On the Trail of the Mysterious Stikman

By Stephen Lowman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

Was it at 17th and Pennsylvania, by the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, that I first met stikman? Or was it crossing the street by the Justice Department at Ninth and Constitution? Maybe it was near the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art?

I don't remember, but I developed a thing for him.

Created by an unknown guerrilla street artist from corrugated plastic, vinyl records, burlap sacks or scraps of wood, metal or cloth, the robot figure, dubbed stikman, can be seen all over town. From the District to Boston and as far away as Hollywood, it has been spotted on building walls, newspaper boxes and traffic signs. But stikman is seen most often in crosswalks, as a sticker pasted to the pavement.

At first, I found something zombielike about stikman. Maybe it was the vacant stare and stiff pose. When I introduced him to a friend, she was dismissive, declaring him "creepy." Yet by the time I was pointing him out to other people, my affection had grown. He was a wallflower at a party of tourists and nine-to-fivers. He was shy, awkward and often frozen alone in traffic.

I Googled him, half expecting to find out that stikman was part of a viral marketing campaign to get me to the theater on Halloween to see a robot slasher flick. Instead, I found other admirers sharing their fondness for this mysterious figure whose creator was anonymous.

Hoping to find out more, I contacted the Wooster Collective ( http://www.woostercollective.com). The group has a blog dedicated to street art on which stikman's creator has written about his work under the moniker stikman. (He thinks the word looks better missing the "c" and without capitalization.) The Web site's authors knew nothing about him except for an e-mail address. They said they would pass along my information. For several days I heard nothing.

Then, one afternoon, I received a call from a man who said he was stikman's creator. He immediately apologized for not contacting me sooner. His dog had died recently, and he was shaken up. He asked that I call him Bob, saying he refuses to give his real name because he feels that art too often becomes more about the artist than the work.

Bob says he last visited Washington the first week of July to see the "Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry From the Helen Williams Drutt Collection" exhibition at the Renwick Gallery. While in town, he says, he left dozens of stikmen. He considers himself an artistic Johnny Appleseed, spreading stikmen instead of seeds.

Bob estimates he has bequeathed 150 of these figures in various colors, shapes and sizes to the District over the past couple of years, though many have deteriorated or been destroyed.

Is Bob really stikman's creator? I hope so. He was soft-spoken and thoughtful, unassuming in his desire for anonymity and concerned enough about safety that he places his stikman images near corners so pedestrians can look at them from the curb. The goal is not to provoke, Bob says, but simply to cause those gazing down to pause and wonder.

By that measure, I judge his work a success .

© 2008 The Washington Post Company