I’m walking to work in the morning, trying to get a bit of exercise outside before it becomes treacherous in the snow. I pass this stencil on Harvard Bridge on my way to my temp job at MIT. There is a humor here that intrigues me.
While stenciling has certainly been around a long time as an easy way to mark shipping crates consistently, I believe stencil graffiti became popular as a form of activism during the 80’s as a way to create art outside the gallery system and as a social critique. I think Keith Haring did it for some fun (though the cynic in me says, “branding”) with stenciled dogs and ACT UP used it to expose rage and hypocrisy in NYC. It seems that it has exploded as a form used by muddled anti-consumerists and is mostly Pop-referential, rather boring, and like tagging and graffiti, often blight.
Stencilers, in their exuberance, miss the point and like most taggers, mark what they can get away with, not considering the wit of the location. It is essential if a stencil is to work as art. For a while in Seattle, one could see stencils of crows painted on the side of garbage cans. A funny joke, and like most decent jokes, a tinge of sadness. I think a decent stencil is most effective when it brings apparent something that is missing: something that is often there but, at that particular moment, gone.
Several years ago, I had a chance to sit next to a decent graffiti artist: a young transient kid on a train. He showed me with pride some photos of his work. Like many, he preferred using trains as his canvas so that other graffiti artists would see it around the country. Graffiti has no need for slyness or jokes. In its bold colors, size and scope, its focus is on the individual style of the painter. Because I am an old man, I really don’t “read it”, so it was good to have a kid explain it to me. Stencils are only graffiti in the marking of public space. It is the antithesis of graffiti as a form.
With the anonymity of the stencil and its sameness, it is the slyness of the artist in selecting the right image and pairing it with the right location that elevates it beyond simplistic critique or ego. I have not seen this stencil anywhere else on my walks through Boston, but it is right. It is both a fact and a joke, a shared history and something forgotten. It would not work in any other town. It just lies there underfoot on the disappearing edge of fable.