can enter the critique as well.” — Amanda Luker

Sticker Shock

Dom Murphy

They’re quick, fast, and clean: That’s what Dom Murphy enjoys most about street stickers.

“The sticker can be more discreet [than other forms of street art] and can be placed virtually anywhere,” says the Amsterdam-based graphic designer and founder of the Web site StickerNation ( “It’s a chance for all artists to get out there and do something. . . . Previously, graffiti (the last major way to get up) required a certain skill — the skillful art of applying spray paint. Posters and stickers place the skill less on the application and more on the artwork itself.”

Murphy’s love of stickers was sparked in his skateboarding youth — when you bought a board, you’d get stickers as well — but his interest in stickers as street art didn’t bloom until 1999, when the British artist was living in London and began to notice a spate of stickers on city walls. Murphy recalls one campaign in which a woman who had been abused informed other community members by plastering the neighborhood with stickers declaring that “[name] beats up women.” “You could almost feel the pain of the person who put them up,” he says. The stickers, along with graffiti from popular street artists such as Shepard Fairey, “got me hooked,” he says.

Inspired, Murphy created the StickerNation Web site so that artists could share their designs. Odd as it may seem, the Internet, that virtual nowhere land, has had a profound effect on the gritty world of street art. A sticker created in one city can be posted online, printed, and hung in another city the same day.

Although Murphy has never advertised the site (except by putting up StickerNation stickers), its popularity has exploded in the past few years. The overwhelming response led to the site shutting down on a few occasions, but it was relaunched for the second time in August 2003 and has been doing well since, with over 10,000 sticker photos on display. Murphy maintains the site, but people can post their own work, and the database-driven site essentially manages itself.

Murphy hopes that passersby will come to see stickers as an integral part of the visual landscape, just like posters (which are essentially large stickers, he notes) and advertising billboards. “The whole scene is making urban living a lot more interesting,” Murphy says. “Look around. There’s so much to see.” — Michelle Lee

Poster Man

Ricardo Levins Morales

Ricardo Levins Morales has been creating art since he was a child growing up in Puerto Rico. “For me, it was never a question of deciding to connect art to politics,” he says. “I’ve always drawn what was important to me. When I was little, it was pirates and chickens. When I was older, it was explosive political concerns.”

Working out of the Minneapolis-based Northland Poster Collective, an artists’ collective he co-founded 25 years ago, Morales creates everything from Harriet Tubman posters for classrooms to health and safety notices for union bulletin boards.

“As an artist, I’m not a technician for the movement,” he says. “I’m just as much an organizer as others who focus on different skills.”

A few years ago, Morales put his skills to work for the employees of the Rainbow Foods grocery chain. The stores had been sold to another corporation, and the new bosses launched an “inventory shrinkage” campaign, searching workers’ lunch bags and encouraging them to inform the company of employee theft. Fired up and angry, the workers asked Morales for help.

Morales drew a cartoon, renaming the company “Blame-You Foods” and making fun of the worker-targeted policy. By 8:00 the next morning, copies of the drawing were plastered all over area Rainbow stores. At 8:30, store representatives called the union and requested a meeting. The policy was eventually revoked.

“Visual art is a form of storytelling,” Morales says. “In any culture, people’s sense of themselves is formed by what stories they grew up with. I try to tell the stories that are missing.” — Madeleine Baran

Puppet Power

Susan Simensky Bietila

In 1969, Susan Simensky Bietila, then a disillusioned art student, took the stage of a bridal fashion show at Madison Square Garden along with several members of a radical women’s liberation group called the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH). Dressed as fright-night brides, they “hexed” the event, banging pots and pans and releasing hundreds of mice. It was her first political action, but it taught Bietila the power of the unexpected both in art and in activism. “People didn’t know what to make of it . . . which is a good thing,” she recalls.

Bietila, who now lives in Ashland, Wisconsin, first took her brand of theater to the streets in the late ’80s when she was asked to make giant puppets for a Latin American solidarity demonstration. She crafted the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse out of chicken wire and papier-mâché and perched them on stilts. Since then she has built several politically minded puppets, including a Tommy Thompson dummy that sported a bandit mask and a sign that said “I rob from the poor and give to the rich,” a protest against the then-Wisconsin governor’s welfare policy. One of Bietila’s favorite puppet gags was an effigy she made of Imelda Marcos with a hundred high-heeled shoes trailing behind her.

Although she doesn’t see street theater as her main artistic endeavor (she makes two-dimensional art for publication and curates the traveling art show Drawing Resistance), Bietila recognizes the importance of this form of protest art, and she welcomes what she sees as its steadily rising level of creativity since 1999’s World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. “It’s much better to use humor — for our benefit and for engaging people who haven’t thought about things before,” she says.

Her kind of protest art may be vivid and fun, but she insists that it’s practical, too. “[It’s] not the same as leafleting against the Vietnam War. . . . People would rip up the flyers and throw them in your face,” she says.

“I see street art and giant puppets and floats as the best way to present what you think in such a way that you can’t be silenced easily.” — Amanda Luker

Stencil Pirate

Josh MacPhee

Three years ago, hundreds of giant red, green, and brown leaves began appearing all over Chicago sidewalks. But instead of being raked into piles, they were painted over by the city’s graffiti removal program.

Stencil artist Josh MacPhee spray-painted these three-foot-long leaves in order to raise questions about the intersection of nature and the urban world. “I just really like the idea of some yuppies in their condo running outside in the morning and calling the city to remove the leaf in front of their house,” he says. “It’s like asking ‘Which side are you on?’ “

MacPhee has been stenciling for 13 years — everything from antiwar slogans to anatomically correct hearts on sidewalks, walls, and broken TV sets left in alleys. Although his early work was confrontational — his first stencil, protesting the Rodney King verdict, featured an American flag with the stars replaced by swastikas — over time, his style has become more nuanced. His first book, Stencil Pirates, a collection of thousands of stencils by artists from 25 countries, was recently released by Canada’s Soft Skull Press.

MacPhee believes we can transform our increasingly commercialized world by making quick and anonymous visual connections with each other. He recently ran across a young boy staring at one of his two-foot-tall stencils of a human heart and was thrilled when the boy turned to him and said, “It’s beautiful.”

“Here was this kid who had grown up in a neighborhood where the only things he had seen on the street were ads or gang signs,” MacPhee says. “This affected him so much that he was hanging around it, touching it, trying to figure it out. I had created a different way for him to experience his environment. That’s really powerful to me.” — Madeleine Baran

For more info on some of the artists profiled here, see “Sane Voices During Insane Times,” a section contributing writers Madeleine Baran and Amanda Luker pulled together recently in Clamor (Jan./Feb. 2004)

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