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Graffiti stickers — handwritten tags on a variety of labels that can quickly be affixed to almost any surface — have always been somewhat of a minor form of vandalism, at least in the eyes of most practitioners. Not as flashy as pieces, not as risky as throwups or tags, they nonetheless serve as calling cards and are an important part of the arsenal for many writers. Some go on occasional sticker sprees, while others specialize in the medium and, at least for a period of time, make it their goal to achieve complete saturation of a given block, neighborhood or an entire city with their name. 

Photo Credit

In New York, the practice of using stickers to get up dates back to at least the early 1980s, when DJ NO and TESS, members of the X-MEN crew who otherwise painted the subway, achieved notoriety and even some media attention with their exhaustive vandalism campaign using custom-printed stickers. Others quickly picked up on the idea. Writers who worked as messengers made it their sport to procure unusual blank address labels, tag them and leave a trail of stickers across the city. Stickers could be used on the insides of trains or outside, wedged into the doors of newspaper boxes or slapped high up on the backs of signs, where no marker could reach.

Over time, graffiti stickers also became a playground for experimentation with different handstyles. The shape and dimensions of the medium require particular attention to technique and the right writing tools. Some were artistic and detailed; others were mass-produced on ID badges and “Hello my name is” labels. Sometimes they also found their way into the blackbooks of fellow writers and bombing partners, as part of a collection of tags on the front and back inside covers or to cover the bleed-through on the back of an elaborate marker drawing. 

grafitti art

Occasionally a writer or a fan would peel a few stickers from the street in order to add them to their collection. A few of these known treasure troves of style, such as the artist Michael Anderson’s collection, date back to at least the early 1990s. The stickers on these pages are survivors — a small sample of the countless millions of stickers that have graced the streets of New York or were stuck into blackbooks. Some of these writers are legends and kings; others are known mostly to locals. Some of them focused on stickers, but most were bombers first and used stickers as just another way to get up.

Stickers have generally been cleaned more quickly from city property, while newspaper boxes are disappearing altogether. In addition, hard-to-peel “eggshell” stickers have been replacing cheap and plentiful paper stickers in the modern landscape. Many writers still go on occasional sticker-bombing runs, but it is no longer easy to see great stickers on almost any city block.

Another recent phenomenon removes stickers from the sphere of vandalism entirely: A new breed of collectors focus obsessively on gathering hand-written tags on unpeeled USPS labels. The older the label and the more hard-to-get the writer, the better. All of a sudden, there is a marketplace for the sale or trade of stickers, similar to baseball cards. On the one hand, it elevates the medium, which also gives writers another way to benefit from the sale of their work. Sticker packs are now commonly available directly from formerly elusive vandals. On the other, some might say the practice, which of course goes hand in hand with the rise of social media, has very little to do with real graffiti. For those who care, however, it has not dampened the excitement of finding a pristine throwup, tag or sticker on the street, which is, of course, where they really belong.

Written by Ray Mock

Images courtesy of OJAE, LIONS, DENSE, Michael Meier, ProFreshionalism and Carnage NYC.
Graffiti Stickers of New York, the ultimate book on the history of graffiti stickers, will be out via Carnage NYC in 2020.