July 27 2011 10:49 AM

Two artists want the public to share their personal connections with public places

Claire Bidwell and Liz Erickson are starting to see the backs of street signs, light poles and electrical boxes in a new light.

“This is where we vandalize, mildly,” Erickson says, scribbling a message on what looks like a yellow “Hello My Name is” badge. She stands up and heads outside toward the busy intersection of Richmond Street and University Avenue, in front of Filter Coffee House in Hillcrest.

Camera in hand, Bidwell follows and snaps a few photos after Erickson secures the sticker—which reads “This is where... I learned to love being asexual”—on a light post, next to one of the cute and pervasive cat stickers by a project called Random Cats of Kindness. The gals take a minute to survey the nearby street-sticker landscape and point out a yellow rooster head by another street artist who uses the moniker That Kid Peep.

“We see that one everywhere,” Bidwell says.

“We're seeing stickers all around and starting to recognize the styles,” Erickson adds.

After their sticker is placed and photographed, the two obediently wait for the light to change before they cross the street and head toward Bidwell's hybrid car.

“We vandalize,” Bidwell says about leaving vinyl stickers in public places. “But, otherwise, we use crosswalks. We're law-abiding.”

A short drive away later, the girls are back at it, wandering around the perimeter of a doctor's office in Hillcrest, looking for a good place to put a yellow-and-white sticker with Erikson's words, “This is where… I finally asked for help.” They say the placement of a sticker is sort of an art. It has to be prominent enough so people see it, but not so obvious that it'll immediately get taken down.

They later drive to the parking lot of Dave & Buster's in Mission Valley. It's so squeaky-clean and sticker-free that they eventually resign themselves to the fact that it'll likely be torn off within a day. Bidwell scrawls the words “This is where... I was stalked and followed all night long. Worst. Date. Ever.” written neatly in marker, then photographs it for their “This is Where” blog, where she'll post it along with a more detailed and intimate account of the story behind the sticker.

The messages the two write on the stickers and the stories they later share on their blog range from deeply personal and profound to simple, cute and funny. Their goal is to share their personal connections with public places and encourage others to do the same.

“I kind of think the weighty ones make a stronger impact when you see them in the wild,” Erickson says, her swaths of pink-and-teal-streaked hair blowing in the wind. “It's unexpected, I guess. When you see a sticker, you're like, Wow, someone was having a really intense experience right here. It sort of takes you out of the everyday wandering around.”

Bidwell and Erickson started “This is Where” in May after they came across a similar project by New Orleans artist and urban planner Candy Chang. Amid the vacant buildings and urban blight in her city, Chang launched her “I Wish This Was” sticker campaign in 2010.

“Cities are full of vacant storefronts, and people need things,” she writes on her project website. “These stickers are an easy tool to voice what you want, where you want it.”

Thousands of fill-in-the-blank stickers that read “I wish this was ____” were given out, and responses ranging from “A city in the midst of a revolution” to “A grocery store with fresh veg' n' beer!” started rolling in. The stickers continue to pop up across New Orleans and other cities.

Bidwell and Erickson loved the project and wanted to participate, but they felt the “I Wish This Was” message didn't work as well in San Diego, a developed city where the need for things like grocery stores and community gardens isn't quite as immediate or impassioned as it is in New Orleans. Nor were they comfortable using Chang's same sentiment, so they decided to come up with a message of their own.

One day and 90 emails later, Erickson and Bidwell had their three simple but poignant words, “This is where ____.”

“Our stickers are simple,” Bidwell says. “I don't know that the stickers on their own are beautiful, but it's the story and the connection people have with that place.”

“It's connecting with people through a shared space,” Erickson adds, “and convincing people that they have stories worth sharing.”

The two started with a test batch of 250 stickers and quickly burned through the stack. Friends and friends of friends started buying the stickers from their site, writing their own messages and submitting their photos and stories to the blog. There's a sticker outside a salon in Ocean Beach about a transgendered woman who finds a hairstylist who makes her feel respected and human alongside tales about falling in love, sharing kisses and a few heart-wrenching posts about suffering from severe anxiety and depression.

“I get the sense from some of the stickers that have come in that people needed a low-barrier-to-entry medium to express stories,” Erickson says. “It's like, Well, OK, here; go with it. And it's so fun to see people running with it… It really is a community project. Your story really is valid.”

Much more than an individual art endeavor, Erickson and Bidwell consider “This is Where” a community-engagement campaign. They've ordered more stickers and watched in awe as the site's traffic has grown and submissions have started rolling in from places outside San Diego.

And while the shared experiences seem to serve a cathartic or therapeutic purpose for many who have posted their stories on the site, other stickers seem to have inspired urban exploration.

“It's kind of fun to just go out and place stickers because you get to see the city in a new way,” Erickson says. “In a big city, you can get so used to hanging out in one area and forget to go out and explore.”

Write to kinseem@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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