Stikman and Droid: On the Importance of Illegality in Their Work, an introduction by ekg
a few weeks ago, i was asked by RJ to do an interview with Stikman, which would be published on Vandalog during the month of august, 2013. first and foremost, i was thrilled to be interviewing Stikman, a long-time friend, and longer-time Street Art hero of mine. of secondary interest, over the past year, i’ve been working on an epic essay called Anti-Legal Art: On the Importance of Illegal Aesthetic Manifestations in the Twenty-First Century, so i thought this might be a good opportunity to collect some first-hand data on that topic from one of the lifetime-dedicated, constantly up and consistently innovative street artists today. no matter what else is going on, he is always up with new series and new materials, which has cemented in my mind his dedication to the medium, embodied in his consistent efforts for the past twenty plus years to disseminate his sign, spread the word, and challenge the law.
with a weird subtle quiet alien language, Stikman has been leaving a cosmic trail of lo-res multimedia crumbs throughout the urban semiotosphere for us to discover and decipher. his main icon is an alien form rendered with primitive materials in an infinity of mutations and environments. in a sense, Stikman operates much like a tagger in terms of his obsession with constantly being up, the wide dissemination of his mark, and the large quantity of his small-to-tiny pieces. but instead of markers and spray paint, Stikman utilizes alternative materials to disseminate his character, such as wood, metal, glass, and other sculptural elements recovered from the trash, as well as wheat pastes, printed and hand-made stickers, computer-manipulated mutations in all mediums, photographic and illustration fictional environments, and other interesting series as well. unlike a graffiti writer, Stikman does not utilize letterforms, but his primitive alien could be defined as a “character,” which quickly became an important element in the writer’s palette during the seventies as the movement grew in size and diversity of talents.
more often than not Stikman chooses small humble spots for his offspring: the alcove of a steel girder; floating almost unnoticeable in the middle of a peeling sticker mess; forgotten rusty metal boxes; underneath staircases in the dark; inside a missing-brick nook; yet all right under our noses in highly congested urban display hubs. sometimes as large as life, but more often as an invasion of miniatures, totemic and other worldly, charismatic and resonant, significant. does the primitive expression of a futuristic character inspire paradoxical feelings of nostalgia for a simpler earth bound time but at the same time create a yearning for an alien saviour to save us from ourselves? or does it emote a sensation of elation as in the moments of a visionary scientific discovery through alien contact? or is it simply a sign that encapsulates a relief that the alien isn’t a member of the slimy bloodthirsty hordes like a majority of our movies promote as the dominant dystopic mythology? whatever theoretical narrative can be applied to our attraction to these graphic alien insurgents, they have landed, been building underground support, attracting a large vocal segment of our population that is excited about it.
in my recent paris travelogue, i wrote that i feel like Johnny Appleseed as i disseminate marks. this concept of a writer or street artist sprinkling tags or stickers around a city like the iconic Johnny Appleseed flinging his seeds from his sack in an anarchistic, unsanctioned trail behind him across the rural landscape, first occurred to me during a conversation about Stikman’s series of municipal street adhesives. he literally walks around dropping those thick adhesive aliens onto the asphalt in crossing walks and parking spots as if it was a fertile bed of dirt in which his alien flowers will pollinate, mutate and grow, due to the constant motion and weight of traffic passing over them. like a twenty-first century Johnny Appleseed, Stikman releases his beings into cultural consciousness on the anarchistic and rebellious broadcast channel of Street Art; and yet still transmits a quiet message of poetic transgression, positive cultural mutation, and personal vision, a calm voice of beauty and reason in the aetherial semiotosphere, a contrasting environment of hyper texts and semiotic wars, missives and missiles, data patterns and pigment irruption, agents of the matrix and guerrilla aesthetic actions.
in the past couple years, i have also been in contact with Droid 907, a graffiti writer who continues to blow me away as he expands his repertoire, exploring a wide-range of hardcore graffiti tools; collaborating constantly with other artists and crews on missions, painting larger and larger outdoor pieces while developing unique roller letterforms, as either clean-and-bright two-tone pieces, or wacky and crude expressionistic letterforms; expanding his already-wide geographic perimeter through a network of bike maniacs, van nomads and freight hoppers, poetry in motion, all dedicated to an off-the-grid DIY lifestyle making music and art, publishing zines and encrypted web pages, curating shows and running galleries, while also managing exposure on the internet through a network of friends, fans, and a sympathetic media community.
in the previously mentioned paris travelogue, i was snarky at one point about the overuse and meaninglessness of the term “Punk” forty years after it’s inception; but here i am just a week later reading statements by and looking at photos of Droid’s work, which have, in total for me (including other interactions with him over the past three years), imbued the term once again with its original anti-status quo meaning, a symbolic power derived from IRL transgressive action, off-the-grid DIY work ethic and alternative lifestyle, and blunt radical political statements. to sum up: Droid gives Punk meaning again. this may even be a sign of something else brewing, the crest of some building resonance, the immediate unseen and unrecognized now pregnant with singularity and tumescence, rearing itself up from a minority to a majority, no longer a whisper but a shout. from a third-person vantage point, reading the accruing signs, Droid’s memoires and photo essays, as well as his friend’s zines and other media, such as Avoid’s Vagrant Space website and the novel Train To Pokipse by Rami Shamir, are a bold collective attempt at creating a transom-window visionary-view statement about the growing youth underground in America that in another ten years, as the chasm between rich and poor continues to grow unacceptably wider and future opportunities are proactively hoarded by the one percent, may well become the angry fist of a job-less, cash-less, CPU-less, homeless, transient mass culture with no where to go but off-the-grid onto unregulated topology, creating a new kind of culture that will not be based in anaesthetization in front of a computer screen or by an American Dream that is unattainable for 99% of the population.
so, having Droid on my mind while i was thinking about what to ask Stikman, i was struck by how differently these two artists express themselves with their work on the street, and wondered how two such distinct personalities ended up choosing the same illegal alternative channel to broadcast their message. Graffiti and Street Art can be defined abstractly as a channel, a broadcast media, an alternative wavelength that also imbues the signs transmitted through it with an aura of rebellion under a Halo of Illegality. therefore, since the Medium is the Mess, this particular media manifests an inherently anti-status quo, anarchistic and revolutionary signal and sign. this added layer of outlaw semiotic definition is embedded in the remnants of the art on the street and in the photographs of the art on the internet by the indications of the transgressive action that took place in the placement of the symbols illegally on an unsanctioned display surface. this is the heart of art placed on the streets, the human pulse of the populace, the urge to take back our surveillance reality, re-manifest ourselves through coordinates of insurrection, and visual civil disobedience.
the Illegality of graffiti and street art is a crucial formal aesthetic category at the root of the movement’s cultural power, strategic operations, aesthetic forms and choice of materials. the choices an artist makes from this selection of options defines their personal vocabulary with which they symbolically define themselves and express their message. etch tags or wheat paste? spray paint or rollers? fame spots or cutty hideaways? freights or walls? quantity or detail? stickers or extinguishers? construction sites or high end retail? some materials are contentious, but can be offset by other elements in play. each makes a statement about the artist, their temperament, their strengths and their intentions. so why and how do artists as different as Stikman and Droid express themselves on the same illegal broadcast channel?
i sent Stikman and Droid the same twenty questions, each consisting of three-to-four more increasingly specific sub-questions on a similar theme; so in essence i sent them about sixty questions total. as i was crafting them, i did not really think about how much i was asking of them, so i want to emphasize that i appreciate their time and effort. it meant a lot to me that they wrote so much detailed, thoughtful and inspiring text. as well as RJ for the suggestion to combine the answers underneath each question. i’m sure it took a lot of time to format, and was well appreciated. thank you.
i’d also like to mention that both Stikman and Droid expressed mutual admiration for each other’s work when i first raised the idea to them. if forced to make this kind of comparison, each of them fall onto opposite ends of the Graffiti and Street Art spectrum, but, at the same time, because of their unique aesthetic paths, they are also outsiders within their designated categories. so mutual awareness makes sense: in the presence of Art, categories collapse and unique minds recognize each other. for instance, when it comes to street operations, Stikman is basically a solo agent on the streets and a ghost on the internet with no self-directed presence except through fan photography and gallery representation; where as droid is constantly painting with different partners, as well as utilizing methods to stay off the grid that involve multiple subcultural supports and many layers of socially-engineered encryption when utilizing the internet. for Stikman, who is celebrated more often in Street Art contexts, he is still a complete enigma in that subculture, because of his refusal to show his face in public or do legal walls, even during his own solo shows; similarly, Droid could be considered a Graffiti outsider from a traditionalist’s viewpoint because of his dedication to the raw power of rollers, an underground comix aerosol aesthetic, and a strong political voice in a movement that usually counts on the aesthetic transgressions to speak for themselves.
important to note is that any truly singular voices, such as Stikman’s or Droid’s, frequently are quarantined in a marginalized cultural space until enough mass-market interest makes it economically feasible for the mass media to broadcast it; but on the other hand, this gives culture-at-large some time to assimilate difficult artist’s visions from the ground up. ironically, this is usually due to a significant portion of the mass population already being altered by, or at least familiar with the artist’s message through the artist’s personal subcultural osmotic-homeopathic resonance which eventually vibrates up to the mass cultural level. an attempt at a flow chart illustrating such relationships between artist’s fame and cultural demand would be fascinating: it is impossible to hold back a resonant aesthetic form when it speaks using the pertinent vocabulary of an era. due to their own particular aesthetic voices, or simply because of their utilization of and dedication to the Graffiti and Street Art broadcast mediums, Stikman and Droid may be recognized as artists historically at ground zero, relevant to cultural discourse, symbolic expressions of a time period, ideal examples of new technologies manifesting aesthetic forms, visual metaphors that summarize the feelings of the majority of the populace, but above and beyond all that: i see Stikman and Droid at their cores as enduring flames in a flat-lining world.
egk: when and where did you first get up?
Stikman: When I was 15, I wrote my name in black paint with a paintbrush all over town like everyone else I grew up with. It was in an older inner ring suburb of a large city in the Northeast US.
Droid 907: the first writer i got up with was DESIGN NFO from brooklyn in the mid 90’s. i was broke and new to the city. the subway was still free and one could venture all over town with no money. he put me down on $35 ounce weed spots in harlem, basically showing me how to make a buck and keep my head above water. he’d write his name whenever he felt like it, regardless of who was around, and pass the marker or can to me and expect me to do the same. it was a different time in new york city for sure. i wrote a different name then and met a number of city kids who all wrote tags. i kept scrawling and scribbling for a few years, as more of an aimless act than one with a mission or purpose. it was more like graffiti found me and it took me awhile to understand it. it wasn’t until 2003 that i did my first roller with FIYAH EMP that i got deeper into the organism.