The history of street-art stickering is a history of big names and big moments. In the late 1980s, Shepard Fairey established his career with Andre the Giant stickers that he plastered around Providence, R.I. In the 1990s, Barry McGee used San Francisco's Mission District as a base for his letter and face adhesives. And in the 2000s, stickering became a bona fide global art form, with sticker artists covering highly visible spaces in Paris, Tokyo, and other urban centers. In the Bay Area, the year 2014 has seen a new wrinkle to the art form: The widespread stickering of the Bay Bridge toll plaza.
The plaza's railings, walls, and lane dividers are covered with adhesives, placed there by drivers who lean out their windows while stuck in traffic. The drivers risk fines and even arrest, but what they get in return is priceless: sticker placement that, every day, reaches hundreds of thousands of people going from the East Bay to San Francisco. The stickers are definitely artistic, says Sellassie, the native San Francisco rap artist who has affixed his “Stop Hatin' in the Bay” adhesives on almost every lane at the plaza. Like good pop art, the stickers are designed to resonate quickly with viewers.
“They're art,” he says. “I've made the stickers simple, so you can read them in two seconds and know what they are.”
Sellassie's stickers are especially daring because they're placed on the toll-takers' outside doors where cars stop to pay tolls, unlike the other drivers' stickers, which are put on the railings that lead up to or away from the toll plaza. The reason Sellassie has such prime position: He asks permission from the toll-takers, quickly explaining to them that his message espouses progressive, peaceful music. Most of the time, Sellassie says, the toll-takers give him approval.
“Right before I pull up, I'll have my sticker ready. And I'll pay the toll person. And I'll ask very politely,” Sellassie says. “I'll say, 'I'm Sellassie. I represent San Francisco hip-hop. May I please place my sticker here.' And most of them will say, 'Yeah, go right ahead.' A very small percentage will say 'no.' Everything I do in my life is with 'please' and 'thank you' and 'may I have.' I ask for what I want, and I'm not afraid to be told 'no.' I don't want to get Caltrans employees in trouble. I never do it where they don't see it. It's not a question of malice. I ask.”
The stickers at the Bay Bridge toll plaza reflect the full range of urban stickers, including U.S. Postal Service mailing labels that have been repurposed with wild lettering. While Sellassie's stickers have been up for months — he started placing them at the plaza about a year ago — all the stickering is eventually removed, says Sean Wilkenfeld, an Oakland officer with the California Highway Patrol. Stickering the Bay Bridge toll plaza is illegal, and those caught can face penalties up to $10,000 and prosecution. Wilkenfeld says it's up to the Alameda County District Attorney's office to decide each case.
“It's vandalism,” Wilkenfeld says. “Any time people deface state property, it uses tax dollars to remedy the situation. If somebody graffities a sound wall on a freeway, your tax dollars are going to pay to get that removed. If someone puts a bunch of stickers on something, eventually we're going to pay someone to go out there are remove the stickers. Because it's a toll plaza with active lanes of traffic, it increases the cost to do that. So if we remove a sticker with offensive words, we're going to have to close down that toll-plaza lane, we're going to have to have a truck show up to protect the workers removing it, and then we have to have worker remove it. So it costs a lot of money to remove these things.”
Stickers cost just a few cents to produce, but their value can quickly escalate. Shepard Fairey's Andre the Giant and Barack Obama stickers now sell for upwards of $500 on eBay. “In my opinion,” Fairey has said, “stickers are the most effective promotional tool possible for the price.”
Sellassie agrees. “Stop Hatin' in the Bay” is a positive message, he says, and it gives people in rushhour commutes something interesting to consider. Scores of people have contacted Sellassie to tell him they've seen his toll plaza stickers. Poster versions of his stickers have sold for high amounts to people who see them in storefronts and cafes and like their lettering, layout, and message.
Caltrans, whose workers are responsible for maintaining and operating the toll plaza, considers the stickers “defacement” and “graffiti” — though a spokesperson says he can see why some people might classify them as “art.”
“We take a lot of pride in state structures,” says Caltrans spokesperson Myeast McCauley. “There are cultural trends, and we may see graffiti, we may see outlines like when Banksy was popular. And apparently, stickering is a popular thing that folks are doing right now.”
But stickering has always been popular. And Sellassie, who's 37, says art — like anything else — rewards those with the temerity to be bold. “In San Francisco, street art and street posters were a big thing when I was growing up,” he says. “All the artists had stickers. They put them everywhere. And I'm keeping that tradition alive. Artists can be lazy. I put my posters and stickers up everywhere. There are 100,000 artists in the Bay Area, and many of them don't take advantage of things like that. You see my stickers on the Bay Bridge because I'm ambitious enough to put them there.”