💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
You generally don’t look at your feet to find street art. But over the past month, people have been looking down at Center City crosswalks and finding something cool: little blue-and-yellow humanoid figures next to peace symbols.
The artwork appears to be in the style of stikman, a figure that’s been posted all around Philly and other cities by a locally-based anonymous artist, although no one has yet stepped up to officially claim responsibility.
The new figure and symbol appear embedded in the asphalt in the middle of crosswalks — in-the-street art, if you will. It’s not entirely clear how the artist was able to navigate traffic during installation.
In each case, the robot-like character bears the colors of the Ukrainian flag, which has become a common symbol of support for the Ukrainian people since February’s Russian invasion.
What/who is stikman?
You might’ve seen stikman around Philly before, and no, that’s not the name of an artist. It’s a robot-like figure that’s shown up for decades on telephone poles, street signs, crosswalks, and other public-facing surfaces — familiar to some observant passersby, but often unnoticed by others.
The boxy little guys can be made of things like wood, metal, or plastic stuck to surfaces, or some sort of tile embedded into asphalt.
The creator has previously talked to art blogs and the press, but throughout it all, managed to keep their name obscured.
“Sometimes I make something I think is extraordinary and nobody else responds to it; sometimes I make something I see as not so much, and people flock to it,” the artist behind stikman told WHYY over email in 2015. “But it all has its own life and sings its own tune. It does not need me to be the front man.”
The anonymous artist, who lives in Philadelphia, installed their first piece in New York City’s East Village 30 years ago. The design was inspired by a plaster mold from a late 1980s flea market, bearing the impression of a man made of sticks.
Stikman has since shown up all over the continent — mostly installed by the original artist, they told the blog Streets Dept in 2020, and “way less than 1%” installed by other folks entrusted with the work.
The character has appeared in places like DC, Denver, Indianapolis, St. Paul, Nashville, and Toronto, according to news reports, online comments, and a 16-year-old Flickr pool group that’s still active.
And there are plenty in the artist’s hometown. Philly, the artist told Streets Dept, is where they sleep, work, and were born. “It’s in my blood,” they said.
The artist’s work has also appeared in galleries in New York and Philly.
Some have compared or mixed up the asphalt-embedded work with that of the Toynbee Tiler, another elusive, Philly-based guerilla artist who started laying linoleum tiles into streets in the early 1980s and may have been active as recently as 2016. Toynbee Tiles — found in cities across the world — usually bear some version of the cryptic text, “Toynbee Idea: In Kubrick’s 2001, Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter.”
But Stikman is different from and “has little common ground” with Toynbee Tiles, the stikman artist told WHYY: “They each have a very different aesthetic and composition, although some may say they share a sense of the power of mystery.”
Where can I see the artwork?
The recent in-the-street art (we’re running with this term) has been documented by Instagram users on various Philly streets over the past four weeks or so. They’ve appeared in New York, too.
People have spotted them in crosswalks at a few spots in Old City, on Broad Street in Center City, and around the Ben Franklin Parkway.
Each design is unique, but they’re all some variation of a stikman-esque character in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, next to a white peace symbol.
If you have more Philly sightings to add to this list, let us know.