Sticker Culture in Colorado

August 29, 2023  |  Colorado

Peeling back the layers of sticker culture

I’m in a state of sticker shock.

Warning: The images you are about to see could contain sensitive or insulting material. I’m not certain. I don’t have the nerve to open up the Urban Dictionary and search. But if your eyebrows shoot upwards, it’s not my fault. You looked.

Collage of stickers

Stickers: they're everywhere! There isn't a surface they're afraid of...or a snarly cat. It is definitely a different world, and that only encouraged me to photograph a number of sticker spots and smoosh them into one weird abstract. It could take hours to sift through this. So keep reading, please!

"The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep." —Paul Strand

Oh, I’ve seen stickers on signs at home and elsewhere. But I am in a state that seems to have more stickers stuck than others: Colorado.

Sticker vandalism is at a point where municipalities and other government entities are attempting to convince people to stop bombing signs.

Stickers on stop sign

For officials, stickers are a nightmare. A nightmare nightmare that doesn't stop.

Stickers on traffic sign

Came to ski, put up a sticker. At least its the back side, though its still considered vandalism. But we can read the front of the sign, for now.

Stickers on railroad sign

These stickers took a detour from the typical traffic poles. In fact, one sticker took a leap right up to the crossbuck. That's railroad lingo for the white X that denotes "Railroad Crossing." Try using "crossbuck" next time you are out with friends. Highly impressive.

Close up of stickers on railroad sign

Okay people. Who has a sticker problem? Raise your arm up.

Stickers covering a road sign

It's a blue sign, so relax. You just missed the rest area, but you can find another one in about 50 miles. Have fun squirming.

So where are stickers showing up, and why?

Stickers have been showing up since the 1960s. It wasn’t enough to have a bushy, bushy blonde hairdo back in the day. Your Volkswagen bus had to show off your newly-decorated with stickers surfboard. Not to be outdone, skateboarders customized their artistic boards with stickers. And stickers know no season: snowboarders shredded the slopes on their sticker-studded boards.

Right about this time, artists started making original, hand-drawn stickers and performing “throw-ups.” It's not as disgusting as it might imply, but they stuck stickers to walls and poles near crosswalks—anything at pedestrian eye level.

Businesses caught on. Providing stickers was a relatively cheap form of advertising. And because it is subversive, subliminal, or maybe both, this sticker form is called “subvertising.” So all sorts of coffee bars, cannabis shops, and breweries got their graphic designer friends to make them an artistic sticker. Or series. And their followers aka worshippers embraced this.

Stickers on a drive through restaurant window

Slap me a breakfast burrito, and I'll slap you a sticker. Fair exchange? I mean, did the drive-through attendant not notice all these stickers getting applied?

Stickers covering ice coolers

Cooler than ever. Or creativity cubed. Maybe these stickers add some insulation to the ice coolers?

Stickers on a parking sign

Look who's broken the rule and is walking the dog! It's always those zombies.

Stickers on a parking sign

I told you, #Tofakiecrew, you've got three minutes. Not four. Now you've been towed away.

Stickers covering a towing sign

I parked here, but I get a funny feeling I could get towed away. Is "overwhelmed and confused" a defense?

Stickers covering the back of a car

I am curious how many tailgating accidents are due to people's curiosity just wanting to read that one sticker they can't quite make out?

Back to the big question in your head: Why do people slap stickers up?

For years people have carved their initials into the bark of aspen trees. They proclaim their love permanently to someone they probably broke up with three months later. I don’t like that, but it happens. And by “don’t like that,” I am referring to the carving. Depending on how the breakup happened, I might not like that either.

People need to express themselves.

They want to say, “I was here.” Or they want to bring attention to a cause. Or politics. Or something they believe strongly in. Or humor. All rolled up into one sticker if you possess super creative powers.

I don’t go putting stickers up. But I enjoy looking at them. Sort of like graffiti. I don't want it on a wall near me, but I feel like I'm keeping up with the culture of the day.

Perhaps this mischievous expression could be an intriguing study. I imagine a future anthropologist seeing the remnants of these stickers and trying to conclude thoughts about our society from this odd behavior:

“…thanks largely to the resilience of the adhesive used in this era, these messages endured for well over a hundred years. We believed we’d lost much knowledge of this era due to the obliteration of archives by their out-of-control Artificial Intelligence developments. Yet with this significant discovery, we can study coded messages for insights. In the initial findings, we believe these emblems held immense power, declaring protests, turbulent times, and disconnected communities. The people of this era ingested and inhaled various forms of intoxicants and stimulants known to alter moods. We have much to learn from studying these adhesive markers in preventing issues that plagued the past.”

Abstract photographer Ann Newman shooting sticker sign

At an altitude of 12,095 feet, impairment in judgement happens. I've got all these beautiful peaks, and I'm shooting photos of stickers. And so many other imparied people stuck their favorite stickers in a place that closes every winter. It'll be a long time until they can come visit them again.

Stickers covering sharp curves ahead sign

Every mountain you climb must come down. And usually with twisty, curvy roads.

Close up of stickers covering sharp curves sign

But sharp curves are now shared curves. I'd prefer you stay in your own lane. I prefer not sharing in this particular situation.

Colorado mountains on license plate covered by stickers art

"Sticker State." Here's where sticker culture inspired me. I shot a photo of someone's Colorado license plate. Thankfully, they didn't come out and yell at me. Then I took a photo of stickers, amped it up digitally, and dropped it into the mountain range area of the license plate. Sounds way easier than it was. And what are those squiggly lines in the middle at the top? Those are anti-counterfeiting security threads. You've learned a lot today, haven't you? You are a railroad-license plate geek now. Jeopardy, here we come!

Colorado license plate art in loft

Let me give you the license to decorate an industrial loft. This fun graphic print features a real Colorado license plate photo blended with a photo of actual stickers from Independence Pass. The big bonus? No adhesive sticky stuff on your wall.

A unique part of the sticker culture is anonymous collaboration.

When you consider what it took to bring this "Sticker State" image together, it blows my mind. And I'm not referring to my level of effort, but the collaborative effort.

First, someone created a sticker design. Actually, lots of people created sticker designs. They distributed them to a lot of random people. Did they sell them? Hand them out? And those people carried the stickers around. I know I'd forget I had them. Or I'd remember only to find that they'd be in my purse that I left at home. These people followed through and stuck their sticker. Then another bunch added stickers over time. They told two friends who told two friends, and well, the mountain pass is covered up in stickers. The wicked weather at this altitude and the intense sun faded and transformed them. New stickers joined the next season. And the canvas is forever changing.

I had the vision to photograph the sticker menagerie. I wanted to cover the Colorado Rockies with stickers. Not literally, but metaphorically. I tried blending in the stickers with an actual mountain scene, but it just didn't have the cohesion I envisioned. And then I realized that the shape of the Colorado license plate, a well-known graphic, might work. And after lots of frustration, many YouTube videos, and a long string of whispered swear words, I finally got the visual out of my head and out here in the world for you to see. And hopefully enjoy.

I understand sticking these stickers on signs and private property is vandalism. I'm not condoning that. As you can see from some of my photos, the original sign message becomes lost or misguided in short order. That could change your day or, worse, your life. Especially for foreign visitors and mountain terrain.

This issue is monumental, and I don't have the answer. It started the day a cave man drew a bison on a cave wall. Maybe his mate was upset knowing they wouldn't get their deposit back when they moved. Or she didn't like the way he always drew things that looked like sticks.

There will always be someone who doesn't like "art." Especially if they find that it ruined property. Maybe we can take what’s good from this and figure out how to embrace creativity and bonding together without destroying property. Could we have designated areas for things like stickers? I don't know; it’s such a sticky issue.

P.S. No signs were damaged in this process. And none were slapped by me. I believe in "Leave No Trace." Let's think about that before we lose the view.

"Real art means something.

It's questioning the status quo, the norm. It's helping us break away from the daily grind and question what we take for granted."

-- Louis Grenier

A Colorado license plate's mountain scene is covered with sticker culture.
Sticker State

I'm in a state of sticker shock! Take notice or be ready to be covered up with stickers yourself! Photo © copyright by Ann Parks.

More fun, aka absurd, digital art lives and breathes in this gallery.

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