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Mud Slinging With a Clean Conscience

by Mali Anderson

People checking out the muddy handiwork of Jesse Graves and friends

How to get a message read? It’s the question activists, artists, and media moguls are all asking. In a world where Internet posts are read more than magazines, and people can handpick how, and what type, of information is allowed into their lives, is it possible to develop a new mode of communication? Turns out, it’s as simple as mud.

Milwaukee artist Jesse Graves was interested in stenciling images to promote environmental awareness, but understanding that the medium is the message he didn’t want to use toxic spray paint.

“They are a low tech, low impact way to put messages in public space,” says Graves.

The stencil designs are cut out of Mylar. The artist uses them to mold mud messages along walls, across sidewalks and around pillars. In the beginning, Graves utilized the format to critique our cultural obsession with products that rely on oil consumption and harmful industrial farming practices. For instance, there is a line drawing of a plastic water bottle with the word ‘OIL’ placed where consumers are conditioned to see a label. Another image is of a cow with two thought bubbles, one with a heart filled with grass, the other an ear of corn with the universal no of a slashed circle.

"Oil" mud stencil

"Oil" mud stencil

The project has since expanded.

Activists now collaborate with Graves and use mud stencils to address social issues beyond environmentalism, a development largely due to mud stenciling being a legal street art. The medium circumvents any graffiti laws and allows the maker to work in daylight, with an audience, which leads the public to question who has ownership of our communal spaces.

“I post my stencils during the day with confidence because I want people to see what I am doing, and I want to talk about the issues I address,” continues Graves, “one of my goals is to change the negative ideas people hold against street art by showing the positive impact it can have, without damaging property.”

The first example of activists using mud stencils beyond ecological issues was in last summers Chicago protest of Tamms Correctional Center, a prison tarnished with a reputation of cruel and unusual prisoner treatment. 30 volunteers worked in Chicago’s broad daylight – impossible for graffiti artists since the city of Chicago banned spray paint in 1995 – dumping buckets of mud onto stencils with the words ‘END TORTURE IN ILLINOIS’ within a dashed outline of the state. Activists explained the process and their condemnation of Tamms to the passing public and left the messages to dry on the streets. Many cultural and political commentators discussed the action, including a piece written by Lori Waxman for Newcity Art.

T.A.M.M.S. (TAMMS) Mudd Stencil Documentation, in front of InCubate/Orientation Center. Saturday June 06, 2009.

Mud stencils were also used to protest a ban on sending second-hand books to Wisconsin prisoners and the Iraqi Veterans Against the War (IVAW) used the techniques in a Pittsburg demonstration.

Converting a public space into a canvas for a political message, without any legal ramifications, is an amazing leap for street art. As technology has increased the avenues available for individual expression, our desire to communicate has expanded and is refusing to be quarantined. Just as bloggers can report cutting edge news, without a budget or paper, a street artist can stencil in mud, reaching an audience as wide as an advertisement without the use of noxious art materials.

Although mud lacks the permanence of paint through photographs the stencils survive long after the elements have worn them away. These images are frequently shared through blogs, emails and web sites, allowing one art form to enhance the other.

Applying another mud stencil

Applying another mud stencil

Directions on mud stenciling can be found at mudstencils.com. “I am very pro mud stenciling, I post directions because I want to see others making them,” says Graves, underscoring the social equality of his artwork.

Graves has experimented with sticks, vines, dirt, and rocks for his street art and is currently studying metalsmithing. In all of his art he is conscious of the materials he uses.

“I hope to suggest the idea that there are alternatives to the toxic products in our lives, so we should be finding ways to eliminate those products. I wanted to make a stencil, and I didn’t want to use spray paint. That idea can be applied to a lot of things,” says Graves.

A new vocabulary is being created and with it new materials to express it are emerging. These materials demonstrate innovative ways to convey information while respecting our modern awareness of ecological concerns, societal issues and an individuals increased role in media.

Lifting off the mylar to reveal the finished peice

We are transforming the way we communicate and techniques that are environmentally conscious, while utilizing individuals right to public space, can underline the meaning of a social critique. Street art is a global form of communication. Through mud stencils there is finally an opportunity to get your hands dirty while keeping your record clean.