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Review: PEEL: The Art of the Sticker

February 13, 2009

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PEEL: The Art of the Sticker
Dave and Holly Combs
Mark Batty Publisher, 2008
 
Stickers, easy to make, easy to use, a quick and cheap way to get a message, name or image out into the world. The kid brother to wheat-paste posters, stickers are so cheap to make and so unassuming that they might be the most democratic form of street art. You can put them up here and there and almost forget what you’re doing is illegal. This is great in many ways, an unprecedented number of people are using stickers to express themselves, and stepping over the mostly invisible barrier of “private property” that controls so much of our behavior in life. At the same time, because there are so few obstacles to entry, the world of street art sticker makers is filled with the most mundane and banal imagery and ideas. It seems like stickers often capture the worst in street art, the most unoriginal graffiti-style faces and characters as well as endless pop culture recyclings. PEEL: The Art of the Sticker captures both the good and bad of street sticker culture.
 
First off, it’s a great looking book! Hardcover, embossed metallic logo on the cover, endpapers, and a nice, large 9″x10″‘ format. It is cleanly designed, richly printed, and even comes with 8 sheets of diecut stickers bound into the back. This is definitely a book by sticker lovers for sticker lovers, and by far the most comprehensive collection about the art form out now (Izastikup by Bo130 and Stick ’em Up by Mike Dorian are both decent books, but really glorified scrapbook collections of stickers). PEEL was always a labor of love for Dave and Holly, and this book is the same, not just simply compiling material from old issues, but pulling from the magazine and adding material to create a comprehensive book.
 
On the pro side, PEEL really captures the depth of the culture. There are thousands of images in the book, and this is a real cross section of the kind of stickers I see on the street everyday in NYC. There are the classic hand-drawn postal stickers, down and dirty black and white photocopied pieces, and mass produced 4 color process vinyl stickers. The stickers also represent from around the globe, which is another trait of sticker culture more generally. Since they are so easy to make, and so small, a pile of stickers can cheaply be sent in the mail half way across the world for a couple bucks. There are artists in the book from Australia, Belgium, Brasil, Canada, Colombia, Japan, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, the UK, as well as across the US (and more I would guess, these are ones I could figure out). There is also a short section of the book dedicated to political stickers, which is definitely too short for my tastes, but I’m glad it’s in there. There are also some nice closer looks at N/Plywood, Excusado Printsystem, You Are Beautiful and 20MG. I would like to see more from each of them.
 
Now on to the cons. The majority of the book falls into two forms, pages collecting a diversity of stickers and images, and pages focusing more closely on 22 different artists. Unfortunately most of the artists featured don’t have that much to say (either in their work or their words). Evoke, Robots Will Kill, melove, Buffmonster, Olive47, the Bird, and Miss Venus come off as generic, not much going on visually or content-wise. PEEL also isn’t content to stay focused on stickers, and includes bits of stenciling, postering, graffiti and toys. This shows the connections between the different wings of street art culture, but also makes the book feel a little unfocused at times, trying to be a little bit of everything for everyone. I would much rather have seen much deeper material on stickers, like the different ways they are made, hows law enforcement has been reacting to them, how and if artists are pushing the boundaries of sticker usage (like the Graffiti Research Labs magnetic throwies from a few years back). Where is the culture going and why?
 
At the end of the day, this is a really good book, and gives us some insight into a phenomenon we see unfolding everyday. But it is also limited by the same things that limit sticker culture more generally. I appreciate all the energy and labor that goes into it, and that we can all run out and stick things everywhere, but to what end? What about audience? Are all our stickers communicating to anyone other than the other people putting up stickers? I don’t have the answers, but think we should ask the questions more often.
 
(For the sake of total transparency, I’ve known the authors Dave and Holly for a number of years, and they have always been amazingly generous and supportive of me and Justseeds. We’re also selling the book here on the site, because I think it is a valuable contribution to dialog around street art.)

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