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Street artists use public spaces for their sticky messages

Start looking, and you'll see them everywhere: sticky bits of scofflaw art, posted on the backs of street signs all over town.

These stickers are usually just a few inches wide. They are mostly confined to the backs of traffic signs and stop signs, occasionally encroaching onto newspaper boxes, fire hydrants and abandoned buildings.

Some are political, some promote bands, but a surprisingly large number seem to exist for their own sake - cryptic, anonymous images such as a cartoon whale, a tooth marked with a dollar sign, a skull, a raccoon, jittery monsters, a tiki idol, repeating themselves up and down streets like Southeast Division, Northeast Alberta, and Northwest 23rd.

A particularly long-running and ubiquitous series portrays pop star Kanye West in innumerable surreal poses: juggling cats, being pursued by a giant stapler, waving pompoms or with the body of an ostrich.

Sometimes the practice is called slap tagging, for the quick swipe that is all it takes for a sticker-maker to leave his or her mark.

But of all the many forms of personal expression, legal and illegal, why do some people choose this one?

The giant's posse

In the heart of the heavily-stickered Alberta Arts District sits No Limits Stickers, a sticker design and production shop. The shop creates things like bumper stickers for mayoral candidates, and labels for the local ice cream shop to slap on to-go containers. Sometimes, general manager Maxwell Hunter admits, he'll recognize a sticker from the shop in less conventional places - particularly in the bathrooms of rock clubs.

'What people do with it is up to them,' he says. 'It's a natural human instinct to mark your territory.'

The sticker art movement has its roots in graffiti, says Hunter, and that, in turn, really goes back to cave paintings. A sticker isn't something you can put in an art gallery, he points out. And some artists, he says, follow in the footsteps of Andy Warhol, who understood the amplifying power of repetition.

Slap tagging isn't just a Portland thing.

The world's most famous slap-tagger is Shepard Fairey, who peppered America with stickers reading 'Andre the Giant has a Posse,' before going on to create a certain rather well-known image of Barack Obama.

A later version of his Andre sticker - a stylized face and the word 'OBEY' - continue to appear on stop signs in Portland.

Image is everything

However, in general stickers are a more anonymous form of expression. Stickers are sold and traded, and can make their way around the world.

A local artist and sticker maker, who goes by the name of 'The Lost Cause,' puts it like this: 'It's about the image, it's not about the person.'

He got involved with graffiti back east, when he was 11. But graffiti, he says, 'is like hieroglyphics' - it's only comprehensible to a subculture of other taggers. Street art - in the form of a sticker, poster or stencil - is something different, he says, and any passerby can have a relationship with it.

'I don't even feel like it's an offensive thing,' he says.

The Lost Cause's stickers are among the most recognizable in Portland: stylized whales in bright colors, similar but not all the same. Sometimes the whale smiles, frowns, shows a row of sharp teeth, or wears sunglasses.

The whale's name, The Lost Cause says, is Winston.

'People document Winston, they take pictures of Winston,' he says. 'He's just smiling and kind of just floating around. He's a happy little guy. He cheers people up.'

The Lost Cause gives stickers to children, and he sells them, too. So, he points out, he's not necessarily the one who is putting them on street signs. And that's another advantage that stickers hold over spray paint - it's a lot harder to get busted.

'It's a property crime,' says Marcia Dennis, the graffiti abatement coordinator for the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement.

Just like other forms of graffiti, she says, slap tagging 'contributes to the negative impact on livability.'

The city helps coordinate volunteers who clean up graffiti, and there are also individuals who simply take the task upon themselves.

Ironically, says Dennis, these people can do as much harm as good - they end up stripping the reflective surface off street and stop signs, rendering them illegible by night.

During the past four years, Portland's Bureau of Transportation spent an average of $42,000 a year on cleaning up Portland street signs, according to bureau spokeswoman Cheryl Kuck. Many more signs haven't been cleaned.

Work crews focus on safety, Kuck says, prioritizing signs that are altered to the point where they can't be read.

Well of talent

The Lost Cause thinks the city's stance is too harsh, and that if some space were set aside for street art, it would reduce the amount of 'bad' graffiti in the city. Without a designated space, he says, there's no community, and young taggers don't learn from older ones about the art and etiquette of tagging.

He says sticker makers tend to be a little older than graffiti writers - in the 25-and-over range. And he says Portland has an incredible well of talented street artists: 'If the doors were open, if they made it more available, I think Portland could have some amazing art, at no one's expense.'

Next month in Portland artists come in from the cold at a show at the Scion Gallery called 'Sticker Phiends 5: Printed Matters' (7 to 11 p.m., Saturday, April 7).

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