I n smaller towns, they might have been stripped away long ago. In larger cities, they’d have been covered up by layers and layers of more recent specimens. In New Haven, they linger and become their own aesthetic element of the cityscape.
Stickers. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition is “a slip of paper with adhesive back that can be fastened to a surface.”
There’s also another definition of “sticker”: “One that pierces with a point.” And the messages on some of the little pieces of paper can be pretty pointed. “Ask Me About Being Gay at Yale,” says one sticker affixed to a light pole on Elm Street. On the next block, a sticker promotes the work of the animal rights organization PETA: “Love Me, Don’t Eat Me” is the motto emblazoned next to a cartoon of a cute piglet.
We could talk about flyers. But in most New Haven neighborhoods, flyers get taken down on a regular basis. Yale pays people to purge notice-boards of papers which have hung around too long. Of those that remain, most are date-bound and have little lasting resonance, unless your hobby is collecting evidence of long-ago flea markets.
But stickers endure. A band flyer fades and blows away, but on a phone pole near Lynwood Place, you can find side-by-side stickers touting the up-and-coming bands Blind Justice and Flowerland—groups which had their heyday in the mid-1990s.
The best batches of old stickers in New Haven can be found emblazoned outside clubs and bars which book live bands that are just starting to achieve some name recognition and popularity. Toad’s Place headliners like Johnny Winter or George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic don’t need to promote themselves with stickers, but just about every band that plays at Cafe Nine, The Space, Stella Luna or The Elm Bar might. That might in fact be the extent of a young band’ s entire promotion budget; the next level, T- shirts, can run into real money.
But stickers on city streets aren’t just about promoting the latest trends in rock music. Some of the most common stickers advocate for causes. The more local they are, the more fascinating. The history of New Haven is written on these stickers. There’s still a “Frank Logue for Mayor” sticker on a street sign at the corner of Edgewood and Day streets. Logue won, serving from 1976 to 1979. A couple of blocks away, you can find a sticker declaring that “New Haven Deserves a Coliseum”; others disagreed, and the building was imploded in 2007.
Other stickers are curiosities, stuck without explanation. A tiny portrait of Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, near a similarly small-scaled image of a Johnny Cash album cover. Various stars or dots, possibly urban trail-markers directing undergrads to parties and treasure hunts.
As you might expect in an Ivy League realm such as New Haven, stickers adhere themselves to a number of academic disciplines: art and design of course, but also the Structuralist study of icons and cultural markers, and the consciousness-conscious field of phenomenology. New Haven was one of the first cities where now-famous artist Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant has a Posse” stickers popped up. They were essentially meaningless, but their ubiquity in college towns such as Providence, Boston and New Haven turned them into phenomena worthy of scholarship.
Sometimes stickers provide bursts of humor or philosophical provocation, thanks to how they juxtapose the messages of other signs, either deliberately or by happenstance. One popular example is stickers reading simply “The War,” which are stuck on Stop signs so they read “Stop the War.”
Outside the Seabury Cooperative Housing complex downtown, there’s a “No Trespassing” sign under which a sticker has been placed advertising the rock band Diseased Princess, who once played at a club on the next block. “Diseased Princess,” like “Beware of Dog” or “Quarantine,” adds a whole new context as to why someone should be reluctant to trespass.
We can’t stick around any longer without noting that defacing property—with stickers, flyers, wads of bubble gum, whatever—is against the law. But these infractions are manifold, and part of a vast mountain of literature and iconography which we notice every day and seldom connect. Stickers are like leaves on trees as well as messages on signposts. They’re part of the New Haven landscape and they give us notice.
Let’s notice them, too.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.