Photo Essay – ‘Street Stencils’ by BOLS

At the risk of losing the graffiti purists in the room, while the rebellious and dynamic aesthetics of graffiti were an awakening of how art could be more than what I had experienced as a child, it was stencil art that was a better fit for my personal mode of expression. There are numerous reasons; from the punk aesthetic of early styles, to the specific yet expansive potential of the process. It still embraced the physical nature of aerosol (hard and soft lines, over sprays), but there were also the intricacies of cutting, breaking down an image, and the plates that became stratified objects of interest themselves (from plastic sheets, to light card, or even cereal boxes, the chosen material reflects an important aesthetic decision). Importantly, there was also a conceptual aspect, beyond the stylistic and procedural; something harder to express but imbued within the apparent urgency of street stencils.

While I have spent many hours in small studio spaces cutting and spraying stencils, frustrated at the things that go wrong, exhilarated at the discoveries that unlock new directions, there is something about the presence of stencils in the streets, sprayed directly on rough concrete or worn surfaces. Street stencils are a contemporary incarnation of a primal mode of expression, utilising new cultural references and tools to navigate the current landscape, while exuding a sense of a longer, often political, always existential, lineage.

While it may be the accessible, iconographic visual language stencil artists have harnessed (such as the pop culture imagery almost universally favoured by stencil artists still finding their style) that attracts many, for me, it is this connection to history, the sense that a stencil still represents rebellion, revolution and anarchy. Furthermore, the mechanical nature of the process renders stencils democratic; anyone can cut a stencil and produce an image. Of course there are stencil ‘superstars’, but there are also countless anonymous stencils, reveling in that anonymity and the act of painting in the streets.

The following images have been taken from the last decade, from Ōtautahi, around Aotearoa and even abroad. Some are by well-known artists, others are completely anonymous. Some are fresh and sharp, others faded and obscured. Some are sprayed on surfaces that make the image harder to comprehend, others play off the graffiti covered walls. Some are figurative, some use phrases, some are explicitly political, others harder to decipher. But each is an example of someone acting out, becoming part of that lineage and grasping the inherent qualities of stencils…

A stencil of a fox in clothing spray painted on a plastic barrell.
PORTA, New Brighton, Christchurch, 2012
The name of Blek Le Rat, the famous French stencil artist sprayed on a wall
Blek Le Rat, Berlin, Germany, 2011
A stencilled image, pixellated like a retro video game, that appears to be a portrait with the word Like underneath
Like, Berlin, Germany, 2011
A stencil of a man with a noose around his neck, precariously balancing on a chair to stop his choking
Dotmasters, London, England, 2011
A stencil of a small giraffe on a concrete wall
Unknown artist, Christchurch, 2012
A famlous stencil by Banksy, an army sniper takes aim from above a shop, but behind him a child holds a paper bag, blown up and ready to surprise the sniper with a bang
Banksy, Bristol, England, 2011
The words Read Lenin stencilled on a graffitied wall
Read Lenin, Rome, Italy, 2011
 A stencilled image of a person holding something in their hands, looking closely at it.
Unknown artist, Barcelona, Spain, 2011
The words Stop Wars is stencilled in the style of the Star Wars logo
Stop Wars, Rome, Italy, 2011
A crowd of protestors are stencilled on a wall under the words Cultural Resistance
Unknown Artist, Rome, Italy, 2011
 A graffitied wall featuring stencils, one of which is a skull and cross bones, the other a portrait of a young boy
Unknown artist, Brussels, Belgium, 2011
The words Tromaville Health Club, a reference to the trashy 1980s Troma films, is stencilled on a wall
Tromaville Health Club, Brussels, Belgium, 2011
A stencil of a face with large glasses on a footpath in San Francisco
Kay, San Francisco, United States, 2011
A stylised skull stencil with the words Dead God above
Dead God, Christchurch, 2018
the name Franz is stnecilled in a diamond shape
Franz, Wellington, 2019
the instruction to Post No Bills is stencilled on a concrete pillar
Post No Bills, Wellington, 2019
a mid production stencil with the various stencil plates stuck around it
Bols, Christchurch, 2019

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