It started with a mysterious Christmas card. As the festive season arrived last year, a greeting card was delivered to Fiksate Gallery. The card’s imagery was familiar, featuring a slightly altered version of local street artist teethlikescrewdrivers’ yellow and black pencil icon, but signed with an unfamiliar moniker. The card, it turned out, was not from the expected source. The identity and the motives of the creator were unclear.
Soon, the amended icon, with the pencil lead drooping, began appearing in the streets of Ōtautahi, accompanied by the pseudonym of the imitating artist. It has been unclear if it is a homage or playful ridicule, and the true identity of the figure behind these works is still unknown, at least to those I have spoken to, including teethlikescrewdrivers (a recurring topic of discussion, it has encouraged some amateur sleuthing).
Partially, this story involves the accepted rules of urban art – a key commandment being to not ‘bite’ or copy another’s style or established icon. This is, to some degree, counter intuitive to the open-source approach often exercised by artists – from early graffiti writers depicting beloved cartoon characters, to American artist Shepard Fairey’s famous (and often remixed) HOPE image, which faced legal action for using an Associated Press image of Barack Obama without permission.
The recycling and adoption of recognisable imagery has long been at the heart of urban art culture and most artists are aware of this referential reality, after all, urban art’s subversive roots have largely cared little for copyright concerns (although this is changing as the culture has moved over-ground, profiles raised and money made). In addition, teethlikescrewdrivers is also a fan of collaborative and ‘mash-up’ works, sharing productions with fellow artists to create hybrid pieces. This approach reflects the sense of community valued by many urban artists. However, the mysterious droopy pencil was not a collaborative work, nor were reactions driven by profit protection. Initially it was baffling, but largely humorous.
The ubiquitous pencil developed by teethlikescrewdrivers (created with an almost obsessive process; line width, colour and geometry all carefully understood)serves as a ‘street logo’ (to borrow from Tristan Manco). Inspired by the work of UK collective The Toasters, the form was based on the urban art tradition of repeating an essentially meaningless symbol. Shepard Fairey has considered this act through the lens of phenomenology; meaning attributed by ubiquity and context, a goal he explicitly illustrated and achieved with his famed Andre the Giant has a Posse campaign. By populating the city with a recurring and unexpected image, the artist not only highlights the cacophony of visual information swarming in our urban environments, but also encourages the viewer to activate the art through their own readings and associations. The context of the city adds new layers of meaning to such works without the need for any explicit or declarative statement.
When, around the time of the local body elections, the amended ‘imposter’ pencils began to be accompanied by the word ‘VOTE’ in a Comic Sans font (and cut out with a serrated edge, all in contrast to the fastidious production methods of the originals), the homage began to diverge from teethlikescrewdrivers’ initial intentions.
While teethlikescrewdrivers endorsed the sentiment, pairing the exhortation with the pencil image was in opposition to his pencils’ motives. As guerrilla additions to the urban landscape teethlikescrewdrivers’ pencils are political in their apolitical existence, such an explicit message diluting the purity of the act and the power of the image. While this situation raises some pointed questions about authorship, and importantly, the nature and performances of urban art, it may also be said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it highlights the effective power teethlikescrewdrivers’ pencils have harnessed.
- One of teethlikescrewdrivers' original pencil icons
- Anonymous, a pair of teethlikescrewdrivers’ pencil paste-ups