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One Man's Dumpster Is Another Man's Billboard

Stencil artist Josh MacPhee gets his message out by any means necessary.

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Josh MacPhee has been defacing public property since 1992, when he spray painted his first stencils on the sidewalks of Oberlin, Ohio. That image--a U.S. flag with a swastika replacing the field of stars and the word Justice? filling one of the stripes--was inspired by the Rodney King verdict. In the years since he's sprayed several hundred designs on lamppost bases, building board-ups, sidewalks, and walls, not just in Chicago, where he moved in 1997, but in New York, Philadelphia, Memphis, San Francisco, and Ann Arbor. But the work he's done in his adopted hometown has been visible only for brief periods of time, thanks to Mayor Daley's Graffiti Blasters program, which spends $4 million a year eradicating graffiti from businesses, private residences, and public spaces.

"Here kids don't have textbooks in high school, but there's $4 million to remove graffiti," says MacPhee, 31. Places like New York and San Francisco have less rigorous graffiti abatement programs, he notes, and as a result the street art sticks around longer. "There's really a feeling there that the city, as made up of everyone that's in it, evolves," he says. "It changes itself. The city makes time pass. In Chicago everyday things look exactly the same. The only thing that seems to regulate time passing is when a business closes or reopens." But while he laments Chicago's ongoing war against his preferred mode of expression, he has found a way to preserve hundreds of examples of the art form by availing himself of more traditional forums: "Paper Politics," a show of stenciled and silk-screened posters curated by MacPhee, has been up since mid-April in the Logan Square offices of In These Times. And his new book, Stencil Pirates, a comprehensive survey of the street art form, comes out at the end of the month from Soft Skull Press, hot on the heels of an exhibit by the same name that visited six cities last year.

MacPhee's radicalization started in Holliston, Massachusetts, a small town 45 minutes south of Boston where, shortly before the first gulf war, he discovered Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman's political comics zine World War 3 Illustrated. Inspired, he and some friends began producing their own political zines. "They weren't founded on any knowledge, really," he says. "They were fueled mostly by frustration or angst." He also began reading the work of Noam Chomsky and progressive publications like Z magazine. But while his friends became interested in the graffiti they saw in Boston and on trips to New York to catch hardcore punk shows, MacPhee's interest was piqued by the stencil graphics in World War 3. Unlike the graffiti popularized by hip-hop culture, stencils were easily reproducible.

Studying media and culture at Oberlin College, MacPhee was more invested in his art and activism than in his course work, publishing a politically charged punk zine called Fenceclimber. After two years he quit school and moved to Washington, D.C., to help some friends start the Beehive--a kind of bookstore, record store, and community space for anarchists and punk kids. While there MacPhee became involved with an issue that would shape his politics and his career for the next seven years.

His roommate was heavily involved with prison reform and started taking MacPhee to community meetings and giving him books like Jeffrey Reiman's best-selling treatise on class and criminal justice, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. Along with some other Beehive members the pair started a D.C. chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross Network, a loose organization of anarchist groups advocating the abolition of the current prison system.

"Prison reform and the moratorium against the death penalty have become popular mass culture stuff," MacPhee says, "but at that time it was off the radar." The statistic that one in four black men in America was incarcerated had just become public, and the privatization of the prison system was in full swing. He read obsessively about prison riots and cases of prison abuse. "I started learning more and more about it," he says, "and I couldn't see how you could ignore the atrocities."

When he returned to Oberlin in 1994, after promising his mom he'd finish school, prison reform informed much of his extracurricular work. He cofounded an antiprison student organization, helped start a prison resource library in one of the dorms, and encouraged the school library to carry books and materials on prison and related subjects. By the time he graduated in 1996, Oberlin was a relative hotbed of antiprison activity. "We had pushed it so much that there were students contacting us all of the time for information because they were writing papers about prisons," says MacPhee.

After graduation he moved to Boulder to volunteer with the Prison Rights Project, which was serving as a watchdog organization for the state's two supermax prisons. He also took the first in a series of mundane day jobs--at a copy shop, as a carpenter for a general contractor, as a handyman at Steppenwolf--that's continued through to his current job as a paralegal.

When he moved to Chicago the following year, MacPhee says, "I probably spent about 80 percent of my time on activist work and about 20 percent on my art. Now those figures are probably reversed. In the years that I've lived here I've felt more and more that the politics I bring to my art feels much more effective than the art I was bringing to the politics. I think I'm a much better artist than I am an activist, in some ways."

While his early work was explicit, if not didactic, in its messages--urging his audience to free Mumia and stop U.S. terrorism in Iraq--MacPhee wanted to try to get people to think more critically without beating them over the head with a particular agenda. In 1999 he started a small mail-order operation called Just Seeds (justseeds.org) to sell original posters and T-shirts, as well as zines he had contributed to. He also started a project that would change his outlook on the relationship between art and society: the Celebrate People's History Poster Project.

Observing that most of the posters and flyers hung around the city were directives, either instructing people to buy something or attend a particular event--whether a movie, a concert, or a political meeting--MacPhee and his roommate at the time decided to make some art that didn't tell the viewer to do anything. "Although it had information on it," he says, "it was up to the audience to decide what they wanted to do with the information."

The ongoing series, which now includes work by various international artists, salutes a range of radical figures and events--India's "Bandit Queen" Phoolan Devi, Black Panther Fred Hampton, anarchist Emma Goldman, the Haymarket Riot. Number one was a poster commemorating the birthday of Malcom X. When MacPhee went out to paste some up on the west side, passersby shouted encouragement. "All kinds of people were into it, saying things like, 'Oh my God, Malcolm, that's my boy,'" recalls MacPhee. "We gave out as many as we put up. We were down on Madison or Monroe and Kedzie and there was a small group of drunk men that grabbed a bucket and started helping us paste."

After eight years of working anonymously he was energized by the direct feedback. "When you do art in public there's this myth or romantic notion that you're reaching all of these people," he says. "For me it was a realization that it's not a mythic audience; it's a real audience. It might not be definable, but there is a real audience that receives the work, and if you can create work that speaks to people then that audience could be huge."

MacPhee's book sprang from a similar vision of street art as a dialogue between artist and audience. Since 1997 he's been photographing his favorite graffiti, stencils, and posters around the country. "I'd get off a Greyhound bus and graffiti and street art were these little gifts you'd find along the way," he says. "It's sort of this underground text about how the city's written." By 2002 he had three shoeboxes packed with photos and, troubled by the way graffiti has been criminalized, decided to collect them as a book.

Stencil Pirates reproduces hundreds of images, from industrial lettering to elaborate, multicolored designs. MacPhee traces the development of the form from its political origins in postwar Europe through its adoption by social justice movements in Central and South America, punks in North America, and activists of all stripes. He also examines how it's gradually been co-opted, as with hip-hop graffiti, by the corporate world, citing a well-known stenciling campaign launched locally by IBM for its Linux software. The company hired people to stencil images--hearts, peace signs, and penguins--around town. The city quickly cracked down on it.

"People have a hard time with the idea of graffiti," he says, and it's part of the problem with the American obsession with private property. "People will ask me, 'Would you paint on a monument or a museum?' If you go to Europe every single monument is covered with graffiti. The level of respect for that stuff is significantly different. We tend to see these things as abstract, in a vacuum, objects that only have meaning in and of themselves, rather than, 'This is a monument that's communicating an idea, a one-way idea.' Why can't people comment back on it? It blows my mind that someone would rather have a 20-foot-wide by 10-foot-tall picture of Mel Gibson's face advertising some action movie on the side of their business instead of some 14-year-old kid's drawing. To me that seems like a sign of mental illness."

Graffiti artists, he argues, have paved the way for the increasing ubiquity of advertising. "There weren't subway trains fully covered with advertising before graffiti writers were covering subway trains with writing," he says. "It's almost impossible to paint a train and have it run, but Target trains ride by every day."

Some street artists have commercially profited from their work: the best known is probably Shepard Fairey, who made his name with his Andre the Giant posters and stencils. He's now a regular creator of music industry marketing campaigns and has his own line of clothing and skateboard gear.

MacPhee says he's not interested in that kind of success--he doesn't want his work used to sell a product--but he'd love to be able to make a living as an artist. Taking his work even slightly aboveground, however, has come with its own set of issues. Stencil Pirates isn't exactly being published by Random House--Soft Skull is a small indie operation dedicated to political and culturally subversive work--but he's still chafing a bit at his loss of autonomy. "One of the strangest and hardest things about the book was not having control over it," he says. "I have a PR person, and that's kind of uncomfortable. It's a catch-22; in order to do work that confronts capitalism in some way, you have to engage in it."

With "Paper Politics" he's engaging capitalism on his own terms--of the 250 prints and posters in the exhibit, none sells for more than $25. "Part of the reason that contemporary art is so academic or totally irrelevant is because artists think that they're God's gift to the earth, and they don't actually have to make anything that anyone would be interested in, because they're in the world of ideas," he says. "But the world of ideas means nothing unless it engages with people. Having a show where I can sell 200 pieces of work to 200 different people at $5 each--to me that's significantly more powerful than selling one $10,000 painting to one rich fuck."

Last summer MacPhee traveled to a dozen U.S. cities--including Nashville, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Indianapolis--and hung hundreds of People's History posters in high-traffic areas. All of them included his Web address. "I was getting an e-mail a day from people who had seen them, asking about them," he says. "If that many people were bothering to contact me about it, how many people just saw it and filed it away in their head? It just proves to me that it's a project that works. It communicates ideas to people, they take them seriously, and they think about it. I can't ask for much more than that from art."

"Paper Politics: A Show of Socially Engaged Printmaking" runs through June 30 (and possibly longer) in the second-floor offices of In These Times, 2040 N. Milwaukee. For information about Stencil Pirates see www.softskull.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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