It’s easy to walk the streets of Nashville focused on your destination. But one Curious Nashville listener’s question challenges us all to pay closer attention to the little bits of passing scenery. Try it, and you may be lucky enough to spot a quirky little character.
Gloria Buehler did.
It was about seven years ago when she looked down and noticed a small, robot-like creature stamped onto the street. She tried to learn more, and eventually asked:
What are the people-like creatures embedded on the streets of Nashville near the old L&C Tower, and why are they there?
Buehler has worked downtown twice in her career, and usually noticed the little figures on the ground while walking to lunch. When she casually asked around, no one seemed to know what the figures could be.
But she was onto something. What she had noticed was a “stikman” — one of several thousand created around the world by a famous but elusive street artist.
A stikman group on Flickr has collected thousands of photos that showcase the stikmen made of various materials.
The exact number remains unknown. But that’s part of the fun. While the artist remains anonymous, stikman’s work appears out in public for anyone to notice, tending to appear near bars, museums, cultural landmarks or interesting pieces of architecture.
Nashville has a few of our own stikman gems.
Another WPLN reporter spotted one in 2012. Buehler found hers in 2014. And I found two last month outside of the Frist Art Museum in the crosswalk between 9th Avenue South and Broadway. I found another in the crosswalk between 7th Avenue South and Broadway.
They were difficult to spot, partly because they’d definitely seen better days. Yet their shape is unmistakable.
Stikmen are exposed to both natural and man-made elements, so over time they start to fade and peel. We all get to be a part of their transformation.
But to Buehler’s question: Why are they there?
The artist behind the figures also goes by the name “stikman.” The Philadelphia native began his street-art career in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1992, however, that stikman started to create his now-famous figures. He found his inspiration in a flea market where he saw an old plaster plaque of a man made of sticks, according to an interview with Street Art NYC. The odd figure caught stikman’s attention, and he wanted to make more.
While stikman doesn’t assert any particular hidden message to this art, he hopes that “viewers develop a keen sense of the visual around them.” In an interview with Streets Depts, a Philadelphia-based photoblog, stikman also describes the figures as representing “the absence of personality in art. The little being with no stable form.”
And so, the stikmen were born.
In the first year, stikman constructed about 50 of the figures, all made of unpainted basswood. He started to experiment with other diverse mediums, including metal, wood and cloth.
He even started to design stickers made of paving tape to place directly on streets and sidewalks, and some of these appear in Nashville.
Stikman plastered his art in cities from New York, where he started, to Hollywood. The stikmen appear in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes on the sides of buildings, on large posters and even in a few art exhibits. In 2015, the stikman figures were featured in Amazon’s first series of artist prints when the company launched its online gallery to showcase limited-edition prints from international street artists.
‘See cities differently’
Over the last three decades, stikman has carved a name for himself in the art community, influencing generations of other artists and art-lovers to appreciate the ambiguity in our world.
“His work trains me to always be on the lookout for those tiny little interesting things that the world is full of, the sort of gems that go unnoticed when we just move through the world.”
According to Rushmore, stikman estimates he’s installed about 10,000 figures worldwide over the past 15 years. Rushmore has personally seen them in Toronto, New York, Miami and San Francisco. But without any formal government permission, he explains, there isn’t any way to determine how many stikmen are around the country at a given time.
Rushmore also passed on a question to stikman on my behalf. Of Nashville, stikman had to say, “I really enjoy working on the streets of Nashville and interacting with the fine folks that reside there.”
We encourage you to take a moment to appreciate the little things. You never know when you might get to see a stikman.