‘Wheaties’ artists get creative outside the box

Some 120 years after Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge posters surfaced on the lamp posts and kiosks of Paris, street artists reinvigorated by the antique charms of gluepot and paper are dipping into buckets of mix-it-yourself wheat paste to plaster supersized graphics on urban surfaces around the world.

The international paste-up revival, documented in “It’s a Stick-Up” (Laurence King), features “wheaties” from San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Paris, Beijing, Brooklyn, Turin, Italy, and São Paulo, Brazil. Local artists include Morley, who glues self-portraits accompanied by feel-good slogans on utility boxes, bus stops and construction sites; ABCNT, a specialist in politically charged imagery; and Kid Acne, the creator of “Stabby Women” figures inspired by fantasy artist Frank Frazetta’s female barbarians.

Why wheaties, why now? Means, motives and message vary wildly. Morley studied screenwriting at the School of Visual Arts in New York. When he moved to Los Angeles in 2006, he shifted from small-scale subway stickers to posters emblazoned with words of encouragement. Sample text: “I promise you you’re not just a waitress.”

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“As a screenwriter, there are so many layers you have to go through to tell your story,” Morley, 31, says by phone. “What appeals to me about paste-up is that you’re cutting through all the middle men and expressing yourself and bringing it right to the world that the audience lives in.”

ABCNT, an Art Center College of Design graduate, cites Robbie Conal’s politically barbed caricatures from the 1980s as precedent for a loose-knit community of provocateurs including Skullphone, Cryptik and Shark Toof, whom he showcased in a 2010 “Marxist Glue” exhibition in Little Tokyo. ABCNT says, “I’m Iranian, but I was born in Los Angeles. Growing up, I had an understanding of geopolitical issues and wanted to make kind of pretty propaganda that would get younger people interested in politics.”

The 31-year old artist previously called himself Absent and used AbcntMinded as his DJ name before arriving at his current moniker. “ABCNT stands for the unseen,” he says. “All the anonymous activists around the world; people who are on the same page trying to make the world a better place.”

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ABCNT, who has seven pieces scattered around Los Angeles, cuts around the contours of images that include an 8-foot-tall woman dressed in a burka and sunglasses. “The whole idea of silhouetting is to make the image so it kind of floats and doesn’t look like a giant poster,” he says. “I want it to be sort of subversive and blend into the environment.”

Unlike graffiti, paste-up remains relatively rare in Los Angeles, with works popping up sporadically from Santa Monica and Silver Lake to downtown.

“It’s a Stick-Up” author Oliver Walker, a London-based designer, views paste-up as a companion to the stencil-based street art famously practiced by British prankster Banksy. “I don’t think of paste-up as retro,” he says. “Due to advances in technology, it’s possible now to work with new materials on a vast scale.”

Pragmatic considerations also come into play, since biodegradable wheat paste and paper generally prompt a more forgiving law enforcement response than does spray-can graffiti. Walker says, “The paste-up scene grew through necessity because premaking your art means that you can get it up quickly and move on to your next spot before you get caught.”