Guerrilla art in the digital age: a short story
William couldn’t think of anything original to draw.
Thousands of users were joining QuikPik each day. The first four geostamps William designed for it were the most popular in Chicago; from Wrigley Field to Sears Tower, people across the city were putting his drawings on the corner of their photos to show where they’d been. William had to keep the streak going.
He wanted a geostamp for Navy Pier. All the tourists went there. The place was a zoo. But the rides and city skyline were such a cliché — every postcard rack in the city had a dozen pictures of that. He needed something more subtle. Something plain, yet curious. People only used William’s work if it enhanced their own. Too interesting it became a distraction. But he didn’t mind dulling it down. As it was, he snuck beneath more eyes than most artists could ever imagine.
Still, he needed something unusual for Navy Pier. So, William lazily sketched the ferry boats, waiting for an idea, until he noticed a man taking long steps in front of the Ferris wheel and counting on his fingers. William leaned forward. He started drawing. A loose sketch of the man: his paint-splattered overalls, his unbuttoned Henley and newsboy cap, the half-grin in the corner of his mouth, the concentration in his eyes. Then the man stopped, wrote something on the palm of his hand, and looked the Ferris wheel over one last time before disappearing into the city.
“Must be some kind of artist,” William sniggered. He closed his sketchbook, opened his phone and checked his personal QuikPik analytics. Five-hundred people had used his geostamps that morning. At 5¢ a post, he had covered lunch.
Two days later ... William woke up and scrolled through his phone until he saw the installation.
Someone snuck onto Navy Pier and erected twenty Plexiglas panels in front of the Ferris Wheel, spray painting in stencils:
DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS.
William watched as three puffed-up cops kept a handful of onlookers at bay, but most people wandered behind the panels eating cotton candy and laughing, ignoring the wall and the removal crew struggling to take it down. The video cut to grainy security-camera footage. “We believe this to be the vandal,” the reporter said.
It was him. The apparent artist. Wearing those same overalls and newsboy cap, his face hidden, obscured in the shadows, but it was definitely him. Goosebumps ran up William’s neck. He jerked out of bed and ran to his sketchbook and flipped to his drawing. William gulped the drama in his throat. “This could be it,” he muttered.
He didn’t know how people might use it, seeing as it wasn’t a place like the rest of the geostamps, but he thought they would use it still. It was more like an attitude, a mindset yelling, “I don’t give a fuck.”
He scanned the sketch into his computer and stared at the screen. The face looked bare. All of his other geostamps had titles. William scribbled ideas, trying to flesh out the idea. Then it came to him. And beneath the drawing he wrote “the artist.”
A toothy smile covered William’s face. He uploaded it into QuikPik’s geostamp library and checked in on his latest sales analytics.
Three nights later . . . the artist marched into Millennium Park and straight towards The Bean. Thousands of people went to the famous sculpture each day to see their warped reflections in the polished steel. The artist imagined their twisted faces, their undulating selfies, their superficial glee. “This is for you,” he snarled. He knelt beneath the metal and dumped one-hundred tubes of red lipstick on the concrete and, like a mason carving into stone, stabbed one tube after another into the mirrored finish.
The artist stepped back and inspected his disfigured reflection between the red lines. A sly half-grin crept into the corner of his mouth.
By 6:00am, a group had already begun snapping pictures of the desecrated landmark. Sunrise bounced across Lake Michigan, gleaming off every surface of The Bean, the artist’s scarlet letters seemingly bored deep into its surface. Visitors crunched their faces in confusion at his question. Scrawled across the 60-foot sculpture, he asked:
IS LOVE IN HERE?
William’s roommate saw it on his morning run and showed William back at the apartment. William choked on his coffee. It had to be the artist. He couldn’t know for sure, but it felt the same — and that was enough to spread his geostamp.
If it was going to catch on, this was the moment. William posted the picture with “the artist” written in the corner.
Then he waited.
It took a half hour for another person to use the geostamp on their own photo of the installation. Ten minutes later, a second came. William turned on his push notifications as the trickle began. Ping. Five minutes later somebody used it. Ping. Two minutes. Ping. 30 seconds. Faster they came. William’s phone started pinging nonstop.
As the installation continued to trend, QuickPik’s algorithm began suggesting “the artist” to its users. By noon, a thousand people had used it on their posts.
Park authorities cleaned the lipstick off The Bean, but still, “the artist” grew. By nightfall, it was at 2,500.
But the next day, it broke loose. “The artist” spread throughout Chicago, far beyond the Millennium Park installation. People began taking pictures where they hadn’t before — streets, alleys, alcoves, beneath rusted L tracks, inside abandoned warehouses. They pieced together mock installations of their own. Arranged trash behind the fine row houses of Lincoln Park. Chalked up sidewalks beneath the hard leather soles of suits in West Loop. Paid homeless men to pose outside the heavy brass doors of shops on Michigan Avenue.
Ten-thousand street artists made overnight. They strove to be provocateurs, inspired as if their pent-up creativity had finally been liberated — the more outrageous their pictures, the more likes and shares they got on QuikPik. And on each post, “the artist” lingered in the corner vouching for the work.
William watched his analytics soar. He hooted at the life “the artist” had taken on. It no longer had anything to do with the real artist. Both his installations had been promptly erased by city officials. They existed now only in the annals of QuikPik.
William figured he had done the artist a favor, though, making street art popular, giving him a real audience for his next installation.
The QuikPik corporate offices were buzzing. Their user base had doubled since “the artist” had debuted. They loved William’s work. They loved the engagement. They wanted to put “the artist” on a billboard in the heart of the city’s urban culture, Wicker Park. William agreed immediately and a week later, he beamed on the street corner as workers pasted a giant version of “the artist” sixty feet in the sky.
William had not expected to feel so good. Though his work already graced hundreds of thousands of posts, this billboard was something different. His art was tangible. He certainly felt worthy of the attention. A due reward for the hundreds — no! thousands — of hours he’d spent in his sketchbook.
Later that night ... the artist got off the midnight train to Wicker Park. The street was quiet. He stood on the corner beneath the orange streetlights with a bucket of paint in his hand scoffing at the billboard.
Grappling up the ladder, he inspected the ink lines that came together forming the creases of his own eyes and lips. “What a hack,” he growled, hammering William’s work with the back end of the brush.
Then the artist attacked with great strokes, surrounding the billboard in a dripping slop of paint. Black rivulets streamed across the vinyl canvas. The artist used half the can and heaved more paint onto the adjacent building. He jammed his brush in and drug a thick line down to the street. He pulled it from the sidewalk, across the bricks, to the corner of the building until he reached the glowing lights of LaSalle Bank. There, beside the ATM, the artist loaded the rest of the paint past the bristles and slathered a giant X over the machine. He slung the empty bucket into the alley and stepped back.
The artist pulled out his phone and snapped a picture and a half-grin grew in the corner of his mouth.
William slept soundly as his analytics ticked up another 5¢.