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This summer, my colleagues and I noticed that D.C. street art seemed to be taking a turn for the hyperlocal. First there were decals and wheatpastes bearing the face of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, apparently disseminated by someone called Milbanksy. Then there was the image of a panda and the imperative “RETURN,” and a sticker with Thomas Jefferson‘s face above the word “DANCE.” We assumed all of this was satirical—-a mash-up of street-art tropes and low-stakes parochial concerns that exposed the absurdity of both. Turns out we were only sort of right.
At last Saturday’s H Street Festival, the anonymous Twitter account @DCStreetArt sent me and a co-worker a tweet, suggesting we’d find a present in the City Paper box at 13th and H Streets NE. Indeed we did—-we’d been left fresh MILBANK, RETURN, and DANCE stickers.
Anyway, I ended up sending some questions to @DCStreetArt, and got the following response:
Respectfully, this campaign isn’t about us and so we’ll keep our identities secret. None of this stuff was meant to advance any fledgling career in design or to garner fifteen minutes or less of fame. Anyone can slap a sticker on a wall. Print, peel and place. Rinse and repeat. Results may vary.
The substance of the image is, of course, what matters. There are thousands of stickers affixed to walls and poles in this city. Advertisements for clubs, indie bands. Graffiti tags on pilfered Postal Service paper. Demands for social justice. The walls are cluttered. The walls are a physical bulletin board. But how many of the stickers are accessible? That is, how does a person engage any random sticker? Who notices stickers, anyway? The appreciation of any image depends in large part on personal experience, obviously. But we’ll leave the art history stuff to the experts. Which we are not.
We wanted our work to stand out. We hoped to start a conversation about hyper-local street art rooted in goings on about town. The talk of the town. On that front, the City Paper’s recent piece “Exit Through The Panda Pen” was spot-on. You got it. We considered the walls of the District to be an untapped, unwritten blog—more so than the walls of some other East Coast cities. It’s been a hoot to read comments people write on the stickers themselves.
MILBANK, RETURN and DANCE? Same artist. But we caution that “artist” should be loosely defined. None of us, professionally, is an artist. None of us runs around at night with spraypaint cans scribbling on walls. None of us has a tag. There is no graffiti crew. Not even sure we are all friends. Kidding. We’re have Federal Reserve-style clandestine meetings to brainstorm new campaigns. One could argue that the stickers are not art. Perhaps, then, we are a part of the conversation about the contours of street art.
We sat around one night and proposed this question: How would people react to seeing Dana Milbank’s image on a wall? None of us personally know Dana Milbank. We read his columns. As do thousands of other people. We thought his image would foster discussion about journalism, marketing and the trend toward super-local news. Dana Milbank inspires polarized views—liberal hack or insightful iconoclast—so would people rather denigrate him or praise him?
The MILBANK images did spark dialogue about whether the Post was venturing into guerrilla marketing. Should newspapers market their purported stars? Should the Post sell images of Dana Milbank on t-shirts and on magnets? How many people would recognize him? Could he be an icon, for better or worse? Is he already?
Beyond any intellectual underpinning of the MILBANK campaign, it was pure fun. We have no idea whether Dana enjoyed seeing his face about town. We hope so.
There was, of course, considerable chatter about the arrival of Tai Shan at the National Zoo and then, later, his exit through the panda pen. One question could be this: To what extent does (or will) the National Zoo rely on the marketing of panda bear images to sustain revenue in the absence of a plump baby panda? Thus, RETURN was born. Butterstick is, obviously, an image that most District residents easily recognize. Zoos are more than pandas, of course. Should Tai Shan return? Why? Will the red panda babies become as iconic as the tubby Tai Shan?
On the DANCE front, we were intrigued by an appeals court ruling that declared dancing a prohibited activity in the inner sanctum of the Jefferson Memorial. Should only students of the law care about this decision? Would the man who wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence approve of such personal expression at his memorial? Is it only slightly ironic that the words “I have sworn upon the alter of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” are etched into the very memorial itself? Would T.J. tell his followers to dance, to go out and create? For the record, none of us has danced at Tom’s memorial.
Some of us dabble in art on the side, but not publicly. We know graffiti jargon. One of us knows a graffiti artist from a long, long time ago. All of us admire the work of street artists who know a thing or two about can control, stencils and how to mix wheatpaste. There is, of course, a distinction between the elaborate, intricate murals that the best, seasoned practitioners execute and the sometimes unsightly, amateurish tags that adorn some walls.
It’s been fascinating to watch the movement of graffiti art from the shadows of warehouses to the cover of The Wall Street Journal. If nothing else, perhaps, with the MILBANK, RETURN and DANCE stickers, we are unwittingly continuing street art’s march from a maligned form of expression to one that is so mainstream that it loses its appeal. With apologies to @Qwikster, “that’s so embracing.”