Artist Billi Kid is bringing his passion for sticker culture to the Lyman Allyn Art Museum now through October 29 with Deer in the Headlights: Man vs. Nature, a series of sticker combo slaps on iconic deer-crossing street signs. Collaboration is the nature of Kid’s work, and the finished pieces feature stickers from hundreds of artists who responded to Kid’s call for submissions.
Kid has curated shows around the world and is a cofounder of the NBALAB. He began his street art career wheat pasting posters around New York City, then turned to stickers. Some of the prolific Kid’s best-known work involves a sticker decoupage process he developed as a way of incorporating and paying homage to his fellow sticker artists. The stickers become a canvas for Kid’s fine art, one of the most famous examples of which is a portrait of Barack Obama that Kid made for Time magazine.
We talked to Kid about stickers’ place in street art history, the power of branding, and how he tangles with the long tail of the internet.
Critical Read: How did you get into stickers?
Billi Kid: When I started going out and doing street art, I thought I could at least create an audience, and do social media. I call it social media now, but it was Flickr. A photo sharing site. And so through the street art and Flickr I stumbled into the stickers. And I said, “Well that’s an easy process. Instead of making one giant piece, I can make a hundred stickers.” So I started doing that, before stumbling into a community of sticker artists. It evolved from just sharing photographs to trading photographs, trading stickers, and I just fell in love with it, the community and what you see there.
Each and every sticker, to me, is a little treasure. It’s a little piece of each individual artist, which collectively becomes a community on a single canvas. But individually, I mean, it’s a self-expression. Everybody wants to be noticed. I think that’s why Facebook and social media in general is so popular: because everybody has a story. So in a sense, the creation of these stickers and the path I gave them share that same feeling of expression and longing to be noticed.
CR: How do sticker artists get noticed?
BK: I took great care to photograph individual stickers next to my stickers in New York and give them a sort of platform in an honorable way. I took great care to craft the photography, craft the composition of the stickers in New York City, what the background of New York City would be. At one point, I was known as the sticker combo king on Flickr. Even before Facebook and Instagram, we were all doing it on Flickr.
I [had] stumbled onto Flickr as an advertising creative. I had discovered early on this new platform where I could look at amateur photography and kind of take ideas and utilize them for my own art direction output. Then I started putting up my own photography on Flickr. And then, it sort of led into this community of graffiti artists and sticker artists. It all began with Flickr. And all of a sudden, it was the first time that I as an individual had access to an artist in Japan. I had access to another artist in London. And we were able to freely exchange ideas. And then, it led to freely exchanging art via snail mail. In the beginning, the idea was you send me a pack and I’ll send you a pack. That was the honor code. But then the artist was like, “Hey, I’m going to send you stickers, don’t put them in the closet. Make sure you slap on the streets and document them, make sure to share them on Flickr,” and so forth and so on.
“I love it when people share my photographs.”
From there, I started making and collecting stickers. I made sure to photograph each [artist’s sticker] with my sticker and then share it on Flickr, so that they knew that, hey, my stickers have been to New York City. And so that started making me more popular amongst the sticker culture around the world, because everybody wants to cultivate New York. It’s the Mecca of graffiti. And I became known for that, that I would follow through and honor their artwork.
CR: How did you come to what you call the sticker “combo slap”?
BK: At one point I was getting so many stickers that for me it would take tons of time to craft individual photographs honoring each individual artist who sends me a pack of stickers. So what I ended up doing is finding dumpsters or other sorts of throwaway items in New York City, and then putting up 100 stickers, sitting there literally for an hour, an hour and a half and slapping stickers onto a dumpster, and photographing that.
I would have maybe 30 or 40 stickers in a single photograph, 30 individual artists from 30 individual locations. [The sticker artists] took that photograph and put it on their Flickr, on their social media, and then their friends that didn’t know me, who are also sticker artists, thought all of a sudden that it was really cool, I’m gonna send Billi Kid some stickers.
And then for a while, I was just getting tons and tons of requests to send stickers and to trade stickers, and, “Hey, I want to be part of your combo slap.” That became the means for the exhibition that I’m doing now. But it was first individual stickers slapped separately from one another and combining them onto a canvas and then organically integrating stickers on top of one other and finally weaving them together as a social carpet, if you will, or a mosaic. This led to a piece that was published in Time magazine. I did a piece about Obama, and it had 200 or 300 stickers on it.
CR: What do you think is the appeal of stickers for street artists?
BK: You can really go out there on the streets and just be repetitive, just that single image over and over and over again. And then what made it even better is that with stickers, once you start getting more notoriety, people are like, “Oh, send me stickers.” Sending people stickers all over the world, those stickers are going to be even more visible. You’re French, and you saw it somewhere in France, and it’s here. You’re not thinking about it, right? But then you travel to New York, and it’s all like, “There it is again,” and then all of a sudden you’re in Spain, and it’s like, “Wait! There it is again.”
I think artists who started doing the stickers read about the success of Shepard Fairey and how he built his personal brand with guerilla marketing an Obey Giant sticker. What the hell does that mean? Is it Andre the Giant? And it was around for a long time. It wasn’t like, oh, six months later he’s famous. No, it took years.
I think a lot of sticker kids, and certainly I thought this, looked at that model and said, “Hey, wow.” This is before social media. That’s another way to build an audience. You think to yourself, who was doing it before Shepard Fairey? It was [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. He was a street artist before he was the $100 million painting man, and certainly Keith Haring was out there doing graffiti on the streets, and so–
CR: But you were making fine art before you went into street art?
CR: No. I was a designer, an art director. I mean I wanted to do fine art, but I just didn’t pursue it in college because I thought, “starving artist.” So I ended up, like a lot of creative people, in advertising. Graphic design, art direction is what I did for a living. I was still creative and, in a sense, that exercise of having a blank page in front of you on a daily basis and filling it is a creative exercise.
That certainly fuels what I do now, the years of creating and designing. But it also taught me a lot about the marketing and how to approach people and how to find projects that would benefit the brand, from their point of view. I was actually talking to my wife and daughter the other day about how one of the systems is to plant the seed and let your audience take ownership of the idea. So you say, “Hey. A blue face. Then you say, hey, a yellow face.” And then when your audience says, “Green face,” you tell them, “that’s a great idea.”[laughs]
CR: You describe an interesting process of being very controlled yet leaving a lot to chance, via the internet.
BK: This is how Billi Kid started. I’d read this book called The Long Tail. Musicians were the first ones to see the future of crowd-funding, of social media. There was this small music scene in Boston, and it was all about if you have a passion for your art, keep pursuing it. But, one needs to earn a living. What they ended up doing was using their social power, through the network of bars and clubs, to collect money to produce their own music. At the same time Pro Tools had come out, which is a tool to edit music on the Mac. And that changed everything, because before you had to pay $600 an hour at an analog recording studio. So the basic premise was, if you’re a musician you get either signed with a label or you’re flipping burgers. There’s no middle ground. All of a sudden there was a middle ground where, “Hey, I’m not going to be Led Zeppelin. I’m not going to be Michael Jackson. But if I have my own audience and my own income resource, I can make $100,000 a year. Or 50 or 60. And still be creative.” So they found the middle ground. And in a sense they invented crowd-sourcing. They invented the whole social media thing, for themselves, through the then-young internet.
What this taught me was that musicians took control of their own art. So I thought to myself, “Is there a path forward for an artist, a visual artist, not an audio artist, to move forward without the gallery system?” I thought to myself, “How do I use the internet? How do I use all these different tools?” This is before Facebook, before Napster, even before — what was the early Facebook? MySpace. Before that. But Flickr was around. And so you know that part of the story. But the book was the inspiration to say, “Well maybe I’m not going to build a portfolio and go the galleries and beg to get a show.” Maybe I can leapfrog that system the way the musicians in Boston leapfrogged the record-label system.
CR: What do you want for Billi Kid long-term?
BK: Well, ultimately I just want to have an audience for my art, to do art full-time. So right now I’m juggling all these different things in order to have income to maintain a life for my family. It’s a challenge, I mean it’s hard. But yeah, the ultimate goal is to be doing the art full-time without any concern about having to pay the bills. So meaning, I want the art to be able to generate my income.
CR:In your experience, do visual artists set goals, like I want to be in this museum, that gallery?
BK: I don’t think so. Everything’s so different and so organic now. I think part of it is being at the right place at the right time. The timing, the type of work that you do, can you stand out? There’s a lot of noise out there. There are so many factors, luck being a huge part of it. So if you’re not at the right place at the right time, you could be the greatest artist on earth and never get discovered.
That’s the key word, ‘discovered.’ A lot of the artists I’ve worked with and curated have done so much on their own, all in different ways. There’s no formula. There’s never a formula. There’s never any rules. But a lot of the artists that I started with 10 years ago are now selling their work more successfully, and it’s amazing how they created their path. Now, at least, they’re making a living with their art.
CR: Do you ever worry about having your work out on the internet and having your ideas stolen?
BK: No, because I’m ADD, and I want to just keep moving forward. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery they say, right?
CR: For some artists there’s a concern about attribution and monetization. If you make the images out there and everyone’s sharing it and you’re not really getting any monetary benefit from that–
BK: Sure. I mean, that happens. Photographers especially, they copyright, they put the little C on [the image] and they’re afraid that an agency’s going to come in and appropriate the image or something. It’s such a gray line, especially if you do a parody of the photo or you re-shoot it.
But I think for me it is the opposite. I love it when people share my photographs. They steal my photographs from Flickr and then share them for whatever reason. Perhaps because there was a little sticker in the corner that popped out and, “Hey, that’s me,” so I’m going to steal this photograph and share it. I’m not like, “Hey, that’s my photograph!” because to me it means more eyeballs.
I think another lesson from the internet is that eyeballs are probably equal to, if not more solid, than money. I mean, look at the Kardashians and Trump. It’s all about branding. A lot of new tech companies, their worth is based on not how much profit they generate — most are not even profitable yet — but on the scale of their audience. This is what generates solid projections from stock analysts. Twitter’s struggling right now. They’re not making money yet, but—
CR: Yeah. But they’re very relevant [laughs].
BK: They’re very relevant.