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Art or graffiti: the stikman phenomenon

Art or graffiti: the stikman phenomenon

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    stikman takes Los Angeles by storm.
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    Lord Jim

    stikman takes Los Angeles by storm.
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    stikman takes Los Angeles by storm

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    Lord Jim

    stikman takes Los Angeles by storm.

Some call it art; others, graffiti. There’s just no way to know with this guy: He materializes in the form of a sticker, a strip of barbed wire, vinyl records, scraps of wood, distorted pieces of metal, anything. And he can emerge anywhere: crosswalks, light posts, walls, newspaper boxes, traffic signs. His name is stikman. Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. Bob/stikman first appeared in New York’s East Village in 1992, and has since turned up everywhere from Chicago to San Francisco, Philadelphia to Minneapolis, and Boston to Ann Arbor, Mich.

Depending on where he lands, stikman can elicit any response. Dan King of the Philadelphia art blog “Stupid Easy Ideas” called stikman “subtle and complex yet irresistibly seductive; a familiar icon of the human form.” Although Lancaster, Pa., Mayor Rick Gray dubbed stikman “a better class of vandal,” public works director Charlotte Katzenmoyer treated the decals as graffiti and removed them accordingly.

This divide begs the question: art or graffiti? When asked about that rift, Bob/stikman told the blog “Street Art NYC,” “Art meets real life in the space we all share.”

From his vantage point, there’s room in the world for all opinions. But public works departments have a duty to treat defacement, however artistic, as graffiti.

For instance, the City of Lancaster funds a public arts program, which encourages creativity, celebrates diversity, and gives local artists a chance to shine. So for them, stikman isn’t a groundbreaking statement about making art for the people. Rather, it’s just an annoyance.

Every year, cities spend millions of dollars to discourage and remove graffiti (San Francisco, $20 million; Chicago, $6.5 million). The nationwide Graffiti Hurts campaign defines graffiti as “the words, colors, and shapes drawn or scratched on...surfaces without permission.”

stikman is the textbook definition of that. When he appears in a sticker, he’s easily scratched away. But in his wire or metal formats, he sticks around for months.

Maybe that’s the point. There are far more articles praising stikman’s subtlety and everyman artistry than dubbing him vandalism. Perhaps that just means street artists are more vocal than public works departments. But nonetheless, the latter tend to view stikman, as Lancaster puts it, an invasion.

—Emelia Fredlick