If you live in a city or large suburb, this may be a familiar scene. You’re walking down a sidewalk; it could be almost anywhere. And, you come upon the back of a street sign, or an electrical junction box, even a window or steel door that is covered with stickers. Some are artistic images, some political, while others are humorous; and none are commercial. Such marginal spaces are the community canvas of the sticker artist.
A sub-community of the “Street Art” scene, sticker artists are a vital, thriving, creative and growing community. These artists “not only produce distinctive forms of art that are governed by their own aesthetic and stylistic codes; they also engage in distinctive ephemeral artistic experiences and communities” in the production of their art (Ross, xxxiii). None of which is surprising if you appreciate that, “creativity is the hallmark of our modern, secular, democratic, capitalistic society.”(Kaufman, 13).
Rising from an initial fascination with the avenues of novelty at work in this community, I had occasion in the spring of 2021 to hold a series of conversations with Dave Combs, an Indianapolis-based graphic designer and street artist who goes by the handle, “DAVe TOO”. An interesting study in the diversity of the creative spirit, what makes this artist compelling is that he is both a vibrant street artist and a vocal advocate for his community. Through his PEEL magazine and book series, “DAVe TOO” brings the liminal world of the sticker artist into main stream view.
DAVe TOO Wasn’t here!
The transcript and notes that follow spiral outward from DAVe TOO’s personal ideation process, through his understanding and interaction with his community. Though my over-arching interest was to explore the ways “DAVe TOO” thinks about, employs, and celebrates creativity; the uniqueness of the sticker art community became a secondary fascination.
Anthony Guilbert: Dave, let’s dig a bit into your background. You’re a graphic designer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. Where does art start for you?
DAVe TOO: Art, for me, goes back to drawing with my mom when I was a kid. It’s one of my earliest memories. She would draw these little girls or maybe they were toy dolls (almost always in profile for some reason) with long flowing hair with bows in them and beautiful dresses. I would try to mimic her drawings before branching out into drawing superheroes like Spider-man and Batman. I actually drew my own stickers on my dad’s office labels and made stickers for my Lego creations. One particular sticker I remember drawing was the Ghostbusters logo. Lots of hobbies and interests have come and gone over the years but art has remained a constant for me.”
Anthony Guilbert: I know your introduction to ‘stickers’ starts with a campaign to ban the font ‘Comic Sans’. Not a bad idea in itself, but what inspired you to grow beyond that issue? Where is the point when you transitioned to identifying as a sticker artist?
DAVe TOO: That’s all pretty much right. I saw a ton of Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant has a Posse” stickers all over the streets on a trip to NYC and was so fascinated by the idea of making one’s own stickers, I had to get in on the action. So when Holly (Dave’s wife) was required to use Comic Sans for an exhibit design project for the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, I suggested that we create a sticker campaign to ban Comic Sans. We started trading our “Ban Comic Sans” stickers with other artists soon after. It kind of went from there.
Through trading, we learned that sticker art was a worldwide movement and that no one was documenting it in print, so that’s when PEELzine was conceived. One of the artists whose work really resonated with me was DAVe Warnke whom I discovered in the book Stick ‘Em Up. I loved his playful approach to stickers and street art. I was always a bit hesitant to consider myself a sticker artist because I’d been exposed to so much amazing sticker art and such prolific sticker artists that I didn’t feel worthy to categorize myself with them. But after curating and creating the sticker museum with StickerYou, I got stoked on sticker art again and felt it was time to jump back into the world of sticker art myself. The StickerYou museum was a year-long project which began in 2019 and opened on January 30th, 2020.
Early on, I was so inspired by DAVe Warnke’s art, and we share the same first name, I decided to go by DAVe TOO. The “TOO” is kind of a play on how graffiti artists often put a “One” after their name. I’m not DAVe ONE, but I’m DAVe TOO. Get it?
Anthony Guilbert: In other interviews you reference humor as the focus of your sticker art. Is there an ethos, politic, agenda, or theme that drives your application of humor to art?
DAVe TOO: I just hope my sticker art makes people smile or laugh when they encounter it. In addition, if unexpectedly seeing my stickers up causes someone to look away from their phone long enough to have a non-digital experience and see the physical world around them, that makes me happy too. I wouldn’t call it an agenda necessarily, but more a pleasant side-effect.
Anthony Guilbert: When you say: “to look away from their phone long enough to have a non-digital experience and see the physical world around them,” is this indicative of an anti-technology bent to your work? You say its not an agenda, would you consider it a theme?
DAVe TOO: I don’t really have an anti-technology bent to my work. I know technology is a double-edged sword. We gain a lot of benefits from it, but we also give up some things too. I’m on my phone or computer way too much myself. But I do appreciate it when something in the real world causes me to look away from the screens in my face for a bit. I just want to provide those moments for others too.
Anthony Guilbert: Dave I want to go back to your PEEL projects. What was the inspiration behind PEEL? When did you start that publication?
DAVe TOO: My wife Holly and I started PEELzine (which would later become PEEL Magazine) back in 2003. Inspired by a love for stickers and street art that grew out of collecting stickers by artists from around the world, it was the first magazine to document street art with a specific focus on stickers. It went worldwide and as far as I know, I don’t think there’s ever been another magazine to have a bigger impact on sticker culture.
Currently, CHEER UP produces a great zine about sticker culture in which he interviews sticker artists. It’s called Sticker Life. I recommend it if you want to learn more about current sticker culture.
Anthony Guilbert: You had stopped publishing PEEL for a period of time. What was behind the reboot? Is this a one off or is it back in circulation again?
DAVe TOO: The reboot was brought about when a friend, Gavriel from Discordia, and I decided to make a “has a Posse” tribute sticker pack. We received more entries than we could put in a sticker pack, so we decided to make a book/magazine with the other submissions. PEEL has a Posse is a one-off, but I have some other publishing projects under the PEEL name coming in the near future.
Anthony Guilbert: What’s next for your PEEL imprint?
DAVe TOO: Yeah. This is the first place I’m talking about this. “K.i.d.z.u.k.u.” from Belgium, created a sticker design, then invited other artists to “collab” [slang for collaboration] with him, and add their own take to it. He’s got over 220 “collabs” with that project. He approached me, and [said], I loved your “Bootleg Posse” project, could you help me do something like that. I was like, yeah, sure, let’s do it. Now we’re going to make a book of all those “collabs” with sticker pack.
DAVe TOO on Creativity:
What stands out the most in DAVe TOO’s description of his approach to creativity is how he is both influenced by the past, those artists that came before him, and how he interacts with his contemporaries and new artists. His desire to create extends beyond his personal need for self-expression into a network of enterprises that interconnect with a global community. For this artist, creativity is both responsive and contributory.
Anthony Guilbert: Dave, I’d like to talk a bit about your creative process. How would you describe your approach to creating sticker art or street art in general? Do you begin with an idea, and image, or is it more problem based, where you look to address a solution through your art?
DAVe TOO: Yeah, sure. First of all, I’ll just say that not every idea becomes an actual sticker and makes it to the street. Overall, I have a light-hearted approach to creating stickers and street art. I try not to take myself too seriously. I also attempt to be clever with what I create, infusing humor, some parody, and often some kind of homage or nod to another artist or artists that I admire. I think more than beginning with an idea and image, I begin with a desire (or perhaps need) to create something and sit down with the computer or a sketch pad and start designing or drawing.
Sometimes, I just feel like drawing or writing “DAVe TOO” over and over on blank labels; and that satisfies my need to create. Sometimes I feel like I need to make something with a little more substance and that’s when I’ll look around for inspiration from life, music, other art, conversations I’ve had with people.
Anthony Guilbert: How important is honoring the past and other artists in Sticker-Art Culture? I know it was the impetus behind the “PEEL has a Posse” campaign and book. But is that common among artists?
DAVe TOO: Some sticker art references the past and other artists. A lot of people have done a “has a posse” style stickers and variations of the OBEY icon sticker as well as the Obama HOPE sticker. You can find many on the OBEY Giant website.
I don’t know a whole lot of other sticker artists besides myself who have done a lot of homages to other current artists. I could be wrong about that, or maybe I’m just not thinking of them right now. I have seen people do homages to KAWS and some other well-known artists such as Banksy. And then a lot of people do their own versions of things like skate company logos and things like that.
Anthony Guilbert: Ok, so once you have that seed, how do you proceed?
DAVe TOO: I attempt to flow with the idea by not being too rigid with my expectations about it. For me, it’s almost as much a discovery process as it is a process of creating. Sometimes I feel like I’m creating the art, and sometimes I feel like the art is creating me. The really sweet spot is when I’m flowing with it and I can’t tell the difference.
Anthony Guilbert: What resources and support do you need to stay this creative?
DAVe TOO: Time is a big one. When I’m too busy to create, I’m too busy period and it’s time to rethink my priorities. If I don’t create, I become depressed and I get in a very dark place mentally. I’m working on not self-imposing the idea that someone else has to value whatever it is I’m making. When I get support to be creative from family and friends, that’s very important. They know that it’s more important that I just create than whatever it is I can produce.
Anthony Guilbert: I like the reflective element of realizing if you don’t have enough time, you need to regroup and rethink. I was wondering if there were any ways you deal with the stress and “darkness” as you described it, that comes from not being able to be creative?
DAVe TOO: The worst way I deal with the stress and darkness is by dwelling on it or stuffing it down…. The healthiest way I deal with it is by talking about it which usually leads me to realize I need to carve out the time to make art and be creative.
Anthony Guilbert: Your process seems a bit like a journey. At the end of this, when you have produced and “slapped up” your new sticker what makes it successful?
DAVe TOO: Good question. While I’ve answered a similar question in the past, I think my view has changed since then. I used to say, it’s like a soundbite. You have a very small window to capture someone’s attention with a sticker. So you have to be concise and visually direct.
However, I think now I would say a successful piece of sticker art has to be defined by its ability to resonate with the intended audience. Some of my stickers are very much inside jokes that only people who know about sticker culture will get. 99.9% of people will have no idea what those stickers mean. But for the .1% of people who get it, they love it. It’s for those people.
Anthony Guilbert: Creativity is often described as novelty with value and purpose. Is there an intrinsic value and purpose to sticker art? Being a non-commercial art form, can it contribute to positive societal change?
DAVe TOO: For me, the intrinsic value of sticker art is that I enjoy it. I feel like its purpose is different for everyone. I like the idea that it pisses off people who in my opinion are too uptight and need to chill out. For me, that’s a good enough purpose. Sticker art can change individuals (it changed my perception of the world) and that’s at the root of all societal change.
Anthony Guilbert: In what way did sticker art change your perception of the world?
DAVe TOO: When I saw the “Andre the Giant has a Posse” stickers all over NYC back in 2001, I was so intrigued. I’d seen plenty of graffiti and street art before that, but those stickers captured my imagination and as the OBEY manifesto states, they reawakened a sense of wonder about my environment.
While I had previously thought of public space as a place for the city, advertisers, or businesses to have a visual platform to promote their agendas, I’d never thought about the idea that an individual could use public space in the same way. That inspired the Ban Comic Sans sticker campaign and led me to think about the world (especially public space) in a whole new way.
DAVe TOO on Community
Like many creatives, street artists “are fortunate in that they are able to find flow in activities that, in addition to providing them with the intrinsically enjoyable experience… also provide a professional identity” (Kaufman, xviii). The flow of DAVe TOO’s career starts with his experience of Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant has a Posse” stickers and continues through his work with “k.i.d.z.u.k.u.”, and projects itself into the future. The way in which this “flow” moves through both his art and his community is not unexpected. A street artists relationship to their community is a major element of their identity. Their sense of “community occurs on two dimensions, the first being relational (i.e. the sense of belonging) and the second territorial (i.e. sense of place)” (Ross, 198). The relational element is tied to both their identity and their sense of purpose. The territorial element can be seen as “a sense of place,” being both the space they display their art, and the geographical region they are occupying.
Anthony Guilbert: Dave, in your opinion, do sticker artists and collectors constitute their own unique culture or are they more of a subculture of graffiti culture?
DAVe TOO: I think initially, sticker artists and collectors were thought of as a subculture of graffiti or maybe more specifically street art culture (which itself is sometimes seen as a subculture of graffiti). However, sticker culture has sort of evolved into its own thing in the last several years and has its own set of “rules”, slang, methods, and social norms. Originally, many graffiti writers didn’t accept stickers as a legitimate form of graffiti but now many stickers seen on the streets are created and put there by what would be considered traditional graffiti artists who have embraced stickers as a legitimate form of tagging. So stickers have come full circle back into graffiti culture in a way.
Anthony Guilbert: Would you explain some of the “rules, slang, methods, and social norms” of Sticker culture?
DAVe TOO: The “rules” of sticker culture are more guidelines or etiquette, really. As far as slang goes: “slaps” are what some people call stickers, and “slap tagging” is putting up stickers; “sticker bombing” is covering a surface with stickers. As I think about it, a lot of sticker culture’s slang borrows heavily from graffiti culture.
Methods are that people “get up” (another graffiti term) by sending each other their stickers and then put each other’s stickers up often in “combos” which include several of their friends’ stickers.
One social norm is when trading stickers is to post photos of the received stickers and tagging the artist.
Anthony Guilbert: What would you say is the zeitgeist of the global sticker culture?
DAVe TOO: It’s all about getting up and having your art seen, but there’s an element of fun that seems less serious than most other kinds of art. I think sticker artists, in general, don’t take themselves as seriously as most other kinds of visual artists in my opinion anyway. Also, there’s a spirit of collaboration and sharing the spotlight that doesn’t seem as common in other art forms.
Anthony Guilbert: Would you explain the “spirit of collaboration and sharing” in sticker culture and how it’s different from other art communities.
DAVe TOO: This is, of course, subjective but in my experience, some art communities are more competitive and less geared toward helping each other be successful. In sticker culture, it seems to me anyway, that most artists are willing to collaborate with other artists and will freely send people (strangers) their stickers not knowing whether they will receive any in return.
Anthony Guilbert: How big of a role does social media play in sticker culture?
DAVe TOO: Social media is a huge aspect of sticker culture. It’s the primary way people connect to trade, collaborate, and share their photos. We follow people to see what they’re doing. If you use the right hashtags on Instagram, more, people will see your artwork.
For example, if your sticker design references a popular film, and you “#hashtag” it with that title, people that don’t even think about sticker will see your work. So there’s a connection there, you’ve made a connection with that person.
Anthony Guilbert: From my initial research, it seems that “sticker culture” is part art, part protest, part “culture jamming”, and part “subvertising”. Are the last two the same thing? Am I missing anything ––feel free to school me here!
DAVe TOO: I would agree with your assessment. I would only differentiate culture jamming and subvertising as it relates to stickers in that I think culture jamming is one form of subvertising, but subvertising can be other things as well. I like the term “brandalism” which describes a kind of visual vandalism of corporate ads and logos as one kind of subvertising.
Anthony Guilbert: Is the general geist of sticker culture anti-capitalist or more anti-authoritarian? If that’s not the correct direction, then please point me in the correct direction.
DAVe TOO: I don’t know if it’s anti-capitalist necessarily. Many sticker artists are very willing to sell their stickers without hesitation. There’s generally a liberal bent in sticker culture. There’s also a strong sense of thinking for yourself as opposed to being a blind consumer of media. I remember a sticker from years ago that had a dead animal beside a stream of water that said, “Don’t drink from the mainstream”. I always liked that sticker and stuck it on our water dispenser at home. I wish I had a picture of it.
Some of the ideas DAVe TOO references here are important for understanding this community. “Subvertising” a term first coined by Mark Dery (1991), can be described as “the practice of enacting illicit, material interventions into billboards, digital advertising screens, bus shelter advertising and a wider plethora of spaces that make up the outdoor advertising landscape” (Dekeyser). Brandalism “is an international collective of artists that challenge corporate power, greed and corruption” (Brandalism). These types of “culture jamming” are a recognized foundation of the “Street Art” community.
Even DAVe TOO’s personal leveraging of humor against the mundane world has a larger implication. “Creative people [often] find humor even in serious work and they are not all impertinent” (Kaufman, 233). Humor “can be used to exert control and resist being controlled, to reduce stress and to generate well-being, [and] to enhance in-group solidarity” (Sandberg). For DAVe TOO, humor and imagination are a way of know and engaging his world.
What became clear in these conversations is that street artists, and specifically sticker artists, wrap their creativity in a strong sense of independence, risk-taking, personal energy, and open-mindedness. Their artistic sensibilities revolve around being seen and being heard in a world where public space is becoming less and less democratic. Though many pedestrians may not notice the nuances of this art form, these artists “construct, deconstruct and subvert the social mechanics of representative identity through their ephemeral public works” (Ross, 79).
“Brandalism.” Brandalism, Brandalism, brandalism.ch. Accessed 12 May 2021.
Dekeyser, Thomas. “Dismantling the Advertising City: Subvertising and the Urban Commons to Come.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 39, no. 2, 2020, pp. 309–27. Crossref, doi:10.1177/0263775820946755.
Kaufman, James, and Robert Sternberg. The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology). 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Ross, Jeffrey Ian. Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art. Abingdon-United Kingdom, United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Sandberg, Sveinung, and Sébastien Tutenges. “Laughter in Stories of Crime and Tragedy: The Importance of Humor for Marginalized Populations.” Social Problems, vol. 66, no. 4, 2018, pp. 564–79. Crossref, doi:10.1093/socpro/spy019.
Anthony Guilbert is a writer, educator, and creative entrepreneur living & working in the American west. The author of five books including his recent Notes From The Drift, Guilbert’s writings can be found in both print & digital publications. Though best known for his poetry; he also publishes on mindfulness, mind/body arts, human potential, and creativity. For more information please visit his website.
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