Defacing Graffiti and the Implications for Marketing

I defaced graffiti the other day, I am loath to admit. While passing through a crosswalk near the W Hotel, I noticed a fresh “stikman” on the street, and as traffic bore down upon me, I plucked it up and moved along quickly. I carried the illicit art all the way home, half thinking (half wanting) someone of authority to accuse me of being behind these street installations. No one did.

If you are not familiar with stikman, he is the subject of an anonymous street artist who has made this figure well known throughout DC and numerous other cities, from Los Angeles to Boston.

Stikman resides mostly in crosswalks—a reflective vinyl robot staring blankly upward. He comes in several colors, and as traffic and weather run over him, his permanence is solidified by conditions that simultaneously disintegrate him entirely—like a traumatic event seared as a memory but faded overtime, from fixture to abstraction to amorphous reminiscence, and then gone altogether.

I’ve snapped photos of him before, but have never acquired one. I’ve only ever enjoyed his place in the urban landscape—a simple, humorless figure who looks up and says, “Hey, you’re walking on me.” I smile and move on. In hand, though, I sought to learn more.

Aside from many photos, I found a Washington Post article by Stephen Lowman from 2008, in which he wrote about his own exploration of stikman:

“I Googled him, half expecting to find out that stikman was part of a viral marketing campaign to get me to the theater on Halloween to see a robot slasher flick. Instead, I found other admirers sharing their fondness for this mysterious figure whose creator was anonymous.”

Oh woe for the artist whose work is mistaken for marketing! I know we are constantly exploring new ways of communicating messages: mobile, guerilla, viral, whatever. If it speaks to the right audience, I will employ graffiti as easily as I would put out a press release.

Is this not the nature of art though? Look at Shepard Fairey’s now ubiquitous “Hope” portrait of President Obama. It may offend the artist to have his or her methods adopted for commercial or political purposes, (Fairey, notably, was an Obama supporter), but I would take it as a compliment that you’re contributing to the expansion of how we can communicate with one another. The tenuous relationship between art and commerce may never be resolved.

With stikman, however, I just feel guilty. I have denied the masses exposure to this simple figure. In art, meaning is derived from context; and with street art, every piece is site-specific. I have in a sense robbed some life from this particular piece. Nor I do not feel right replacing it, now that I’ve removed it. Like a baby bird held by human hands, it may not be accepted back into its nest. It would then be sweet justice if I was arrested for littering or defacing property in an effort to restore him.

So here I am in my office trying to mash stikman into the carpet—the only sensible way I think he can be displayed. On the wall won’t cut it. I only fear the cleaning people may remove him.

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