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Wednesday, July 13, 2005 | Stenciling is for people who don’t know how to draw.
That’s how a select few San Diego stencil artists describe the art form that has intrigued them at many levels and has led them to various degrees of obsession. From bedroom walls and city streets to the digital canvas of the Internet, stencil art, it appears, is no longer for grandma.
Stenciling, in its 21st century form, is not about monogramming the corners of pillowcases or painting intricate butterfly patterns on a child’s pajamas. Modern-day stencil-wielders are more likely to sport a Mohawk than a beehive, and are more likely to have pins in their noses than in their lapels.
Locally, stenciling is gaining acclaim and acceptance within San Diego’s maturing art scene. City galleries have featured local stencil artists in exhibitions and San Diego stencilers have gone on to build clothing companies based largely on their reputation as “street” artists. The world of studio or bedroom-based stenciling remains intricately inlaid with the work of streetwise graffiti artists, who favor the durability, simplicity and speed of stencils over freehand spray painting.
“It’s a poor man’s printing press,” said Jeremy Merrill, a City Heights-based stenciler who said he works solely on off-the-street projects. “You can throw it on just about any flat surface, whether it’s out on the street or on clothing, whatever you want, basically.”
Because of its roots in graffiti, stencil art has developed as a tool for capturing attention instantly and unsubtly. Even indoor works still seem to be primarily geared towards a split-second viewing – the stereotypical glimpse out of the window of a moving bus – and tend to focus on an iconic, easily-recognizable image.
Hot on the minds of most San Diego stencilers, therefore, is the creation of such an icon. They want quirky. They want bold. They don’t want clichéd or contrived. The quest for such an icon or image often manifests itself as a distillation of each artist’s expressionism. For many stencilers such as Merrill and San Diego-based artist Recycle, the theme is overtly political. Unceremonious images tie in with stark logos and messages that are often anarchical and almost always controversial.
Recycle follows in the footsteps of famous stencil artists such as London’s “Banksy” and former San Diegan Shepard Fairey, creator of the “Obey Giant” moniker. Recycle’s work includes an oft-sprayed stencil of a Cambodian soldier, often surrounded by falling bombs and spray-painted anti-propaganda. His paintings and installations have been viewed in gallery shows including a recent exhibition at downtown San Diego’s Voice 1156 gallery and his work has also been seen on other flat surfaces like the walls of warehouses or the shells of abandoned cars. Recycle said these days he tends to travel out of town to cities like Phoenix where he can still find un-gentrified areas to decorate with his art. For him, stenciling is graffiti – evolved.
“Regular graffiti, people are just conditioned to not liking it,” he said. “It takes a really nice piece to change a lot of people’s minds, and most people don’t have the time. But with stenciling, it’s almost more witty, or it might have a message – it’s just a lot more detailed, it’s trying to catch people in five seconds.”
To achieve exactly that, Merrill uses images of Ronald McDonald with President Bush’s face. The character – whose McDonalds uniform’s “M” logo is inverted to read “W” – often touts a machine gun and a terrifying Jack Nicholson-esque grin. Merrill said stencilers credit a number of motivations for their art.
“Some people do it to make people think,” he said. “Some people do it to throw a wrench into people’s gears of everyday life.”
Merrill, who is an art teacher at a City Heights high school, said he teaches stenciling techniques to his students. The classes have proved popular. He said the starting point in making a stencil painting is selecting the image one wants to portray. These images can come from anywhere. Talented drawers may choose to sketch out their own, but Recycle said most stencilers simply pick out a photo or illustration and scan it into a computer.
Stencil artists look out for high-contrast images. Where a photo or scan needs to be “tweaked” or adjusted, an artist will often open it in an art package on their computer and adjust the contrast and brightness levels to achieve an image that is stylistically sound and – most importantly – easy to cut out.
Once the final image has been decided upon, the artist will print it out and possibly enlarge it or reduce it using a photocopier. The print is then glued onto a piece of cardboard, plastic or even rubber foam and cut out using an X-Acto knife.
Some stencilers are not content with simple black-on-white images. Chris Larsen, who has been painting stencils for four years, has created works with up to 10 layers of paint. One piece, an intricate and multi-layered self-portrait sprayed onto an old record, took him an estimated 15 to 20 hours to complete.
Other stencil artists prefer to work with their surroundings. Evan Scheingross, a passionate 22-year-old artist and designer, said he thinks the best stencil artists are those that can use the streets as their own three-dimensional canvas.
“I think what makes a good stencil is how it interacts with the environment around it, if you’re doing something on the streets,” said Scheingross. “If you’re going to go out on a mission and put up some work on the streets, I think that the best stencils are the ones that uniquely interact with the surroundings they were placed in.”
For many stencil artists, those surroundings will always be confined to the limits of their bedrooms, apartments, skateboards or record collections. Banksy, perhaps the most well-known in a new breed of stencil artists, has recently taken to smuggling his work into the world’s finest museums, where he sticks them to the wall. Some have hung as exhibits for several days.
For other artists, the streets are the only true exhibition spaces. Recycle said he chooses the streets quite simply because of the recognition he gets from fellow artists and fans of his work.
“If you take it to the streets, people will see it and form good or bad opinions,” he said. “It’s just good to know that you offered something, as far as something visual for people to see. It’s a big part of it – to know that people are going to see it – it really pushes you.”
Please contact Will Carless directly at