For a kid, something as simple as a sticker can play a significant role in defining identity.
Commonly, it begins with sticking them to a locker, trapper keeper, binder, skateboard, bicycle, guitar and so on, inevitably graduating to public application without permission. PEZ began hand drawing his own stickers at the age of 12 and has continued applying them everywhere he roams or rides. He’s created a distinct and instantly recognizable style. They are playful and welcoming, and well, doesn’t everyone like stickers?
I initially became familiar with PEZ through his prolific sticker street presence. Years later I would stumble on a zine of his, revealing that he was also a photographer who created playful, childlike art on an eclectic mix of found objects. Our paths would eventually cross through a mutual friend and when PEZ first visited my house he bestowed a staggering archival collection of zines made over the years to my possession that would leave a lasting impression of inspiration for years to come. PEZ is reserved and quiet and the last one to boast about past or present accomplishments, true to a fitting title PEZ uses for many of his projects, “Shyness is Nice.”
Whenever I meet an old bike messenger they always know you. You’ve been on a bike for some time now. How did you first get involved in being a messenger?
I started messengering in San Francisco when I was 17. One of my first jobs was handing out flyers on Montgomery Street. I would stand out there for hours. I remember seeing other messengers and thinking that it was a cool job. It was very punk rock.
What year was this?
1990-91. I started working at this place called Specialized that is no longer in business. Back then there were more foot messengers. I didn’t have a bike yet so technically I wasn’t a bike messenger, but after working for 3 or 4 months I saved up and bought a mountain bike.
Were people chilling at 1 Post then?
No, there was no 1 Post yet.
Where did all the bike messengers kick it?
By the wall on Sansome.
Where they still chill.
Exactly. That was when there was really only one hang-out spot and Hubba Hideout [former S.F. skateboarding spot].
Were people on fixed gears yet?
No, not at all. Everyone either had one-speed clunker basket bikes like a cruiser or a lot of people had mountain bikes with slicks. The style then was to have the slickest, skinniest tires on your mountain bike. No one even rode road bikes then. Mountain bikes were the ideal bike for messengers. This dude Jessie was the first person I saw with a fixed gear around ‘94. I didn’t get my first fixed gear till ‘95 maybe. Track parts were impossible to find then. This was at the dawn of the Internet; there were no resources for getting them. My first track bike was actually a converted Univega road bike.
There are so many occupational hazards with messengering. The probability of getting hit or doored is almost inevitable. After 20 years I know you’ve seen some unwanted action.
Yes, it’s very dangerous out there. Actually, my worst accident happened a long time ago when I was 18 or 19. The very first rainy day I worked I wiped out real bad on the Market Street BART tracks. My front wheel got stuck, and I face-planted straight into the metal grating. I was spitting out teeth and had to get about 75 stitches.That was the worst. N.Y. was a whole other story. That’s probably the most dangerous place to work as a bike messenger; close calls around every corner. But working there made me a much better cyclist by far. I got doored a couple times, hit by cabbies, crashed into a few jay-walkers, but no trips to the hospital.
Did you messenger through the winters as well?
Yeah, three winters. Chicago was rough weather wise. Some days it was sub-20 degrees; very, very cold. It was rough. It was an exercise in suffering.
Did you get up mostly during the down time?
Back then you could just ride your bike around and get up all day in the daytime. But realistically, there wasn’t that much standby time like there is when you work in S.F. Sometimes I would wake up an hour early before I had to be at work and go to midtown and catch tags before I had to check in.
Did riding bikes eventually lead you into graffiti?
I got into graffiti mostly though skateboarding when I was in middle school. Maybe even before that. All my friends were skaters and also graffiti writers. My early graffiti words were skateboard related, like “grind,” “slap,” and “slam.” Things having to do with skating. I used to hang out at Psycho City [iconic S.F. graffiti location] when I was a little kid. The street I grew up on was only two blocks away. I remember going there and there were abandoned cars, trash, and junk everywhere. It looked like Mad Max. It was all destroyed. I would just go there and tinker around.
Did you draw a lot when you were a kid?
Always. Skateboard graphics really inspired me to do art. I started doing drawing at very young age. Sticker culture was always around. A friend of my Moms was in a punk rock band. He would make stencils of skulls and bomb them all over the sidewalks. He was the first guy to show me a fan zine. Stickering was always big in S.F. because of the punk culture here. I used to walk to school and put stickers up on poles. I got busted in middle school and had to stop ‘cause my Mom got real mad at me. I hung out with a lot of bus hoppers then. I took like a five-year hiatus and then got back into it around 18 or 19. I remember seeing a lot of stickers from Twist, KR, Dug, Sope, Felon, and Rem. Juice also had a lot of stickers and was also a bike messenger. As a bike messenger it was a really easy way to get up fast.
Were people doing inside outs already?
Yeah, Twist and Sekt had been doing them. Alert 5AV was the first I saw doing them everywhere, real intricate ones.
When did you start taking photographs?
I always took pictures but didn’t really get serious until I moved to New York. Growing up, film was a luxury. I got my first manual Nikon camera but up until then I was shooting point-and-shoots and disposables.
What year did you move to New York?
At the beginning of ‘97. It was so easy to get work then. I had never been to New York City before and had a job the second day I was there. Just from walking into places and saying I was from San Francisco and was a bike messenger there. They didn’t ask for your social or I.D. They would just write the check out to whoever you asked them too. You could be a criminal on the run and be a bike messenger. A lot of the messengers in N.Y. are crimies, ex-cons, and derelicts. Fly by night. You would be delivering anything from portfolios to drugs. You were usually delivering shady stuff. I worked for this place, Gregory’s, where the dispatcher was a Puerto Rican gangster with gold teeth and the owner was a shady, dread-y Rasta dude. They had bulletproof glass with bullet holes all across it from when some dude shot the place up with a machine gun ‘cause he was angry with Gregory. Basically, as a messenger in N.Y., you always had a side hustle and were trying to get over some other way. Messengering was your front. I don’t think there is any money doing conventional bike messenging anymore in N.Y
Josh was telling me about these photocopies you were putting up in all the phone booths in New York at that time that were very unique and different from what other people were doing.
Yeah, well, before New York I lived in San Diego with my Dad for a little bit and that’s where I met Shepard Fairey. There was an address to a place where you could send money to get stickers made and one day I just went down there and Shepard answered the door. He saw a peeled PEZ sticker that was barely visible on my skateboard and asked me where I got it. He then took me out wheatpasting for my very first time. I had this sticker of a road warrior that I had already made and he showed me how to blow it up to 11 x17 to put up. So that sparked my interest in wheatpasting. When I went to New York, there was a really good Kinko’s scam with counterfeit card readers and I could make unlimited zines and posters. Nonstop. There were these ads in phone booths everywhere and at that time there were no cell phones or radios so I was constantly at pay phones. These ads were perfect ‘cause you had to look at them if you were at the pay phone. So I just always had posters on me.
I never told you I used to live in San Diego when Shepard was still living there. I was friends with this guy who lived basically in his garage/print shop at the time. One night he was giving me a tour of Shepard’s house and I remember this mantle with all these framed stickers on it. Twist, Search, Dalek, Espo, and others, and two framed PEZ stickers. That was really the first time I saw your stickers.
No way! When was this?
1999. You’re well known for your relentless efforts to have every newsstand covered in stickers. I’ve noticed in the last couple of year stickers making a bigger presence back into the streets in many cities. But it seems more people are doing printed stickers now because they’re more efficient in getting hundreds up fast. What drew you to making stickers more than other ways of getting up?
I think stickers are just fun. I like to draw, and it’s something I could do at home, make like a hundred, then put them up around the city while biking. It’s just very sneaky and easy. Stickers are definitely more popular now then ever.
How do you feel about people online trading and selling your stickers like they were baseball cards? Remember when I sent you a link to the guy who made a bunch of fake PEZ canvases and was selling them on eBay?
I like it. It’s an honor. That’s for the next generation; it’s cool that people are inspired. Fake art on eBay, that’s a nice complement, that’s pretty neat. I like bootlegged stuff. Andy Warhol said art is whatever you can get away with.
At what point did you find out about and start using Gocco printing?
I think it was when I moved back from New York to S.F. in 2001. My ex-girlfriend had actually bought me one for Christmas. I had seen someone using one to make stickers and was like, damn! That’s the best way to make stickers. I used to print so many stickers, zine covers, and patches with Goccos.
I can’t believe they’re actually discontinuing them in Japan now as well.
I know. I think it’s too low-tech for them now. It’s not fast enough for them.
What got you into zines?
Like I said before, early punk rock zines. What really got me into Graff zines were Giant’s Huffer zines. They were really inspiring.
That was like ’95-‘96 right?
Were there any shops at that time that would buy or sell zines?
There was this place called Behind the Post Office on Haight Street that was there in the mid ‘90s. Epicenter on Valencia Street as well. You would see Can Control and On the Go around but there weren’t really any Graff zines. Life Sucks Die was super inspiring but that was a little later.
LSD was the best. When I saw your zines for the first time they got my attention because I had never seen sticker packs with patches, screen printed covers and packaging with a zine before. There was more attention to detail. It was always so straightforward with other zines: paper folded and stapled.
It’s nice to get extra freebies. I enjoy packaging. It’s visually more eye-catching. Screen printing patches, makings stickers and zines is so therapeutic. It’s fun and easy to share. My first zine was Kollision. It was really the first series of zines I ever made. I never used to sell them. It was basically graffiti and bike culture photos. Photos I would take while messengering. I think the first place I ever sold zines to was A-Life but this was years after I had been making different zines.
You have such great titles: You Cant Win, Collision, Sleep Train, You Can’t Follow Me, D.F.W., Snakes in the Grass, Bloody Platinum.
There’s a lot more that those ex-girlfriends and I made that were like one-off’s with funky titles.
So there’s times when you won’t call me for weeks and you disappear. I believe this is due to depression?
Well, yeah, I get depressed. I’m bi-polar manic-depressive. There’s days where I don’t want to go outside but I feel like I have to just blast through the depression. Still getting stuff done even if my heart is not fully in it. ‘Cause I know eventually I’ll be happy again and I can go back and look at how I was really depressed when I took that picture. Art is a journal entry for someone who doesn’t write in a journal.
I find that (and maybe I’m wrong), most of the time when you’re really depressed it roots from your relationship with a girl.
I think so. I don’t want to sound pompous. I like the excitement of dating a new girl. The new energy. The outlook on life is so great. Girls are a great fuel for creative endeavors. I like taking pictures of girls. Girls are very inspiring.
Are most the girls you date willing participants of your photography practices?
Yeah, they have to be exhibitionist, willing participants. If a girl doesn’t like to be photographed I usually won’t date them. [Both laugh]. I’m serious. All the girls I have ever dated are very photogenic. They like the attention.
But it doesn’t dictate your dating practices, right
Well, yeah. I don’t fall in love with them ‘cause they let me take pictures of them. I’m definitely more drawn to that though. It’s more exciting to me. I’m drawn to girls that are more inclined to be muses.
You like them to be somewhat crazy?
Yeah, I want them to be crazy and share my craziness. I like the insanity. Chaos is fun.
Any new music that is inspiring you these days?
I don’t really like new music.
I know you’re fond of Morrissey.
Of course. I like a lot of the classics. ‘80s stuff. British punk rock. Clash, Depeche Mode, Cure, Buzzcocks, Stone Roses, Death Metal. I grew up listening to hair metal bands like Guns N’ Roses, early Def Leopard, Motley Crue, Rat. Not only did it all sound good, but the cover art was so great. I recall trying to draw Iron Maiden letters and it was similar to graffiti. Pushead and Derek Riggs did all the Iron Maiden artwork. It was so inspiring. Oh, and Japanther! They’re the only new band I like.
Are there any contemporary artists putting out work that you find interesting these days?
Dave Schubert, Teen Witch, Peter Beste, Terry Richardson, Terry Gilliam, Werner Herzog, Harmony Korine. I like the new school photographers. Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, WeeGee. Basically I’m very inspired by all my favorite movies and musicians of all time. I don’t really seek out too many new artists. I feel like I have enough motivation and inspiration to last me. I’m very stubborn in that sense.
What’s up with this guy Josh Blank? He seems to always be with you everywhere you go or just down the block or on the phone with you. [Laughs].
That’s like my best friend. I met him in New York when he was 16. He a good partner and pushes me to create more. We share ideas generously. We are a good team. He’s more money oriented and I’m on the opposite spectrum. His photography is becoming more editorial, story oriented, where my photography is more esthetic. He’s got one of those really fancy digital cameras where I still prefer crappy Polaroids, Nickelodeon cameras, disposables, Holgas, and plastic cameras. When Josh takes pictures he knows what he wants and it’s visually accurate. When I take a photograph I want there to be flaws, light leaks, distorted color, things out of focus and blurred; not look like reality. Low-tech photos. That’s why I like photocopied zines.
In the last year or so you’ve been painting on records and hanging them in alleys with a single pushpin. They seemed to get swooped up and taken to people’s homes real fast. I was fortunate to find one recently. Free art for the public?
I like free things. I like finding neat little things on the street. It’s fun to have little things for people to discover and keep or leave for others.
Do you still have that Shyness Is Nice needlepoint I gave you?
Yeah, I actually still need to hang that on the wall.
You threw it away didn’t you?
No way! I still have it. [Laughs].
*Interview and photographs by Austin McManus
*Excerpts originally from Juxtapoz interview