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The STIK Experience

Hi there! I’m Marcus and I know very little about street art. I live in New York City so I certainly see my fair share of images chalked, drawn, painted or etched along walls, sidewalks, light poles or moving vehicles. Pretty much any surface that can be reached by the hands of industrious men and women can become a street-art canvas. But, like most New Yorkers, I walk by this art every day without even noticing it. As the old saying goes “I’ve got things to see and people to do.” I can’t stop to contemplate the essence of every mural, gang tag and crudely drawn penis thrown up on city walls.

When Malia, the creator of ColorMyBubble and angelic unicorn-mermaid in human form, suggested I check out a street art exhibition and write about it for the website I was hesitant. I don’t know much about the art world. Truthfully, I’m often flummoxed by the art world. I’m the kind of guy who thinks a Jackson Pollock painting looks like the work of a sugared up 6 year old trying to express his feelings at art therapy when his parents are getting a divorce. But Pollock paintings sell for millions of dollars apiece so, apparently, they’re high art. And remember that woman who paints by vomiting on canvases? What the fuck, Art?

Don’t get me wrong. I do have love and appreciation for art. I grew up in Washington D.C. so I spent many a school field trip at the Smithsonian walking through the American Art Museum. I’ve spent some time pondering Van Gogh’s blue period at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I’ve always loved to draw and create my own weird cartoon characters. But who am I to try and critique someone else’s work, their passion?

Despite my being a low-brow philistine, Malia persisted. She said that my point of view is exactly what she wanted to hear. I don’t hang out in art galleries. I can barely tell you the difference between Modern and Post-Modern art. And I have no idea which artists or trends are “hot” right now. I’m just an average person who can appreciate beauty when I see it. She also said there would be free booze.

So I went to Fat Free Art, a small gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to see an exhibition by a street artist name STIK. I spent about two hours there. As I was walking to my car afterwards my general thought was “That was stupid. I hated almost every part of that experience. But I’ll definitely do it again.”

Let me explain why I’m excited to go to another art exhibition after having an incredibly shitty time at my first. The main reason I didn’t enjoy myself for the two hours that I was at Fat Free Art was that I wasn’t looking at art for those two hours. Although it was a very cool LES space, on a balmy July afternoon it was flat out hot. To top it all off STIK wasn’t displaying much of his work. There were only ten pieces on display. And five of them were the same print in identical frames.

My first thought upon seeing the framed prints on the wall was “Fuck this guy.” He just slapped some posters up on the wall and I’m supposed to be impressed? Show me some range, some diversity. Give me an idea of your oeuvre.*

*Side note: this is the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to use the word “oeuvre” in correct context and I’m very excited about that.

On the opposite wall, though, were four paintings of stick figures on different colored backgrounds.

These I liked. The bright colors contrasted with the black and white figures to make a dynamic visual. And, for whatever reason, I’ve always loved color gradients. Something about a smooth transition through colors is just very pleasing to my eye.

Looking at these paintings, it dawned on me why this artist is called STIK. And a whole new wave of “Fuck this guy” washed over me. Stick figures are what he does. Stick figures are what I came to see. Stick figures are the reason I’d been standing in line for half an hour waiting to get into the gallery then another half an hour to get a plastic cup of wine.

Stick Figures.--Fuck this guy.

I’ve been drawing stick figures since I could hold a pencil without stabbing myself in the eye. Why are this guy’s doodles considered art when mine got me chastised for not paying attention in class?

The blurb written on the back cover of his book describes his technique by saying he uses “just six lines and two dots” to create his work. I’ve done more intricate scribblings in the margins of math textbooks. Yet there were people literally jumping up and down with excitement to have him autograph their books.

Around this time, just as I was about to chug my cup of wine and get the hell out of there, my friend Kareem just happened to be walking by the gallery, saw that it was open and decided to mosey on in for a look. Kareem Montes knows a lot about art and artistry. He’s an artist, a photographer and a graphic designer. He probably writes poetry and choreographs modern dance in his spare time too. As a matter of fact, he was on his way to a different art gallery when he decided to stop by this one on a whim. The dude just walks around doing art shit.

When Kareem joined me in line I got what this art gallery adventure was sorely missing: a companion. Standing there by myself was boring and frustrating. Having Kareem there gave me a chance to bounce my thoughts off someone else, someone much more knowledgeable than I, and come to some different conclusions.

Kareem agreed with me that STIK’s style was maddeningly simple. But, upon further discussion, we decided that isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it certainly doesn’t make his work any less worthy to be appreciated. We discussed how art doesn’t have to be complicated or intricate to be moving and powerful. This became even more apparent when I picked up a copy of his book and started looking at some of his work in its proper context.

Looking at images of his murals as parts of city scenes around the world I realized why he didn’t have much work to display in the gallery. He’s a street artist. His work is in the streets. And out there in the streets those stick figures have meaningful and heartfelt messages.

STIK’s book shows something that I wouldn’t have been able to see in the gallery no matter how many pieces were displayed. The stick figures that he paints aren’t just representations of people. They are representations of specific groups of people with specific emotions telling stories specific to where they are.

You can see that STIK gets to know the social and economic climate of the places where he paints. He portrays such images as a woman and child on a condemned building looking forlornly at construction of nearby luxury apartments in London, or a revolutionary giving a power salute in an area that has often been a hotbed for social activism in New York City. With images such as these or a person watching themselves being taken apart as their town falls to decay, he is telling the story of the people who will most often see his murals day to day.

The simplicity of his technique then makes the images that much more engaging. The characters are faceless avatars that show the feeling of the local people in general instead of one single, clearly defined person. STIK is not a portrait artist. He is telling the stories of communities. Those stories become more impactful when told through a clear, minimalist image.

STIK is quite skilled at using his six lines and two dots to convey a multitude of emotions on those avatars. Small details allow the simple figures to convey big emotions. The bend of the lines forming the arms can have the character reaching out with desire or maybe inspecting something with curiosity. The way he places the two dots can change the position of the head, which changes the mood of the character. A slight change in the orientation of one or both of the eyes can have the character’s head cocked to the side looking at something with wonder or longing or they might be looking up at something with awe or maybe sadness.

What is clear is that STIK is a man of the community. He is often commissioned to do murals for community groups and non-profit organizations. He travels the world and tries to give voice through his work to the people he meets and the struggles he witnesses. In my mind, that is what street art is supposed to be.

It’s a good thing Kareem showed up when he did. Otherwise I would have left the gallery annoyed and unfulfilled. But since he was there I took the time to seriously contemplate STIK’s work, to think about it on a deeper level and examine his motivations and the works impact. I have truly been moved by STIK’s art. I believe that there is no higher praise that I can give than that.

Thanks, Kareem. We’ll have to set up a Man-Date for the next art exhibit.

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