Canned Heat

Stencil-graffiti artists fight the power with plastic and paint.

Tagging is about one thing and one thing only: spraying one's moniker all over the place like a dog marking territory. Stencil graffiti is about spreading a message that inspires a passerby to stop and think for a second about whether they agree or disagree with it, and why. The famed stencil artist Western Cell Division calls stencils "wonderful little booby traps of information, lying in wait." And there is a code of honor that further separates stencilers from taggers: Do not hit storefronts, vehicles or other valuable private property. Folk, another local activist, won't even stencil on red-flagstone sidewalks. Only concrete.

"Concrete is man-made," he e-mailed me, refusing to be interviewed any other way. "Flagstone comes from the Earth; it can speak for itself."

This sensibility is probably a big part of the reason that the city-funded Denver Partners Against Graffiti has logged only one request for removal of political stencil graffiti this year as opposed to hundreds of requests for removal of tagging. Not that city officials see much difference between the two. "We don't treat political graffiti any differently than any other graffiti," says DPAG director Nedra Niblet. "If it's out there, and it's on property where it's not authorized, and if it's reported, we're going to remove it, whether it has a political message or not."

The first stencil artists were cavemen who blew powdered dye through hands pressed against stone walls to create images of animals. In modern times, stencil graffiti has been more political in nature -- and not always in the service of liberal or leftist causes. During World War II, Italian fascists used stencils for street-propaganda images in support of Mussolini. But beginning with students in Paris in the late 1960s, stenciling has been most closely associated with subversion, from Northern Ireland to South Africa. Microsoft took the act corporate last year, hiring a team of guerrilla marketers to stencil the company's new butterfly logo on the streets of Seattle.

In Denver, some of the stencil-graffiti images and slogans are purely original; others are part of nationwide campaigns, with images being downloaded from Web sites and then traced onto Mylar or cardboard. The most famous stencil-graffiti campaign began in 1989 when Rhode Island design student Shepard Fairey mass-produced stickers bearing the image of professional wrestler Andre the Giant and the phrase "Andre the Giant has a posse." That image evolved into a stencil of Andre the Giant's face and the word "Obey," which can now be seen on sidewalks and walls around the world, including at least ten spots in central Denver.

"In a world saturated with high-priced corporate imagery, the stencil is a cheap and effective way for an artist or activist to put their work in front of the public and level the playing field," Fairey writes in the book Stencil Graffiti, which was published earlier this year.

Stenciling is also a uniquely criminal form of activism, with its own criminal rush. Each time you return to the scene of your crime, you get another little jolt of "Oh, yeah" as you watch pedestrians slow down and look at your work. For me, it's worse than a cocaine jag. I went out two nights in a row last week, dragging my ass into work in the morning like I was on, well, a cocaine jag. I'm halfway hoping that by putting my name out here like this, I'll stop myself before I get caught in the act.

Hi, I'm David, and I'm a graffiti addict.

I'm not only hooked on laying down my own; I'm also getting more than a little obsessive about documenting the work of others. And I can tell you that the most common stencil currently on the Hill is a portrait of President George Bush above the motto "One Term President." I saw them start cropping up by the dozens after Bush's most recent State of the Union address. It turns out "One Term President" is an international stencil and sticker campaign, with a Web site documenting the image in more than thirty cities on four continents.

Denver stencil artist and sticker bomber Dr. Nez intends to increase that tally to five continents when he travels to Antarctica later this month to work as a cook at a scientific-research station.

"Bush already has 50 million dollars to spend on his re-election campaign," says Dr. Nez, who also would comment only through e-mail -- plus the added security of an intermediary. "The opposition to Bush and his foreign policy, we don't have that kind of money. So we try to appropriate public spaces: newspaper boxes, telephone booths, soap dispensers in bathrooms, spaces that aren't otherwise being utilized. All these crazy spaces where you can jump into someone's head before they know it."

When I asked Dr. Nez about his motivation for stenciling, he went all Nader Raider on me: "Ralph Nader says there can't be a daily democracy without daily citizenship. My daily citizenship is to do whatever I can with visual art to combat the current regime. I can sit around and bitch with my friends all day long or I can go out and put up some ŒOne Term Presidents.'"

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