From my New York Press review of Stencil Pirates, 11/04 (vol. 17, issue 45):
A FEW YEARS AGO, while walking down a sparsely traveled block in my old Brooklyn neighborhood, I came across three-foot-tall, carefully rendered cursive on an otherwise blank red wall: "Cap'n Jazz" in silver spray-paint. I did a triple take. Who'd bother to apply the name of a little-known early-90s punk band from Chicago to a Brooklyn wall in 2001, and why? I didn't much care; those shimmering letters brought on a surge of memories from my years in DC punk; it was as if a long-lost friend or secret admirer had left me a note. Though "Cap'n Jazz" swiftly vanished under a fresh coat of paint, those same memories slip into mind every time I'm there, three years later-that block, to me, transformed.
The power of street art, namely stencils, to shape public space, and the ways in which it does so, is the subject of Chicago artist Josh MacPhee's Stencil Pirates, a handsome publication that both documents and casts a critical eye upon a thriving art form. Early on, MacPhee quotes artist Russell Howze: "Traditional art is usually a static experience... Most traditional art is found in galleries, chosen by someone else and viewed by a select group of people... Even when thousands of people see larger exhibits, traditional art's exposure is still limited by the price of admission at the door."
Stencils, however, to the joy of some and consternation of others, are the great equalizer: With the help of basic, affordable materials, the same work of art can reappear throughout a city, cities or countries, meeting with a broad audience and reception. Some stencils remain for months or years on a sidewalk or wall, insinuating themselves into a neighborhood's character and landscape. What prompts residents or city workers to paint over some and not others can be as intriguing as the work itself. (What causes some stencils to fade before others, on the other hand, is a simple matter of paint quality, which MacPhee discusses in the practical, informative "How-To File" section.)
MacPhee parses out Stencil Pirates according to several dozen themes. In "It's Official," he explores the influence of industrial stencils; in "Argentina," the revival of the stencil as a tool of communication and political expression after the country's 2001 economic collapse. Intentionally succinct in narrative and commentary, MacPhee devotes page after page of Pirates-quite a few of them full-color spreads-to more than 1000 images. Plenty of the work in Pirates, if noteworthy in message or placement, is rudimentary, skill-wise.
But just as much of it is gorgeous, sometimes awe-inspiring in its intricacy. "Are We Free Yet," a collaboration by JSO4 and Sevenist, is a painstakingly executed multicolor mural of telephone wires, tiny birds, two bright kites and a placid, curly head on a floral pillowcase. Upon the sleeper's torso, this text: "Only in my dreams is my memory restored, so I sleep all the time so I don't forget how 2 live." In an example of "stenciling as civic duty," artists Scout and Stain created moving color portraits of neighborhood children on abandoned buildings and boarded-over windows throughout decaying downtown Albany, as, according to Scout, "an offering to the people who live there."
One section presents snapshots of stenciled poetry-reproductions of well-known verse as well as stenciling as self-publishing. And all over, from Argentina to San Francisco, stencils have a vibrant history as public service announcement, whether it's "Dyke March 1996, Market & Castro, Saturday June 29, 7 p.m.," or markings from the 1989 Anti-Nuke Port Stencil Project, which organized a team of stencilers to create anti-nuke images that included their exact mileage from a proposed nuke-equipped Staten Island Navy base. Pirates shows that even a single word or phrase can adorn a wall, lovely, depending on factors such as placement or use of typography.
For MacPhee, all of this is "liberatory." Decrying the highly regulated state of public space in America as a forum where homogenous, calculated corporate messaging rules, MacPhee says that "encouraging people to think off the conveyor belt of work, shop, eat, sleep, work, shop, eat is downright revolutionary." Indeed, the book overflows with stencils that shout their message as loud as the paint allows. Other images are subtler, even cryptic. Anton van Dalen, who worked mostly in the 70s and 80s, shot for the subliminal, aiming for his stencils "to operate as traffic signs, you absorb the meaning before you even know it."
Of course, not every stencil artist is inhaling toxic fumes for the sake of art, political beliefs or to convey any particular message. Shepard Fairey has used his Andre the Giant stencil to launch an industry of "Obey"-branded clothing and posters; he also designed Radiohead's noxious "Hail to the Thief" stencil campaign. MacPhee explains corporate forays into stenciling as an attempt to garner street cred for their products-and of course, to move product. Even when corporate patrons have been revealed, the ensuing hubbub "is better exposure for their advertising than money could possibly buy."
MacPhee doesn't delve far into the history of stenciling; his focus is on modern-day work. He does, however, outline its past-from Egypt and China and Greece to the Soviet Union and Nicaragua, South Africa, Mexico. Over thousands of years, the basic technique of applying paint over a design cut out of a solid material has endured. The word "stencil" has its roots in the French estenceler, "to decorate with bright colors," which in turn comes from the Latin scintilla-"spark."