Molly Murphy and The Wil$ons$ stick it to 'em.

High Fliers 

Molly Murphy and The Wil$ons$ stick it to 'em.

The alley that runs parallel to Massachusetts Street between Eighth and Ninth streets in Lawrence is splotched with gray paint. It's as if a city worker picked up the wrong bucket, then accidentally splashed gray patches on top of the cream-colored walls. But artist Molly Murphy tells a different story. The workers are covering up stickers and posters that she and a few others have been designing, illustrating, photocopying and plastering all over Lawrence and beyond.

"Generally," she explains, "every three days after we put stuff up, they paint over it."

Murphy and a pair of brothers who call themselves the Wil$on$ (that's Wil$on W. Wil$on and Wil$on Wil$on Wil$on) have spearheaded what Murphy describes as a free-art initiative. She photocopies her black-and-white ink drawings on stickers, then adds whatever coloring needs to be done by hand, one sticker at a time. She then leaves stacks of finished stickers in public places, and people she doesn't know do the posting for her, like bees carrying pollen from flower to flower. "I put my art in irresponsible hands," she declares without remorse. "If it happens to go up, say, on a wall, that's leagues beyond my control."

Murphy's unofficial helpers probably also take some of the stickers home, and that's fine. "Part of the point is to throw out a message that other people don't necessarily endorse, and the other part is just to throw out images people might have fun with," she says.

One of Murphy's stickers -- a simple one depicting two frolicking horses -- rides around on the bumper of a Kansas City car. In Lawrence's Replay Lounge, down the street from the alley, Murphy's stickers practically cover the tip jars. "Eat Sushi," one commands, above the head of an ink-drawn woman who's doing just that. (With a little help from a pen-wielding drinker, this one has been transformed so that it now reads "Eat Shit.") On another, a girl tries to French-kiss her teddy bear alongside an instruction to "Practice."

Murphy's most popular sticker depicts two young women wearing nothing but underwear and shoes, holding hands against a stark-black background. "Don't hate lipstick," the text insists. "With most of my stickers, if there's a political message, it's about liberating your own image," she says. "But mine aren't too political. Once you've put something out in public, people notice it, even if it's small. They'll notice because it's misplaced, at least to them, so there's really no need to push the message down their throats. They'll get it."

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., a few of Murphy's faithful deposited stickers every 20 feet along the White House fence. In spite of Murphy's stated belief that "revolution should be more cute," security guards removed the girly stickers in a short twenty minutes.

Murphy acknowledges that some of her pieces have been inflammatory. One of her more elaborately drawn stickers portrays an elephant humping a wide-eyed Statue of Liberty from behind. The only text on the page reads "Homeland Security." Beside the phrase is a box that's been checked off. It's as though homeland security were only one item on a smutty Republican's "to do" list.

But the sticker that got the most attention was a creation by the Wil$on$ that went up all over Lawrence in February. In a primitive collage, the phrase "Terrorism is my anty drug" ran alongside a bar code with an image of George W. Bush pontificating below. Pieces of the poster are still stuck on the wall in the alley -- thanks to the Wil$on$' sturdy wheat-pasting job. What remains of the hardened paper is peeling back like rotting wallpaper. A few letters from the slogan hover disjointedly above the eerily persistent bar code.

What's funny about this poster is that what initially sounds like a subversive statement actually makes little sense. What does "Terrorism is my anty drug" mean? Anty isn't even a word. But the slogan sounds cool, and it might mean that the artists like terrorism and not drugs or, more likely, that they like drugs and not terrorism. Maybe the statement implies that linking drug use with support for terrorism (as recent TV commercials have done) is absurd. Maybe all they're saying, in their own language, is that terrorism brings them down.

In any event, the Wil$on$ simply rearranged paradigms that the evening news had been feeding the country for five months. And anyone who wants to see the last remaining poster cannot fail to also look at the gesture that, days later, tried to mute the poster's irreverence. By scraping and peeling, the person who came to tear down the art became part of the art itself. This is oddly beautiful, a visual representation of dialogue.

"That was when people were just starting to think again," Murphy observes. "Everyone got really excited when they saw that poster. I think that's really what started this whole thing." Since then, so many Lawrence residents have started making stickers and putting them up that copy clerks have been demanding that Murphy explain what's going on. "The guy at Kinko's was like, 'OK, I know who the three of you are, but who are all these other people? There are, like, fifteen of you now. We've used up so much sticker paper that I had to drive to Topeka yesterday to get more.'"

Kinko's isn't the only institution caving in to relentless guerrilla artists. The owners of the Replay Lounge grew so accustomed to Murphy's stickers that they gave her wall space to paint on, next to charmingly off-kilter murals by Travis Millard. (This artsy former Lawrence resident has recently drawn comic strips for the back page of Spin in addition to having been named one of summer's hottest boys by Seventeen.) "I have a feeling they gave me that mural just so I'd stop putting stuff up," Murphy says. Her work depicts a pair of Siamese twins with bright-red hair playing pinball, each twin placing her single hand on one button with "double play" painted below. The Replay wanted another pinball-themed piece, Murphy says, to go along with some work by graffiti artists elsewhere in the bar. "They weren't thrilled with the Siamese-twin idea at first, but I think Siamese twins are about as rare as pinball tables these days."

Some skateboarders put their own stickers on the wall while she was painting it, but Murphy took that taste of her own medicine without wincing. "I just painted them into the piece," she says, pointing to decorative stars with stickers inside of them.

Murphy usually enjoys the public's engagement with her work, even when it reveals misunderstandings. One sticker shows a lady with braids in a tipped cowboy hat, wearing boots with spurs, along with the word "Cowgirl." "It means nothing," Murphy says. But a visitor to the Replay has changed the text to read "Treat cowgirls like barn animals." "When you don't get to choose your audience, you never know how people will interpret things," Murphy says. "The only one that ever irritated me was when somebody tore the Don'ts off of 'Don't hate lipstick.'"

Neither Murphy nor the Wil$on$ are especially bothered by the short life span of their art -- they did make the decision to stop using wheat paste in favor of easily removable stickers. And they know that posting fliers is against the law. The Lawrence city code specifies that "No person shall post or affix any notice, poster or paper device, calculated to attract the attention of the public, to any lamp post, public utility pole, or shade tree, or trash receptacle, or upon any public structure or building, except as authorized by law, or approved by the City Commission." And in a recent letter reprimanding the owner of the new Jimmy John's restaurant for printing menus on fliers and posting them around town, Staff Attorney Toni Ramirez Wheeler writes that "Maintaining the attractiveness of downtown Lawrence will only enhance your business."

But what about the gray paint? One of the Wil$on$ theorizes that maybe the gray-painters are a band of minimalist graffiti artists. "That's our rival gang: the Johnsons. They want to paint Lawrence gray one square at a time."


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