This essay discusses the phenomenon of sticker-art in Saint Petersburg. The researchers demonstrate the role of stickers for young people and the city. Stickers are helping young Petersburgers build special relationships with the city, transforming it into their space: their home, their gallery, redefining the“act of vandalism” into the civil action.
TEXT Yana Krupets, Nadezhda VasilevaPHOTOGRAPHS Patrik Rastenberger
You go out. The usual wind and the fresh frosty air awake you and make you dream about a warm, comfortable home. The noise of the city is annoying, so you put on headphones and turn on the music. Familiar sounds set the pace, making your path more bearable. You start to move and fall into the city stream. You pass by the local store, stop at traffic lights and wait for the green to turn on. Your eyes wander, trying to capture and to merge the fragments of a grey urban landscape. You look up and stare at the backside of the road sign next to you. You see the advertisement offering help to drug addicts, the call to vote in upcoming elections, the female name with a telephone number and several small stickers with bright pictures and characters. This combination of visual materials, bizarrely placed next to each other on an ordinary grey urban surface, is a detail that caught your eye and makes you smile, or curious, or furious, but it got your attention and you begin, at least for a moment, to think about these stickers. The road sign became a space for urban encounters, where different agents communicate with each other and with you as a city dweller. And even if some messages are quite clear to you, others are not. What are these bright sticky pieces of paper? What do they mean? Who put them there? And for what?
A STICKER is a small sticky piece of paper, approximately 7x7 cm, with a picture or a slogan, although slogans are much less common (in the case of Russia).
Sticker artists often depict their own character, symbol or nickname on the stickers; for instance, an ice cream, a dove, a cat, a fruit or something else. As our informants told us, the image or design on the sticker does not generally carry any secret meaning – it is just something beautiful, positive, bright: “stickers are kindness”. Compared to graffiti, the stickers in St. Petersburg are not very politicized or focused on social problems. They are not about politics, but about fun and beauty. The production of stickers can differ, it depends on the sticker artist’s skills and resources. Stickers can be drawn by hand, for example, and for this purpose an artist can use wide tape, stolen from a hypermarket, in which this tape is applied for making price tags. The tape is sticky on one side and white on the other. Alternatively, stickers can be created on a computer, using various graphic editors, and then printed in a printing office. And, finally, sticker artists can even use the linocut technique, which is a way to create engravings using linoleum. The artists cut out the layout of a picture on a sheet of linoleum, and this design is then colored and imprinted on paper. Each sticker is valuable to sticker artists, no matter how it was produced, but as a rule, handmade stickers are considered more authentic, because they are always unique.
However, the most crucial elements of stickering are not the image or content or the home-made production process, but the spreading and visibility of stickers in the city. Stickers should be distributed in the city as much as possible. Their presence on the street (even for several hours or minutes) makes them valuable and builds their creator’s reputation among the community of sticker artists.
But who are these people producing stickers? We were told that anyone can do it, regardless of age, gender or economic resources. You do not even need special skills in drawing, you do not need money, you just need the imagination, the desire and the courage to put a sticker on the wall. We’ve met sticker artists who were 10–11 years old, we’ve met students, we’ve met professional illustrators and designers, we’ve met experienced graffiti writers, we’ve met a pilot, an advertiser, a salesperson, and a meteorologist, all sticker artists.
Sticker art is often considered by our informants to be a part of ‘hip hop culture’, a subculture which contains many forms of youth action: hip hop music, graffiti, street art, breakdancing, etc. And indeed, there are a lot of sticker artists concurrently making other forms of street art (posters, murals, etc.) or those who have a background in graffiti. There are a lot of similarities between stickering and graffiti, as well as street art – all these practices are creative, illegal, and transform the city environment. At the same time, there are significant differences: according to our informants, it is ‘easier’ to make stickers, there is no need to draw fast (you can do it at home), and, in general, stickering is safer (the police is not so strict about stickers) and more accessible.
Interviewer: “And tell me, please, is it difficult to become a sticker artist?”
Sticker artist: “No, it's easy. You just draw stickers and stick them somewhere. It's easy.”
That is why a lot of those who cannot do graffiti (because of age, physical condition, drawing skills), can do sticker art and become a part of the community. Moreover, stickers can in a way be a ‘hobby’ (also for graffitists) which brings young people pleasure and joy, and can help them develop their artistic skills.
All these factors affect the status of sticker art in the street art or graffiti scene. Stickering is considered a peripheral practice, and, as a result, sticker art does not produce an autonomous identity inside the street art and graffiti communities. As one informant mentioned:
Well, mostly stickers and posters – but they are still secondary. Most of these guys are doing graffiti, there are not so many of those, who are exclusively engaged in stickering.Female, 24
However, this activity is valuable through its peripheral character (subjectively not so significant or dangerous as street art and graffiti, nor as central for subcultural or professional identity construction), because it brings people the joy and freedom of creativity.
Some sticker artists acquired their skills not only on the street, but also in classical art or design education. Professional interest leads them into the graffiti and sticker art world, where they can exercise their attained skills in an unfamiliar way (using new instruments and working with unfamiliar surfaces) and receive new experience. However, subcultural capital and knowledge gained on the street, can also contribute to professionalization in art or design among sticker artists, who do not have formal art education. Stickers provide an opportunity not only to learn something new, but also to demonstrate the talent and mastery of their creator and become a kind of business card. Through stickering, a sticker artist can find an audience, potential employer or customer, and commercialize his/her skills.
For me it's, well, frankly, I've been thinking a lot about this topic, well, it still remains ... like ‘Vasya was here’. But I leave my style here on the streets, I leave, I write this ‘Vasya was here’ in as cool a style as possible so that…the people will see that I can do it. Well, I mean, I'm showing my skill, I'll admit that (laughs), my abilities through stickers and them ... well, the more I glue them, spread them, the more people know about me as a person who can create...different stickers. Well, that is, I don’t know, for me it is like advertising my name. Uh ... well, and at the same time I try to make it as interesting, cool and noticeable.Male, 23
DEVELOPING here is used in the sense of ‘developing film’: community becoming visible in some situations, and invisible in others.
Developing community – this is the solidarity that sticker artists seem to share. This term is used to refer to situational visibility and appearance of community: we cannot really claim that the community exists all the time in the offline world (people making stickers usually have other communities to which they have close connections and in which they participate daily), and it would, therefore, be more accurate to say that it appears in some situations. This community is situational in nature because it is formed through situational practices (joint stickering, printing, exchanging stickers), virtual communication (via social networks, through photographing each others’ stickers) and key spaces/events that constitute solidarity and links between different people (temporally, virtually, performatively). Sticker artists are not woven into a network of strong ties, but most of them do know each other ‘virtually’, and keep in touch via social networks.
In contrast to graffiti communities, sticker artists describe their community as positive and conflict-free, without pronounced competition or fights. They take care of any stickers, exchange stickers with each other and sometimes create them together. Such friendliness and absence of struggles for status or “possession” of the territory are the “norms” of this community. Sticker artists are not each others’ rivals, they can share a common goal to improve urban space, and also share an understanding of how to do it. Moreover, they attempt to have fun, enjoy the stickering process, and quite often send positive and peaceful messages through their stickers: fun and beautiful images, bright colours, almost no politics.
It's …a kind side of street art.Male, 23
In stickers there is no hostility. There is no danger, put them where you want, put what you want, yes. And well, another sticker artist will not tell you anything, he will be pleased, take a photo!Male, 23
At the same time, this open and friendly community still has a predominantly ‘male’ face. There are not so many girls involved in it (inheriting the traditional gender division from other street art communities). And for those few girls and women in the community, participation in stickering is sometimes restricted to the private ‘safe’ space: creating stickers at home, but not spreading them around the city. In narratives, stickering is represented as a more ‘scary activity for girls’ because it is illegal and the police or some angry inhabitants can catch or offend sticker artists.
Actually, basically I glue her stickers for her. But it's okay. She also sometimes does it herself. But it's scary for her. She, well, let's say she's a girl, but there are all kinds of thugs who can say something to a girl and [they can] I don’t know, even use force on her. And I think this is a natural fear for a girl. Because she, well, the princess [smiles]. That is, she's scared. I think many have fear.Male, 23
Some sticker artists are certainly more successful on the scene than others. Fame is directly related to the degree of intensity and involvement in stickering – in other words, it depends on how active you are in sticker production, how many stickers you spread in the city and how often you do it. Sticker artists note that there are, at least, two strategies for how to achieve high status in the community: by spreading a great number of stickers around the city or by making high quality stickers (interesting design, professionalism in drawing). But in any case, status is not a dominant characteristic of this community; fun, positivity and creativity are more important. A particularly significant value among sticker artists is their attitude towards the city as a place for stickers and for themselves.
Young people and especially teenagers can experience the city as an alien and frightening place. And in this case, small sticky pieces of paper become their instruments for overcoming estrangement in the city through adventure, fun and exploration. Exploration is a very important part of stickering, linked to the process of finding places for stickers, researching urban surfaces, walking, staring, smelling, testing and experiencing the city. Sticker-artist activity can be harmoniously interwoven into everyday routes or become an excuse for a trip to a new unknown place. Young people may collect places (in the sense of ‘check-in’ locations, showing that you have been somewhere), and leave traces in the form of stickers, which contribute to their symbolic appropriation of city space making it familiar. So, for example, on a question of where he usually walks, the informant answered:
In the city centre, but when we have already gone around the whole city centre, it has become boring and we are thinking about where to go next. Also, we walk on roofs, in abandoned buildings, construction sites, cellars and yards. ... we’ve made a combo of stickers on every roof I’ve been to, I made the combos”.Male, 23
By creating and visualizing unique or everyday routes, sticker artists assemble the city, building connections and relationships between different places. They produce their own maps of the city, on which stickers are the marks, embodying intersections of physical space and memories.
KUDROVO is a suburban area in Leningradskaya oblast’ near St. Petersburg
Sometimes you go out to a distant area, somewhere in Kudrovo – put a sticker there. Over time someone sends you a photo and is like: ‘Oh, what did you do here?’ [Laughs]. It's funny, it's funny. Sometimes a few years later ... I hardly use paper, I use vinyl. Sometimes after two years, you walk in this place and ... ‘Oh, really? I was here?’ You look and remember that day, what you did that day. It’s like such nostalgia, back in the past.Male, 23
Stickers are found in sticker artists’ private spaces: rooms, flats, houses, where they are living, on their computers, mobiles phones, longboards, notebooks. At the same time, stickers are distributed on the streets. Thus, through stickers, sticker artists blur for themselves the boundaries between “home”/ intimate space and urban/public space. Personal space seems to extend to the whole city.
In spite of the public presence of stickers, for the majority of people living in St. Petersburg these small items are invisible. This leads to the emergence of a new inner city that can only be seen through special optics, supplemented with inclusion into social relations and the ability to read meanings of spatial practices. Without immersion in the context of the sticker-art community, stickers in the city frequently remain just beautiful pictures or useless stains. Sticker artists become urban conspirators with unique knowledge about their own city, in which stickers transmit messages and signals to others. Shared experience, feelings and ethics that forbid or allow sticker artists to do something in the city, produce a sense of solidarity among sticker artists and help to overcome urban alienation, make the city more familiar and homelike.
Officially, sticker artists’ interventions in the city space are considered vandalism – according to law, stickers damage property. Such stigma is the result of the existing distribution of power in the city, as a result of which sticker artists (and young people in general) do not in most cases have the opportunity to participate in decision making processes and influence the city space legally. Under such conditions, authorities and adults give themselves the moral and legal right to prohibit stickering and blame those who practice this activity by defining it as vandalism or hooliganism.
The urban fabric can be considered as an imaginary battlefield, where the struggle does not only take place in physical space, but also in the space of meanings. In spite of the dominant representation of sticker art as destructive and as an act of hooliganism, sticker artists declare their stickering activity to be a creative process, a kind of contemporary visual art form that is valuable and substantial. They attempt to change the lens through which the city dwellers view stickers and the way they perceive them.
As to the city... Well, it's just that I was always amazed in Europe that this is treated normally and considered a form of art, it's like going to a museum. You, for example, saw a combo [combination of stickers], stood up, looked at it, realized which sticker you like, and then left. For you, it was like a mini museum of street art. <…> Because for now [in Russia] street art is not recognized in the same way as classicism or realism. Now it is considered hooliganism. Here, well, if at all, in principle, Russia is lagging behind by many years even in fashion, I don’t know, even in technology, even in lifestyle, yes. Also, Russia falls behind in art.Female, 24
Sticker artists interpret their activity as art. This understanding leads them to the redefinition of the city space as a ‘museum’, in which streets are canvases and city dwellers are spectators.
Redefinition of city space in terms of ‘museum’ and ‘home’ contributes to the emergence of a new type of relationship with the city space among sticker artists. Love, responsibility and care are the feelings that sticker artists begin to experience towards the city. St. Petersburg is represented by them as a city with a rich cultural heritage and a great history that should be saved and added to. Sticker artists try to follow the logic of urban space – interact with the city and place stickers in the appropriate (in their interpretation) spatial contexts, complementing urban aesthetics, rather than destroying it. Sticker artists attempt to insert a sticker into the city landscape painlessly, sometimes picking locations that will help them tell a story or draw the audience’s attention to something (objects in the city, surfaces, details of urban fabric).
St. Petersburg is important to me, so I feel responsible for the places where I put stickers or draw.Male, 22
Representations of the city, shared by sticker artists, have an impact on their urban identities, which, in turn, influence their civil position and activity. They exercise their citizenship through keeping up the beauty of the city (in the way that they understand its beauty) and by getting rid of objects that spoil the city space. They articulate their goals as ‘making the streets brighter’ (male, 19) and ‘just sharing goodness’ (male, 26).
Sticker artists are young urban explorers, who through fun and creativity assert their interests in the city. Frankly, they only make a small contribution to the formation of the visual appearance of St. Petersburg. The majority of city dwellers do not notice stickers in the city. These small items dissolve in the stream of urban visual information (advertisements, signboards, graffiti, posters), and usually become visible only to those, who know where to look for them. Stickers are hidden on the reverse side of road signs, on roofs, in the metro cars and on stations, on fences and pillars. Stickers are very important. They fulfill an educational function and help sticker artists professionalize their design or art, as well as contribute to the formation of solidarity between young sticker artists. Sticker art is a step towards democratization of urban life, particularly due to the transformation of the perception of urban space among those who produce stickers and distribute them in the city.
Sticker art is a way of transforming one’s status in the city from a passive follower of the existing city order to an active creator, who constructs another city image and representations through which other behavior models of artist and citizen are produced. Sticker artists reinterpret the city as a ‘museum’, in which a sticker is an art object and a sticker artist is an author. The metaphor of a museum gives the city special value, which is reflected in sticker artists’ citizenship through a rhetoric of care and responsibility for the city. The continual exploration of the city and interaction with the urban space, and involvement in urban communications with other sticker artists, contribute to domestication of city space and reinterpretation of it in terms of home. Both these metaphors illustrate how sticker artists reconfigured the optic through which they perceive the city, and saw, that the city can be different.
Through stickering practices, young people develop strong emotional links to the city, which stimulate the emergence of their civil position in relation to the city. It is the way for them to negotiate their status in the city and contribute to development of urban horizontal communication between people living in St. Petersburg, unfolding in public spaces.
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