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Any way you slice it, there’s always been a thin line between street art and vandalism. Graffiti, for instance, has gained wide-spread acceptance as an artform, but still faces antagonism and prosecution in the public realm.
Just the other day, authorities in Chicago accidentally destroyed a perfectly legal piece of graffiti by artist JC Rivera. The piece had actually been commissioned as a mural in a Brown Line train station and paid for by tax payers.
But ‘ey, who the hell knows the difference?!
In that light, other forms of making your mark in the urban realm draw far less attention. For instance the low-key practice of posting home-made stickers with lettering and recognizable characters on public infrastructure.
Much like graffiti, it’s a culture replete with its own history and heroes, except that it happens on two-by-three inch pieces of adhesive papers instead of subway cars or building facades. But in a similar vein, sticker art is a culture where participants know and follow each other’s work, and every sticker posted on a mail box or lamppost is part of an overarching public discourse.
GETTING UP ALL OVER THE GLOBE
There are many prolific sticker artists in the streets today. But very few can boast the kind of global coverage achieved by German-born stickerati Nervous Nils. Ever since he started disseminating his bearded and turbaned line art character on the streets in the early aughts, his stickers have literally gone up all over the world.
Asked about his track record, Nils listed cities such as Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Vancouver, Toronto, New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Tehran, Dubai, Bangkok, Seoul, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa , Barcelona, Rome, Toulouse, Brussels, Uppsala, Samara, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Berlin.
“I’m probably missing some big ones, as well as many smaller cities!” said Nervous Nils, who counts skateboarding and graffiti as formative experiences out in those mean streets.
Ultimately, it was the sheer breadth of his global impact that caught our attention. First of all, we wondered how on Earth the slender, soft-spoken German in his late 30s affords all this travel? And is it all just for the sake of slapping fresh stickers on what most people consider (or ignore) as random pieces of urban architecture?
“I’m blessed to have a job that brings me all over the globe, so naturally, I’m using this opportunity to spread my art!” allowed Nervous Nils when we caught up with him during a quiet moment while he crafted some adhesive art pieces for his next sticker run.
Here’s your chance to learn about the ins and outs of global stickerism, the secrets to remaining undetected, and the tightest pens and materials trusted by pros in our ILLUMINATED PAPER interview.
It’s good to see you Nils. Please tell our readers what got you into the whole sticker art thing.
A friend of mine from Wiesbaden, Germany got me into graffiti. He was a big writer here in the ’90s who wrote ZEK. Big up to the legend! I was always interested in graffiti and tagging, I did some tagging with markers and cans here and there but somehow wasn‘t that into it.
Why? Was the whole train yard scene too trife?
I was never really happy with the graffiti monikers I came up with, so I rather admired the other artists’ work. I also prefer drawing comic characters over letters, so the sticker thing somehow came naturally. I started with my stickers when the whole ‘street art’ thing was booming in the early 2000s, so I guess I just hopped on!
You also hopped on a skateboard in the 1980s, right? Did that whole angle play into your art at all?
Back then we had a skateboard crew called SENIORS, for which I drew this really simplified character as a logo or mascot. I drew this guy on the grip tape of all crew members’ boards, and tagged him with markers all over town, also on stickers. I guess that was the first ‘official’ sticker I produced.
There was this graffiti guy who made really dope stickers. One day he gave me this big roll of industrial stickers. I think that was the official beginning for me.
I started with my stickers when the whole ‘street art’ thing was booming in the early 2000s, so I guess I just hopped on!
Most people probably look at stickers the way a complete outsider looks at skateboarding. In your experience, is stickerism a culture?
Well, I guess it is, seeing the masses of stickers worldwide and the diversity of how stickers are used as art. Artists trade stickers, use them for political and various other purposes.
Do you know where it started and who the heroes of sticker art are?
Hmmm… I have no idea where it started. I just noticed it flourishing in the early 2000s and I found it convenient to use stickers to put up my art. It’s fast and easy to put up a sticker!
As far as heroes are concerned, I really couldn‘t say… So many dope stickers all over the world!
What is the story behind the character you draw?
Well, there is actually no ‘story’ or one specific character. My characters just keep evolving by themselves. If I like one character I‘ll stick with it for a while until it naturally develops into the next character.
Or I just wing it and do a new one every sticker. There’s actually no specific story or pattern to my work. It’s all spontaneous.
How long did it take to get all the details right for your own ‘look’?
The details keep changing, evolving… But if you look closely you‘ll see that pimple-ish spotty detail on almost every nose I do. Somehow I stuck with that one.
So once you decide on a character, how many pieces do you make?
Each sticker I do is unique. I‘ve never gotten one printed in larger amounts, each one is hand drawn, first go.
And what is your timeframe for hammering out a sticker?
A sticker usually takes about 5-10 minutes I would say, depending on the details I put in it.
I found it convenient to use stickers to put up my art. It’s fast and easy to put up a sticker!
Wow, five minutes is quick. You really have it down to a science at this point. Let’s talk about the tools of your trade, what do you work with?
At the moment I use Egg Shell Stickers, those are incredible. I also use these Japanese ones I get at SEE YOU SOON in Tokyo. Great shop, go there and support!! I draw using Copic Multiliners and Sakura Pigma Micron pens ranging from 0.03mm up to 1 mm. I ink larger black spaces with 3mm pens or brush pens.
If I do a character with a color base I use POSCA paint markers for that. Nowadays I stamp my stickers with a Hanko stamp that I got for my birthday from my wife. It‘s my name ‘Nils’ (or ni-ru-su in Katakana ニルス), one of the best presents ever!! Thank you Michi!
Do you have a certain process to get into the zone for drawing?
Process-wise it’s just spontaneous… go for it! Also depends on where I am. If I’m in a certain country I’ll look up some random term in the local language or lettering and incorporate that into the design. I’m also always listening to fine tunes when illustrating, can’t do it without good music!
Judging by your Instagram, it looks like you work in coffee shops a lot when you travel…
I love a good cup of coffee in a well-designed environment. Wherever I am, I just check out where the best local coffee places with a nice atmosphere are and go there for some coffee and drawing.
if I’m in a certain country I’ll look up some random term in the local language or lettering and incorporate that into the design.
OUT IN THOSE MEAN STREETS
Sitting in a cafe is one thing, but what about getting out into the wild? What do you have to watch out for when you put these stickers up?
Well, I definitely check who’s watching because in certain countries it’s sketchier than in others. I love hitting random countries where there’s not much sticker art going on, like India and Iran. I recently put one up in a taxi in Addis Ababa. Don’t think that’s been done, ha!
I’m aware that graffiti culture has a territorial element of ‘crossing’ out another writer’s work or painting over it. Does that exist in sticker culture and do you factor that into your choice of locations?
I usually try to post up where there’s no other stickers yet. Or in a spot where there’s other art and stickers up that I like!
It might blow up but it won‘t go pop!
That sounds respectful. Did you ever get into some kind of trouble before, with the police for instance?
No, luckily never. Actually, the other day I got ‘busted’ for the first time. In Buenos Aires, this security guard saw it and stopped me. She just laid into me in Spanish. I apologized and tried to remove the sticker, but turns out that didn’t really work (laughs). She finally let me go, so I walked slowly to the next corner, then ran down the block as fast as I could. That could have been ugly…
I’m sure every street artist has stories like that. Generally, who are some of your idols in street art, fashion and so on? And why?
Barry McGee aka TWIST, first saw his art on Mad Circle boards back in the days and was instantly hooked for life. Major inspiration. Mike Giant, legend! Also a major inspiration. Tim Barnard, amazing walls and characters!! ESOW from Japan, very inspiring. ESSU, also from Japan, don‘t know much about him other than that I love his work I see in the streets!
Joan Cornellà, love his humor and style! Porous Walker, genius. Yusuke Hanai, love this guy’s surf-related drawing style. Steve Powers aka ESPO, as he coined himself: „belletrist de belles lettres“! Doze Green, simply unbelievably good! Andy Howell, like Barry McGee one of my first inspirations, also discovered him through skateboarding. So many great artists out there, but those are definitely my favorites. Fashion-wise it‘s all Engineered Garments for me!! Daiki Suzuki knows!!
What is your message to the creative people out there?
It might blow up but it won‘t go pop!
Indeed. Thanks for the interview, Nils.