Stencil Pirates by Josh MacPhee
Rob Levy
8/11/2004 10:57:36 PM

You may not see it at first, but if you look closely, youíll see that stencil art is everywhere. Although stencils are primarily used to deliver street, traffic and construction information, the medium has been taken underground, twisted, molded and reshaped into something fresh, new and inventive; Street Stencil art.

Although stenciling has been around since ancient times, it really matriculated into mainstream consciousness during the late 70s/early 80s when a burgeoning subculture expressed itself politically throughout Central America and artistically in cities like Baltimore, New York, London and Berlin. As author Josh MacPhee notes in his book, Stencil Pirates [Soft Skull Press], it was at this time when street stencils became not just political iconography, but urban art.

Stencil art means many things to the daring artists that risk life and limb to perpetrate their vision. It is a modern art that manages to be mobile, individual, creative, political, racial, revolutionary and informative.

MacPhee claims that stenciling provides the artist with an immediate interaction with the average person on the street. Like graffiti art, stencil art is, in most cases, illegal and subversive. Indeed, the author states, this is a part of its appeal and intrigue.

From the first pages of the preface until the final sentences of the book it is clear that Josh MacPhee lives, eats and breaths stencil art. He leads us on an insightful, visual journey from New York to places as diverse as Chile, Australia, San Francisco, Ohio and Texas. During this journey, we discover that contemporary art form is exploding around the world. The cultureís DIY ethos permeates the urban landscape on walls, streets, dilapidated buildings and telephone posts in almost every major city. MacPhee points out that this radically practical art form can be invented, crafted and manipulated by renowned artists like Anton van Dalen or the average Joe on the street.

The book provides more than a history of this art form. It also explores its effects on popular culture. Although stenciling has associations with politics, punk rock and hip-hop culture, it has moved beyond that to become an all-inclusive pan-cultural phenomenon.

By filling Stencil Pirates with scores of pictures, MacPhee illustrates his main thesis; that stencil art is a burgeoning, raw and energetic medium that will not go away. There are even stencils inside the book itself, allowing the reader to participate in the process.

Stencil Pirates is the ideal book for anyone with an interest in graffiti art, urban art or is just curious about stenciling in general. To this end, MacPhee has capably boiled down the aesthetics, politics and processes of stencil art into something concise and entertaining.


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