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July 12-18, 2006

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'Sticker Nation'

Glue Factory: Srini Kumar would be an ideal contestant on 'The Apprentice: Subculture Edition.'

Stuck on You

Srini Kumar promotes radical theory and goofiness one sticker at a time

By Todd Inoue


AS A student of sociology and punk rock at Stanford during the early-'90s, Srini Kumar was attracted as much to issues of class and affinity grouping as he was to the Minutemen and the Church of the Subgenius. His desire to squirt butane on the torches manifested in a unique vehicle for social change: stickers. With sayings that ranged from the goofy ("TALK NERDY TO ME") to patriotic ("TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION IS TYRANNY") to whimsical ("DON'T EAT YOUR SOUL TO FILL YOUR BELLY") to paradoxical ("GO BEYOND SLOGANS"), Kumar sifted through the file folders of his brain in hopes to effect change and infiltrate minds through adhesive-backed agitation. It's been 12 years since the first sticker rolled off the press, and Kumar recently published his first book Sticker Nation: The Big Book of Subversive Stickers Volume 1—432 stickers with attendant explanations, ready for the masses to plaster.

"They all say something bizarre and oblique," Kumar explains, speaking from North Carolina, where he is halfway through his MBA. "There's politics about all of them. I like to think all my ideas are not made to end discussion but begin it."

In 1994, Kumar co-founded Unamerican.com, a clearinghouse of progressive ideology as well as a depot for his growing sticker empire (an empire that attracted the feds' attention due to its inflammatory name, post-9/11). Kumar stuck to cleverly worded phrases set in Helvetica. He would sell the mental speed bumps at punk-rock shows on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and on the net. It's become a burgeoning business, expanding to T-shirts and coffee mugs. "The success we had was a factor of hard work as well as really having something to say," Kumar says. "I have this need to catalyze people's thought processes, because there is a lot of default behavior and thinking that takes over."

There is poetry to a good sticker, a process that Kumar describes like something that psychically pops in your head. "Philip K. Dick has a theory there's a satellite that beams ideas into our head. It can't beam a paragraph; it can beam a snappy phrase." Kumar—a member of the surf group the Aquamen and an admitted anarchist—compares his sloganeering talent to what he says the Republicans have perfected: taking wedge issues and boiling them down to easy-to-digest sound bites.

"The Republicans have done well with the means themselves, like calling the estate tax the 'death tax,'" he says. "If anything, they've had [this skill] forever. I like to think of Unamerican as the antithesis of Karl Rove. We're opening up issues you thought were closed and bringing new ideas to the agenda rather than through media penetration. We're just saying things in an obvious and clever way."

And who couldn't get a chuckle out of left-field proclamations like "PROTEST SLAVE LABOR AT YOUR LOCAL MALL," "ASK ME ABOUT MY CONSPIRACY THEORY," "ADMIT THAT GOTH IS RIDICULOUS" or "RIGHT-WING RADIO: THE VOICE OF SATAN." Kumar also can't resist the pranksterish nature of his work. A wryly worded idea appears in his mind, is printed on a sticker and is purchased and plastered on a piece of luggage or bike helmet for the world to see. It's like he's hacked the world without having to click a mouse. A website (Stickernation.com) is set up for anyone to create their own stickers ("open-sourcing" he calls it)—250 for $50. He prints them out of his North Carolina warehouse.

"It's expanding my brain out into the world," he says. "The word I use in the book is 'ventriloquism.' I'm making someone else's bike speak, using my voice. The world is your playground, and stickers are a phenomenon that helps you customize it. Tweak your belongings so they turn into megaphones."


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