To tell the story of wall stickers we must go back to the 20th century. It was then that stickers began to be used in truly industrial quantities, the advent of the automotive and aircraft industries saw the extensive use of decals to decorate vehicles or make them identifiable. Almost every government vehicle anywhere in the world is identified by a decal or transfer, just think of police, fire department, health service and military transport to get an idea of the extent of their use.
The leap from vehicle decals to decorative wall stickers happened for two reasons: in the first place, as we shall see, street artists began to use stickers as stencils, thus it became only a matter of time before designers took up this art form for use in interiors, in the second place advances in technology meant that vinyl would become an ideal material for the production of wall stickers due to its easy applicability and eventual removal when necessary.
Decals or transfers or stickers (they come in many guises) were probably first used in the middle of the 18th century in the Wedgwood factory in England to decorate pottery by means of ceramic transfers.
The use of transfers became widespread in the 19th century especially by coachbuilders as a cheaper alternative to hand painting crests and emblems on carriages. As the technology for the production of transfers became more advanced, their use became much more diffused and they could be found on all types of products from sewing machine covers to cigar boxes, in many cases replacing the much more expensive and delicate gold leaf.
In the 1970’s a group of young New York artists decided to make the streets their gallery. Their aim was to provide an alternative to the increasingly up market art found in SoHo, Manhattan. Art had to become accessible and affordable. By the early 1980’s the mainstream art world began to embrace this evolution.
In 1980, a New York group of artists operating under the title Avant began to challenge the consumerism of advertising hoardings on the streets of the city. Until then, street art had been done on the street. Avant began to produce acrylic on paper art and bombarded walls, bus shelters, storefronts and windows. They went beyond graffiti, their art was produced in studios and plastered all over the city. They produced thousands of works, adopting the mass distribution tactics of commercial ad agencies. They were an artistic guerrilla movement reclaiming the streets aesthetically.
Sticker art became a sub-form of graffiti, it did not damage surfaces, there was less risk of apprehension and it could be applied anywhere. More often than not the sticker artist would make a political statement, comment on a policy issue or compromise an advertising campaign. The early sticker artists would use paper labels with hand drawn designs, as mass computer use began to take hold, the artist could reproduce thousands of stickers rapidly. Around this time many artists started to use vinyl rather than paper for their stickers. Vinyl was waterproof, fade resistant and permanent.
Artists such as Cristina Vanko used a destructible vinyl to make political statements. For her “I am coal” campaign, she applied her stickers to objects that were coal powered in order to highlight global warming and climate change. Destructible adhesive vinyl, not to be confused with modern vinyl used in interior design, was almost impossible to remove from the surface it was applied to, if roughly tampered with, it fragmented into tiny pieces and removal became extremely tedious.
The use of this medium to make political or social commentary became known as "smart vandalism". Since then the sticker has moved on to become a global movement, artists swap files via the internet and have their stickers displayed in places that they have never visited through a cross cultural exchange.
Technological advances in the production of vinyl made it possible for street artists to experiment with that material as stencils. The Godfather of this form of graffiti is Blek le Rat, a Paris based artist whose enigmatic work, at first intrigued Parisians, and then eventually became accepted by them as a legitimate art form. Using vinyl as a template allowed the artist to work much more quickly and with less risk of being caught, previously stencils had been mounted on walls using masking tape, now the artist could arrive on the scene of the crime, slap the pre-cut vinyl sticker onto the wall, spray the image through the stencil and disappear into the night.
Wall stickers as stencils caught on and soon spread across the channel where the controversial English artist Banksy started to demonstrate his art with thought provoking social comment. Although many “traditional” graffiti artists are critical of the stencil technique, none can deny that it has had a huge impact on street art and has even become preserved by town councils who cover the artwork behind thick Perspex to protect it from vandals and other graffiti artists! Not bad for an art form that was considered as vandalism only a few years ago.
The internet has led to an explosion of wall sticker art, it has become a mass art form. Stickers can be downloaded from an artist in New York in the morning and by the afternoon be found decorating the Champs-Elysées.
It would only be a matter of time before wall stickers moved from the streets into the interiors of fashionable homes. Human beings have been decorating their walls since pre-historic times. Cave paintings have been found in Patagonia that go back eight thousand years! The Ancient Romans and Greeks lavishly decorated their homes with murals.
In modern times wall paper has been extensively used in interior design.
Sticking a design onto a wall is not exactly a new phenomenon, since the middle of the 19th century wallpaper has been mass produced and easily affordable. William Morris, a nineteenth century English artist, probably did more than anyone else to popularise this form of interior design. His complex floral patterned wallpapers were much sought after by aspiring middle-class Victorians. In the 20th century, wallpaper went in and out of fashion.
After the Second World War its popularity waned until the early 1960’s when the combination of an economic boom and the introduction of washable vinyl based wallpaper led to an explosion in sales. However by the late-seventies, wallpaper had started to go out of fashion again. Despite manufacturers’ claims that it was easy to remove, it proved to be the opposite. Pastel coloured painted walls were seen as an easier and more pleasing alternative.
From humble origins, vinyl has become the second most produced plastic in the world.
In its early days, developers were trying to find an alternative to rubber to make golf balls.
Instead they discovered a material that has completely transformed modern life.
It is used to make pipes to for the construction industry, cable coverings for electricity.
It is used in the fashion, automotive, music, shipping, aeronautic, packaging and healthcare industries. Every human being on the planet has benefitted from vinyl.
It is also 100% safe and non-toxic. Huge advances in vinyl technology in the 1990’s boosted the decorative use of the material. Easy removability has made vinyl one of the design success stories of modern times.
Everything from laptops to mobile phones have been decorated with vinyl stickers. An example of this is the Snow White "Nerdy" decal that went viral among young people who wanted to decorate their Macs or iphones with her holding that company’s famous apple logo in her hand.
The last five years has seen a boom in wall decals, wall stickers, wall tattoos or whatever you want to call them. Interior designers have been using them as simple borders, murals, images, in other words practically anything that can be printed can be turned into a wall sticker. They come in a huge range of colours and are really easy to apply. They last long, are easily removable and you don’t need a degree in interior design to transform an ordinary room into an art lover’s dream!