Peel Slowly and See

At the Ace Hotel.Photo: Douglas Lyle Thompson

Starting in the early nineties, Michael Anderson, a Bronx-born artist, began to amass what has come to be regarded—unofficially, and mostly by Anderson himself—as the world’s largest collection of graffiti stickers. Such a claim implies a consuming passion, but Anderson says he was never very dedicated. All he did was carry a Leatherman tool, and whenever he was out in the city he’d peel a few stickers off a wall or lamppost and slip them in a notebook. If he found one that was cool but hard to remove, he’d let the elements work on it and return later. If it was damaged or gone by then, so be it.

The collection now numbers at least 40,000—a testament to the sheer number of graffiti stickers, which are so ubiquitous in New York as to be nearly invisible, the visual equivalent of a honking taxi horn. For years, they sat quietly in notebooks in the artist’s Upper West Side apartment. Last April, the owners of the new Ace Hotel at 29th and Broadway came calling with a mural commission. Completed last month, it’s most likely the only museum devoted to this extremely ephemeral form.

Consisting of 4,000 or so stickers scanned from Anderson’s notebooks, printed in black-and-white on silk paper, and assembled into a dense collage, the mural evokes both the Giuliani years and a grittier, preboom downtown. “I think of myself more like the curator rather than the artist,” Anderson says, standing in the Ace lobby. As a curator and collector, he took an egalitarian approach: The mural contains stickers by well-known graffiti-ers like Barry McGee (who tagged as Twist) and Steve Powers (ESPO), as well as those of the unknown and untalented.

“Look at this one,” Anderson says, pointing to a U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail label, a favored canvas for graffiti artists. (HELLO, MY NAME IS decals are popular, too.) It’s scribbled lamely with the words DA BRONX. “So crappy, right? But I took anything.” The result is a work that draws in viewers. Up close, you notice the subtleties: the way two stickers from one artist, created at different times, may repeat or adjoin one another, and a forgettable tag like STREN will be next to something incendiary like COPS: HANG ’EM. CUT ’EM. KILL ’EM.

Anderson continues to collect, claiming he’s preserving art that would otherwise be destroyed. The taggers haven’t always shared that view. Once, near Canal Street, a guy dressed him down as he saw Anderson lift his sticker. Canonization by way of the Ace hasn’t softened the attitude. Asked about the mural via e-mail, Steve Powers responded that “stickers are meant to be ephemeral, not to be poached and hoarded.” Then he called Anderson a “fanbot.”

At least one tagger whose work is represented in the mural has acknowledged the project, however. According to hotel staff, the scenester known as the Arab Parrot made his way into the Ace before the mural was to be sealed up with a polyurethane coating. Then he affixed one last sticker.

Peel Slowly and See