Catherine Tedford, the director of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University, curates the Street Art Graphics collection, undeniably one of the coolest resources in Artstor’s public collections. Here she shares the history of street stickers and of her amazing collection.

All images courtesy of Catherine Tedford, Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, St. Lawrence University

All images courtesy of Catherine Tedford, Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, St. Lawrence University

History of the collection and the Street Art Graphics digital archive

In the last thirty years, urban art has evolved dramatically from the spray-painted graffiti that peppered subway stations, back alleys, and train yards. Today, new forms of visual communication are created in public spaces, often attracting viewers in more contemplative and/or interactive ways. Street art stickers, or simply “stickers,” have emerged as a vehicle for self-expression and as an effective way to engage passersby. Stickers may be used to “tag” or claim a space and make it temporarily one’s own, to sell products or services, to announce events, to publicize blogs or other social media sites, or to offer social commentary and political critique. As one of the most democratic art forms, stickers can be created and distributed easily, quickly, cheaply, and widely. D.I.Y. artists create one-of-a-kind drawings or multiple stencils and screenprints on free USPS stickers or “Hello-My-Name-Is” labels. Other artists upload more elaborate designs to online sticker companies that mass produce hundreds or thousands of stickers at a time. A range of rhetorical strategies can be found in their work, from humor and charm to rebellion and resistance. Representing a diverse array of voices and perspectives, stickers offer a spirited “ground up” alternative to an often “top down” media-saturated environment.

I first noticed stickers by chance on a trip to Berlin, Germany, in 2003, and since that time have collected over 12,000 original stickers from over 20 countries around the world, including Canada, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Indonesia, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Ukraine, and the United States. While the stickers I first gathered were peeled off various surfaces of city streets (windows, electrical boxes, signs, etc.), I am now expanding my collection more strategically by acquiring original, unused stickers. At least half of the stickers in my collection come from Germany during trips I have made to Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich. Oliver Baudach, founder and director of the Berlin-based Hatch Kingdom Sticker Museum, has been my most generous supporter and has given me well over 1,000 original, unused stickers. Other stickers come from artists, collectors, alternative and anarchist book fairs, zine fests, infoshops, squats, May Day gatherings, and political rallies.

At St. Lawrence University, I have been actively building a Street Art Graphics digital archive of stickers since 2004. The original digital archive, created in ContentDM, features over 2,700 stickers cataloged on an item-by-item basis using professional best practices and controlled vocabularies. In 2015, the archive project was one of 42 across the country to receive a four-year grant from the U.S. Council of Independent Colleges to participate in its Consortium of Digital Resources for Teaching and Research. The Street Art Graphics digital archive was published openly in Artstor for much wider public access. Items in the archive also feed automatically into the Digital Public Library of America, a process made possible with JSTOR Forum.

This past summer, I made a concerted effort to catalog German stickers. In June, I brought Oli and his frau Nada Carls to campus for a week, during which time nearly 300 stickers were added to the digital archive with English translations and information regarding artist, source, geographic location, description, and references. We also cataloged 137 stickers from the creative and outspoken Football Club Sankt Pauli that promoted the team and its players, made fun of rival teams, and commented upon sociopolitical issues, such as racism, sexism, fascism, immigration, and German nationalism. In July, an independent German journalist named Nadine Emmerich learned about our cataloging project and wrote an article entitled Stickers als “demokratischte Kunstform” for the German news website ZDF Heute.

Street Art stickers for exhibitions, teaching, and research

Since 2010, I have collaborated with Oli on three exhibitions of stickers at St. Lawrence University and at Hatch Kingdom. He and I also recently co-curated a new traveling exhibition, Re-Writing the Streets: The International Language of Stickers, that opened at Susquehanna University (PA) in the fall of 2015 and will be on display at St. Lawrence in the spring of 2017, in conjunction with a second exhibition from my collection entitled Silent Agitators, Paper Bullets, and Night Raiders: 100 Years of Political Stickers from Around the World.

A multitude of disciplines can incorporate stickers for teaching and research in courses ranging from art, modern languages, rhetoric, and communication to sociology, government, and global studies. In 2012 and 2014, for example, St. Lawrence students in an advanced Spanish literature seminar analyzed historical and contemporary stickers from Barcelona and Madrid and wrote bilingual critical essays on topics such as the Spanish transition to democracy during the 1970s and the more recent Indignados protests. In 2015, I taught a course on street art in which students cataloged stickers and created mini-online exhibits for a new website at St. Lawrence called the People’s History Archive (still partially under construction). One student, Rebecca Clayman ’17, created an online exhibit entitled German Feminist Movement: 1970s to Present Day.

All images courtesy of Catherine Tedford, Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, St. Lawrence University

All images courtesy of Catherine Tedford, Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, St. Lawrence University

I also work with students doing research through independent studies and summer fellowships focused on street art. Laurel Hurd ’16 created four online exhibits for Pegatinas Políticas using stickers from Spain to examine the Catalan independence movement, feminism in democratic Spain, Spain’s energy and the environment, and trade unions during Spain’s economic crisis.

My own research appears on my blog, Stickerkitty, where I have posted over 330 entries since 2008. I chose “Stickerkitty” for its alliteration of “kitty/Cathy” and its mischievous tenor. Humor aside, however, the blog is intended for academic and popular audiences, and posts examine stickers from historical and socio-political perspectives. My favorite stickers in the collection are the “silent agitators” referenced above. As early as the 1910s in the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World created lightweight gummed paper stickers to protest poor working conditions, unfair business practices, and corrupt bosses. Known at the time as “stickerettes” or “silent agitators,” such stickers were printed and distributed by the millions, but are nearly impossible to find today. New York University’s Tamiment Library holds roughly 30 original stickerettes, and the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University presents five in an online exhibit. In the past decade, I have acquired 45 different stickerettes and recently wrote an essay about them for the People’s History Archive. Although stickers are ephemeral by nature, they capture the creative, cultural, and political pulse of time and place.

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