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Philly Street Art Interviews: Meet Bob, Philadelphia’s Reigning Sticker King

December 3, 2018

(Photos by Streets Dept Contributor Eric Dale)

Welcome to Streets Dept’s newest series of street artist interviews, created in partnership with Philadelphia’s own unofficial official street art museum, Tattooed Mom. Each month, Streets Dept Contributor Eric Dale will sit down with one local street artist to ask them about their work. Together, we’ll learn more about the incredible artists getting up around Philly.

Before Bob Will Reign, Philadelphia had no sticker art scene to speak of. It’s not like the streets were pristine—there was plenty of graffiti—but it rarely strayed from the realm of spray paint. No stickers adorned the backs of street signs. No characters sprang up from inside newspaper bins.

Back then, Bob was just a kid from New Jersey who liked graffiti and design. Now,
he’s looked upon as Philadelphia’s sticker king, one of the first two artists who originated the culture of hand-drawn, cut-out sticker characters here in Philly.

I sat down with Bob Will Reign at Tattooed Mom to learn about how it all got started, and how things have changed, both for the artist and for the culture.

Streets Dept: Thanks for stopping by, Bob! So when did you slap your first slap?
Bob Will Reign: The first Bob sticker was probably 2002 or 3, but I started with regular graffiti. I remember seeing it when I was little. In Jersey, there was this guy near me—I never met him or anything—but he wrote “BUZ.” And that happened to be my nickname that my dad gave me when I was little. So I would be driving to the mall or something with my mom and be like whoa, that’s my name, like, huge on the wall! I never really thought about it, but subconsciously, since I saw that, I kinda started paying attention to it. I was always into drawing and doodling, and one day I just started to do letters. And then I started to do different words, and I was just like man, this is pretty cool!

But Bob started, actually, when the internet became more available. I would just get on Google to look up graffiti; like why do people do this? because it was so interesting to me. In Europe at the time, people were doing more of the stickers like what we see here—characters and logos and things. That’s kind of what got me into Bob, because at the same time, I was going to school for design. So graffiti letters were really interesting to me and I liked doing it, but once I saw that people were doing it with logos and designs and stuff, I was like I think it would be cool to do THAT—to come up with my own logo that I could put everywhere.

SD: Tell us about Bob. Who is he?
BWR: I wanted to come up with something that was simple enough that if somebody was just walking by and glanced at it, without even thinking about it, if they kept seeing it, they would recognize it after a certain amount of time. Kind of like how corporations use a logo. If I did this very simple character, as simple as it could be, it would be as easily recognizable to people that weren’t into graffiti. In Philly, at the time, there was nobody really doing anything with the stickers like that—with logos or characters or anything. So I was like if I do something that’s simple, like a face, ordinary people might start recognizing it.

SD: And did that happen?
BWR: Yeah, after a few years of putting it everywhere! I would go to things years later, and realize how much of an impact it had. I would be talking to somebody at an art show—like, if I was drawing or doodling, they would be like what is that? I’ve seen that! I don’t know where, but I know I’ve seen that! Why do I know what that is? And that’s what I was trying to go for!

SD: How did the whole sticker scene get started in Philadelphia, and what was your role in it?
BWR: Me and El Toro both started around the same time. When I started doing it, there was nothing. Philly graffiti is really traditional, and has its own roots. People didn’t really venture too far into different ways of getting up. They would use markers and stickers, but not like New York or London or other cities. You could go to London in 2003, and there were stickers everywhere! Graffiti, characters, logos, random designs, everything. Philly was in a bubble, while all these other cities had this going on. So I think I kind of got lucky with my timing. I didn’t set out like I’m going to be the first to do this, but it made it easier for me to get recognized.

So me and El Toro were doing it. There was no way to get in touch with somebody [doing stickers] back then. You couldn’t just Google their Instagram name. So the closest thing to social media was… FotoLog I think it was called? You basically posted a picture and people could comment on the bottom of it. It was very primitive. So I made up some anonymous email for that, and [El Toro] emailed me. We were like let’s meet up! It was weird—we were both so paranoid. He brought a friend and I brought a friend… I don’t know what we thought was going to happen! But it was kinda cool, because after that we teamed up. We pushed each other to put up stickers. We were putting them ALL OVER. It got to the point where every single corner and every news bin… It was like a plague or something! But I think that’s what kind of snowballed. We were everywhere, so anybody that was into art or graffiti would see it, and be like wow, this is something new. I want to do that. So I think little by little, people started jumping on and doing it. I think it excited people, as something different and new, that they could get into if they didn’t want to go spray paint on walls—to take it to that level. They could draw on stickers… and everybody likes stickers! A lot of them were art students who had their own characters already that they had been drawing for years.

SD: You’re a founding member (together with El Toro, UnderWaterPirates, josh?, and ticky) of one of the earliest sticker crews, Sticky Bandits. Why did you guys form a crew, and what did you get out of it?
BWR: El Toro kind of came up with the idea and started it. I don’t know if we were the first sticker crew… but I think we were the most organized at the time. We were like let’s get shows, let’s stick together. El Toro would be like hey I talked to this guy who has a shop; he said he’d do a show for us. All of us would be included, immediately. We would have solo shows too, but it was kind of a strength-in-numbers thing to push into galleries. We’d get together and hang out and draw, and we’d all bring stickers and markers, and in the coming weeks, we’d see them up. Like, El Toro must have put that up! It was cool. It was a good time.

SD: Ok, I feel like we’ve missed a major chunk here—how do we get from this brand new sticker scene in Philly to having shows?
BWR: I guess it was just putting our work on canvases. People who were into street art at the time, in Philly especially, were excited about it. So I guess when we started having shows, it was like oh, they’re artists. And then people were excited to buy the artwork. When you put a sticker out there, it’s not like somebody can take it. To be able to bring some of it home was cool for people.

SD: Can you tell us about the Sticky Art Machine that you curate here at Tattooed Mom?
BWR: Somebody had a machine like that early on, somewhere down on South Street—this girl who did Nerds stickers. She brought artists from around the country at the time. Like I said, everybody loves stickers, so to be able to buy a street artist’s stickers was a cool thing! And it also gave exposure to these artists. So one day I started thinking that doing something here would be kinda perfect—to bring back that idea. I haven’t been as active the last few years, so I was like what could I do to be relevant, but in a different way? So there’s two sides of the machine: one Philly sticker artist, and one from another city that either I like or Robert [the owner of Tattooed Mom] likes—someone that is making an impact where they are.

In stickers, everybody’s kind of cooperating with each other. It’s not like a competition; everybody was excited about everybody that was doing it. It was never like oh your stuff sucks or that’s dumb, why do you do that. No matter what someone did, if they were putting them up, we would trade stickers. I would put theirs up, send them a picture, here’s your sticker in Philly, and they would send me one, here’s yours in Paris… it was cool! And it was kind of like teamwork, like a fun collaboration, with everybody doing the same thing. So now, the machine is like a way to keep up that [tradition]. To bring an artist from Los Angeles to Philly… To be able to give their stickers to people here.

SD: I’ve been curious about the incorporation of the copyright symbol into your work. Is that a sort of commentary on stuff like H&M?
BWR: I guess it could take on that meaning, but I started doing that before that whole H&M thing. I think I did it sarcastically at the time. There were a few people in Philly that were ripping off me and El Toro, like making a character that wasn’t really their own thing—they kind of just took pieces of ours. I remember the first one I did with the copyright thing—I filled the entire sticker with like 100 copyright symbols. It said “this is mine” or something like that, so I put it out there sort of in that person’s face, like this is my design, this is my thing. But then I started using it as a design accent, I guess. It just became an extra element—like I’ll throw an arrow here, or the copyright symbol there.

SD: What advice would you give to someone starting out as a sticker artist?
BWR: Something El Toro always said was hand-drawn stickers are important. For a while, we almost… discredited people who just printed their stickers. It’s like come up with a design, send it off, print out 5,000 stickers, and go put them up? To hand-draw every sticker—we both do vinyl; obviously it’s a big part of it—but the hand-drawn stickers are putting an actual piece of artwork that you made out. It would be like if a gallery artist would paint their canvass, throw it out on the street, and then never see it ever again. The vinyl is cool, but there’s vinyl stickers everywhere—politicians use vinyl stickers. There is an exception to vinyl—the writer CASPA from Baltimore uses almost exclusively vinyl. He cuts each one and they have layers. He’s been doing it for longer than me, and his crew HITS uses TONS of vinyl. They are an exception for sure. But yeah, it’s your art, your design, but we always thought that if you’re a sticker artist, drawing your stickers—at least some of them—is important.

SD: Well yeah, when people talk about Philadelphia’s sticker tradition, they talk about Bob and El Toro hand-drawing and hand-cutting-out all their stickers.
BWR: It’s so much more work. Maybe we were just pissed, when people put up vinyl and got out of all the hard work! Haha! To print vinyl stickers, you mail it off and it gets printed. There’s a whole process when you’re hand-drawing. And when you’re putting up thousands of stickers, you need a LOT. You need to go to the post office and take all their stickers. Go to three post offices. Go to the UPS bins and take all their stickers. Then you go home and you draw on all these stickers. Then you cut them out—it looks so much better when you cut out the character. So then you sit there for an hour cutting stickers, and your fingers are all calloused up—I used to have a mark from the scissors rubbing. It’s a lot of time before you go put them up! So we took that seriously.

SD: Sticker art has changed in many ways over the course of your career. What, in your mind, has been the biggest shift?
BWR: The Internet. Social media, especially Instagram, makes it easier for people to get their work out there without really physically having to do it. You can go out and put 20 stickers up and post them, and then people all over the world see your thing. Whereas before the Internet, you go out and put 20 stickers up… 20 stickers is nothing! You know? In a huge city, if you put 20 stickers, nobody’s gonna see them. Back then, I had to put a lot more work into making a presence. I would go at night and put 500 stickers up. Multiple nights! Go home. Make 500 more stickers. Then two days later, go out and put up 500 more stickers. You had to put in a lot of work to really make an impact. Whereas today… I’m guilty of it too—I’m not as active anymore, but I’ll do a couple paintings at home, and put some stickers up, and for people who aren’t from here, it’s like I’m active. But if you actually [walked the streets], you might see a couple of my stickers, but you’d be like where’s all the Bob stickers? You know? It’s easy to get a false representation of what’s really going on in the streets.

SD: It sounds like you view that as a negative?
BWR: I guess mostly negative… There’s definitely benefits, cause it’s nice to be able to see what everybody’s doing; to show what you’re doing; it’s very simple. But yeah, there’s definitely a negative impact, I think. Especially with the mainstream—like, people see it now. It’s accepted a little more. Back then, it was underground and not as easily accessible to normal people.

SD: How do you feel about that mainstreaming?
BRW: I don’t know, I guess it’s just like a natural evolution of it. Graffiti kind of had its own separate timeline of that. When people started doing the subways in New York, it was this new thing. But eventually it became let’s put these train writers in a gallery. It slowly broke into the mainstream. Now, graffiti is definitely still illegal, but it’s in advertising, and [the H&M thing]… It’s like almost accepted. Street art kind of had the same thing; same timeline.

SD: El Toro recently posted about this on Instagram, saying that putting up stickers could lead to jail time when you guys first started. So I want to ask you the very question he posed: is mainstream acceptance of street art a good thing or a bad thing for the culture?
BWR: It’s obviously a good thing, cause that’s what anybody doing it would want—people to accept it. I don’t want to be one of those people that’s like oh, it’s lame now. I don’t want to do it anymore because it’s accepted. But back then, it was kind of lumped in with graffiti. There was no “street art” and “graffiti.” It was all just “illegal graffiti.” So if you put up stickers, especially the amount we were doing… We had people that wanted to find us. Whether it was the Metro city paper—we heard rumors that their higher-ups were pissed, cause they had to clean these boxes all the time… There was some rogue police officer that was trying to find us, doing a vigilante-type thing. He knew who we were, somehow, and was posting pictures of our faces… He looked into our family life…

SD: He was doxing you?!
BWR: Yeah, he was trying to, I don’t know, scare us away from doing it? I don’t know what happened to that guy, but it was a pretty scary time. We were just doing stickers, but it was like people want us to STOP. It wasn’t accepted or anything, but we were so passionate that we kept going. So it kind of weeded out people that didn’t want to risk it, that weren’t into it for the right reasons. We were into it for the cause of what we were building—we knew it was a cool thing for Philly. Now, if I walked around and put up a hundred stickers and got caught by a police officer—people are always gonna hate it—but I don’t think it would be like how it was. I think it would be like knock it off. A slap on the wrist. So it’s easier for people who aren’t really into it—they might just jump in and out for, like, a month. Which is good because there’s more people doing it, but there was maybe more respect back then for doing it.

SD: You once made a sticker that said “I would have been different without graffiti.” What does that mean to you?
BWR: That was an important one for me. It was one that I had to put up. I guess when I wrote that, I was thinking about my life, and how much time I put into [stickers]. Thinking if I didn’t spend the hundreds of hours walking until four in the morning, what would I be like? What would my life be like? What would I be into? I spent so much time on it that it changed the trajectory of my life. When I wrote that, I was kind of bummed out about it, like, man, did I fuck up? It was at a crossroads where I needed to try to be an adult and have a career, and I was like did I mess up by spending 10 years just putting up stickers and writing on walls? So it was kind of like a negative when I did it, and then the more I think about it, it’s like alright, I did it and I was proud of it, so without it, maybe I wouldn’t have all these interesting stories or I wouldn’t have met all these cool people. So it kind of turned into a positive.

SD: So how would you have been different? If you hadn’t been putting hundreds of hours into stickers, what would you have been spending your time on?
BRW: I don’t know! I don’t know what I would have done with all that time! I guess everybody else just drank and partied? I don’t know, people play sports and do whatever hobbies they have; I did [stickers]. I feel like maybe at the time, I needed it, for anxiety and the stress of life. It kind of carried me through a lot of things. When you’re doing it, you’re not you. You’re doing this work, and you totally escape everything. You’re in that moment. You could totally leave everyday life and go out and be this other guy.

SD: How do you think Philly would be different without graffiti?
BRW: For ordinary people in the city, obviously it would be better for the city to not have graffiti. But for people who are involved in graffiti, I think it would be a loss. The graffiti culture in Philly goes so DEEP. [Writers here] pay attention to people who came before them. And everybody does it for different reasons, but when they come together, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. I always thought graffiti was cool in the sense that there are no barriers like race or anything like that.

SD: I know you’ve periodically toyed with the idea of quitting stickers. What keeps you going? Is there anything that would make you stop?
BWR: I don’t think so. I knew it would never stop when I first started. I used to joke that I would be an old dude with a cane and still have a sticker in my pocket ready to go. It’s different now in that I’m not going out, organized-mission style, with a map of Philly. It’s not as serious now, but I don’t think I’ll ever quit. Even now, I always have stickers ready, even if it’s just one in my wallet. It’s never gonna stop—it’s crazy.

SD: So when will Bob finally reign?
BWR: Haha. I don’t know, maybe he did already. I think it all happened in the heyday. I just think it’s cool that it made an impact. I think it’s crazy that kids that were like five when I started doing it now see Bob and they’re like that’s Bob! It lasted—I’m not really doing it as often as I used to, but it’s kind of in the history books. Graffiti writers in Philly today are still like Bob is the sticker king. So I think he definitely reigned.

…And the will reign started as a joke too, like the copyright thing. It happened during that whole crazy time when I was just putting up thousands of stickers. It was kind of an ego thing. Bob will reign. I put it on a couple, and then it kind of became his full name. And then it became like Robert William Reign… It was kind of a joke, but it stuck, I guess.

SD: What’s your lunch order at Tattooed Mom?
BWR: Cheesy tots!

SD: Thanks for doing this interview!
BWR: Thank you! I was thinking about it and this is my first sit-down interview ever about Bob. I’m glad to have been able to say all of that after all these years.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

PHILLY: Join Tattooed Mom’s every Sunday in December for their FREE Sunday Arts & Crafts: Holiday Decorations!

Celebrate the season in style with a plethora of crafty decorations, garnishes, and trimmings! Customize your very own ornament or snowman, bedazzle a stocking, or decorate a holiday coloring book page! Take your creations with you, or add to the holiday cheer at TMOMs and donate your work to our Arts & Crafts holiday art gallery… Learn more HERE!

Read past articles from our Philly Street Art Interviews series by clicking the artists name: Hope Hummingbird, FaithsFunnn.

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