Stencil Nation Q&A in Atlanta Journal

There’s a great feature on stencils coming out Sunday in the Altantal Journal Constitution. First, Drew Jubera talks with Transmit Device to get his angle on stencils in Atlanta. Drew then hit me up with a phone call last week while I was in the Charleston, SC area. He did a good job combing through my long-winded answers to get the gist of what I was saying. I have taken note of this for future interviews…..

Original link here


Author explores urban landscape of stencil graffiti

‘Urge to leave their mark’ fuels artists


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Russell Howze spotted his first street stencil in 1990 while visiting a friend in Clemson, S.C. Spray-painted on the side of a student apartment building: a 2-foot-tall head of J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, the pipe-smoking clip-art icon of a nationwide satirical subculture.

Howze thought, “Cool.” Then he thought, “Wish I had my camera.”

When he returned a few months later, armed with his camera, the Dobbs stencil had vanished.

“It was my first lesson in the impermanence of graffiti and stencil art,” he said.

Lesson learned. Howze moved to San Francisco and obsessively photographed stencils — which differ from street graffiti because the image isn’t made freehand, but instead is pre-cut, then sprayed. In 2002, he founded an online archive where contributors upload photographs of stencil graffiti from all over the world. now contains 11,000 images found in almost 30 countries.

Howze also has published “Stencil Nation: Graffiti, Community, and Art” (Manic D Press, $24.99), a street stencil history and illustrated compendium of some of the form’s most noted artists.

Howze discusses “Stencil Nation,” and presents examples of the art, at A Cappella Books at 7 p.m. Dec. 12.

We caught up with Howze recently on his book tour.

Q: You write that stencils go back to cave paintings. Is it wired into our DNA?

A: The conclusion I’ve come to is what National Geographic said on its Web site with a photo of a 35,000-year-old stencil. It said that 35,000 years ago, someone felt like saying, “I was here.” You can spend millions of dollars to get rid of graffiti, and somehow humans feel the urge to leave their mark. Even in a totalitarian state, there’ll be that one person waiting for a train who just broke up with his girlfriend, who’s been drinking, who will write a little poem about it on the bench.

Q: How far will stencil artists go to put up their work?

A: An artist who goes by the name Arofish went through a phase where he’d go into war zones to do stencils. He was in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. He was arrested in Baghdad.

Q: Is there a rift between graffiti artists and stencil artists?

A: I’ve met freestyle folks who just use a can who feel very strongly about it. A guy in Seattle told me: “I don’t use stencil. I don’t like working in the lines.”

Q: Do their cultures differ?

A: In traditional graffiti, there’s a lot of … I don’t want to say testosterone. There’s a lot of competition. It’s a combative art form. It comes out of the ‘hood. Even the terms are aggressive: “bomb this,” “hit that.” If your graffiti is bad, you’re a “toy.” There are female graffiti artists, but they’re kind of marginalized. There’s some misogyny in the scene. In my experience, you don’t get that in the stencil scene. Stencil art comes out of the punk scene, the grass-roots protest scene. It’s more inclusive.

Q: Isn’t stencil art vandalism?

A: Depends who you ask. … For me, it was an alternative to staring at advertisements, an alternative to the homelessness and despair of our inner cities. It also creates a conversation and narrative on the streets. There’s a surprise around every corner. It becomes a psycho-geographical wandering through an urban landscape.

Q: Convince somebody who thinks stencil or graffiti artists are trashing their town that it’s a “psycho-geographical wandering.”

A: I’ve spoken to those people, and it’s pretty much cut-and-dry for them. It’s illegal. It brings property values down. Some think it brings crime into the neighborhood. That’s why cities legislate against it.

Q: You do street stencil?

A: Yes, but not a lot. I don’t like spray paint. I think it’s evil.

Q: Evil?

A: Read the label on a spray can. The stuff is bad for the environment, bad for the body.

Q: Hold on. You just wrote a book about street stencils, and you think spray paint is evil?

A: It’s a dilemma for me. I’m celebrating something beautiful and artistic while at the same time it’s destructive and not good for the planet.

Q: You’re an enviromentalist who thinks spray paint is bad for the environment. Where’s the dilemma?

A: The discovery of [stencil art] and the documenting of it is very strong for me. We have to make choices in our lives about our footprint on Earth. It’s one of the bad things I’m a proponent of. It’s a dilemma. I bring it up in my slide show. I’m trying to create a conversation about alternative ways to “get up” (put up stencil art). Mud has been used. A Native American artist is trying to find natural pigments to propel out of a can. If that ever happened, it would be amazing. An environmental spray can. I’d spray paint every day.

Q: Where’s the unlikeliest spot you ever found a stencil?

A: A Bertolt Brecht poem on the side of the Reichstag (German parliament building) in Berlin. It was odd to find a big stencil poem there.

Q: Are there regional differences in stencil art?

A: You get sidewalk work predominantly in San Francisco. It’s sidewalks and walls in New York. Some artists are itinerates and travel from city to city doing the same thing. Then you find stencil concentrated in places, like in Atlanta. The Krog Street tunnel is like ground zero.

Q: What’s Atlanta’s place in the stencil art scene?

A: I wish Atlanta was more walking- and bike-friendly. You discover more stencil art when you’re going slow. Every time I’m in Atlanta, I pass through the Krog Street tunnel. … But that urban jungle is big. There’s a lot of square mileage. There’s always that one stencil where you least expect it. There’ll be one in Buckhead and you’ll say, “Why there? What’s that message mean?” And then you can walk a 10-block perimeter around that stencil and not find another one.