Miriam Sutton likes to wander around her neighborhood in Northeast Washington with secrets in her pocket: palm-size handmade stickers, decorated to look like Japanese paper cranes. She started making them for a friend who'd fallen ill — in line with the belief that if you make 1,000 paper cranes, you get a wish. Her friend died before she got to 1,000, but she keeps making them in their memory. When she thinks no one is looking, she'll stick one onto a newspaper box or the back of a stop sign.
If you start looking for handmade stickers like Sutton’s around the city, you’ll notice them everywhere, from lampposts to trash bins. Stickering is an increasingly popular art form for D.C. artists, particularly women. The godfather of Washington’s sticker scene, an artist who goes by the alias iwillnot, estimates that just under 50 percent of the city’s sticker artists are women.
“Women gravitate towards this type of graffiti because it’s faster and safer for us than traditional graffiti,” says Sutton, 24. “When I put up a slap tag [another term for stickering], I want to put it up and then get away from there.”
The D.C. sticker scene grew out of 1980s graffiti culture, when artists like Cool “Disco” Dan were tagging surfaces from Metro cars to building walls. Sticker culture also owes a debt to artists like John Tsombikos, who signed his 2000s-era anti-corporate street art “Borf,” as well as the D.C. punk scene and the pop art aesthetic. Unsurprisingly, Washington’s stickers are often more overtly political than those of other cities.
Iwillnot, who spoke on the condition that I not use his real name, has been interested in stickers for about a decade. Stickering, like spray-painting graffiti, is against the law, punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 180 days in jail. (D.C. police say officers arrested 31 people for graffiti in 2017 and six in 2018. They arrested zero for “posters,” which includes stickering, in 2017 and five in 2018.) His trademark sticker — each artist has one — is a black-and-white line drawing of his left hand with “I WILL NOT” written below it. He often sticks it near businesses and buildings that, as he sees it, are contributing to gentrification, like cupcake shops and luxury apartment complexes. “It shows my unwillingness to participate,” he says.
Like many artists in Washington, iwillnot leads two lives: A clean-cut engineer, husband and father of two, he makes and trades stickers in his spare time. He’s amassed about 500,000 stickers by artists from across the country and around the globe that he keeps organized in plastic bins in his house. “Once you get the bug, it’s like a compulsion,” he says. “You stick one up, and then next thing you know someone sees it and puts it on their Instagram. You get a little cult following.”
Iwillnot wants sticker art to remain subversive, but he also wants more people to pay attention to it. Since 2013 he’s organized an annual “sticker show” at the Fridge Gallery on Capitol Hill, in which he and a team of volunteers cover the walls of the gallery with stickers: some hand-crafted, some mass-printed. (Many artists take advantage of the free shipping labels offered by the U.S. Postal Service. Others pay to get theirs printed.) He estimates that last year about 90 out of 600 total entrants were from the D.C. region, compared with fewer than 10 local entrants five years ago.
Sutton makes her art out of free promotional stickers; she grabs handfuls anywhere she sees businesses distributing them. Then, she pastes the stickers together into one large sheet, cuts them out into the shape of Japanese paper cranes, and adds a little detailing.
Artist Wendy Sittner, 41, originally from Ashland, Va., makes a line of bright orange stickers that read “WARNING: HAZARDOUS WASTE DUMP TRUMP.” They are printed on vinyl with industrial-grade adhesive by a company approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create warning stickers, which she modeled hers after.
She says the investment for the stickers was worth it: They last longer on the streets. She’s spotted them on trash cans and dumpsters all around the city. “When people identify with the message, they want to help you get it out there,” she says. Trading stickers by mail with other artists is a core part of the community. (Some artists put Instagram handles on their stickers. None of the artists I talked to would tell me exactly how they find one another, though.)
When we met for coffee recently, iwillnot let me open a package he’d received from Mexico City. A handful of stickers fluttered out of the hand-painted envelope and my heart jolted: I was transported right back to my preteen years, when I collected sheets of rainbow Lisa Frank stickers in a three-ring binder. “Isn’t it fun?” he asked. “And who doesn’t like getting something in the mail?” Iwillnot receives dozens of handcrafted packages a month. He is on a first-name basis with his postal workers — and their spouses and children.
There are a few hard-and-fast rules to sticker trading: If you plan to ask for stickers from an artist you admire, you have to send him or her your stickers first. You should also send a selection of stickers by other artists you know. And finally, you have to slap at least a few of the stickers you receive. It’s polite to text a photo as proof.
Sutton (she of the crane stickers) was excited to find an art form that worked with her aesthetic and artistic mission, as well as a community that felt welcoming to women. She remembers when, as a student at American University, she started exploring the District’s graffiti scene: “I realized most of the tags I’d see were by men. So I thought, if I wanted more women in graffiti, I should start doing it myself.”
These days it’s common for her to see stickers by artists she knows all around the city. And every time she does, she smiles. As she puts it: “It’s like seeing friends.”
Mikaela Lefrak is the arts and culture reporter at WAMU-FM (88.5).