Why the anonymous street artist continues to fascinate
For nearly three decades, the anonymous artist known as stikman has placed images of a schematic humanoid figure (also known as “stikman”) in city streets around the United States, Canada, and Europe. The figure appears over and over again in varying forms, in many hundreds—perhaps thousands—of pieces of unauthorized street art each year. Given the pervasive repetition of the same basic image, one might assume the work would become tiresome. The endless variations of both form and medium, however, make the figure come alive. Like a complex musical composition, it is the variations around the basic theme that capture interest.
The stikman figure isn’t the artist’s only work. In the past, he or she has added peace signs to appearances of the stikman figure. The artist also has an affinity for creating cairns and assemblages of found objects. These vary from elaborate constructions made from refuse to simple orderly arrangements of stones or bricks. These works, however, are relatively rare in comparison to the myriad stikman figures that appear each year.
The figures feature a wide array of media and techniques. Befitting the character’s name, some are constructed of wooden sticks. Others are images on paper, attached to surfaces with glue or wheatpaste, or on self-adhesive stickers. In other instances the figure is painted or stamped on existing ephemera such as sheet music, pages from technical manuals, or record album cover art. A recent series of figures are small, quarter-sized semi-spherical glass “bubbles” containing images of the artist’s namesake character. The most durable works are linoleum-like figures embedded in the asphalt of roadways, similar to—and, perhaps, inspired by—the mysterious Toynbee tiles.
The shape of the stikman figure is continuously varied. The head may be flat or blocky, slightly pointed or heightened to a sharp stiletto. A “split head” variant has the head flopped over like dog ears. Like humans, these mysterious stikmen embody broad variations.
The entire figure may be further distorted into a swirl or other shape. It may be heavily pixelated into a soft blur, interwoven into an abstract pattern, or melded into a kaleidoscopic mandala. In some cases, the stikman figure appears as an element of a larger image: a classical painting, a pop culture figure, or an old comic book. Following his series of stand-alone glass bubbles, a “bubblehead” series featured circles of stikman figures replacing the heads of figures from other other photos or artwork.
Hiding in Plain Sight
In contrast to many street artists whose works are made as large and visually loud as possible, appearances of stikman’s pieces are relatively subtle. They’re not quite hidden; the works (aside from those embedded in roadway asphalt) are typically placed at eye level in plain sight on utility poles, street signs, and the like. Yet it takes a sharp eye to spot many of the works. Some of the more delicate pieces, such as the small figures constructed of wood, are often found nestled inside the metal support poles of street signs, making them easy to overlook.
The extensive variations of the figures can make some difficult to identify as the work of the artist, particularly in cases where the stikman figure is merged with an abstract design or is seen only as a minor component of a larger image. Unlike many artists, the street pieces are never signed. They are identifiable as works of the artist only by the iconic stikman figure. (This is true of pieces on the street. Works purchased at one of stikman’s relatively infrequent gallery shows are typically signed by the artist.)
In some instances, the location of the figures is relevant. In February 2008, during the lunar eclipse, the artist placed figures around Los Angeles that formed a map of a large stikman figure.
In 2013, in conjunction with the artist’s “…In the House…” exhibition with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, a series of blue stikman figures and peace signs marked a rectangular trail from the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts building to the Mural Arts Program building and back again.
In addition to playing out over space, the artist has also manipulated the figure over time. Between 2007 and 2016, the artist created a ten-year “tribal/primordial cycle,” in which the stikman figure evolved, with a new form appearing in each of the ten years of the cycle. Over this period, the figure stretched and expanded, its arms and legs appearing to transform into a four-legged insect-like creature before eventually separating the torso from the trunk, launching upward like a rocket.
As with all street art, time itself affects the works. Weather ages pieces made of paper. City workers “buff” the illicitly placed artwork by painting it over or scraping it off. Collectors attempt to acquire pieces by taking them from the street. While figures such as those embedded in asphalt are more durable these, too, alter over time as heat and the pressure of traffic deform the road surface. While these alterations can be seen as damaging the work, they can alternately be viewed as part of the natural life cycle of artwork placed on the street. [See “The Living World of Art on the Street.”] Just as an aged face shows the character of a life well lived, a piece of art ravaged by time or abuse evinces its own history on the street.
Image and Meaning
In contrast to many current street artists, from the famed Banksy to thousands of other sticker artists and graffiti writers, the work of stikman is not overtly political. His focus is more aesthetic than activist.
“I like my art to speak for itself,” the artist stated in a rare 2012 interview. “There is no hidden message or meaning in the traditional sense, but it is possible to analyze the work on many levels if one is so inclined.”
The occasional appearance of peace signs in conjunction with the stikman figure may give an indication of the artist’s ideological leaning. A more overt political perspective appeared in 2015, when the artist launched a series of “talking pictures”: the stikman figure, created in wood and painted black, was accompanied by a speech balloon that contained a photo of the struggles of Syrian refugees.
A show at New York’s Woodward Gallery that same year included “Alone on the Beach,” a mixed media work consisting of a a box of sand containing a sneaker the artist found when installing works in the talking picture series.
More recently, in 2019, one of the bubblehead series showed a modified image of Bob Dylan from the famed “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video holding a card that reads, “Wear your bubble to prevent facial recognition.”
In another recent installation, a STOP sign showed the stikman figure half submerged in a blue, water-like film as a polar bear hangs onto the plateau atop the sign’s letter T just above the water line. The ecological message is clear. During the 2020 pandemic, the stikman figure urged people to stay at home and wash their hands.
A few stikman figures embedded in asphalt circa 2009-2012 uncharacteristically included a text message wrapped around the figure. It quoted the text of Bruce Nauman’s famous 1967 neon sign: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.”
This, perhaps, best expresses the significance of stikman’s works. The meaning of the pieces isn’t immediately apparent; it accretes through multiple viewings of many varied works over time. We watch them age, worn by the weather or painted over by city workers. Eventually they’re gone, leaving space for new works to appear. In viewing these myriad pieces, we see the core similarity that underlies them all, while reveling in the endless variations that make each unique.