Do you love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia every day.
In general, you don’t look to your feet to find street art. But for the past month, people have looked to Center City’s crosswalks and found something cool: little blue-and-yellow humanoid figures next to peace symbols.
The artwork appears to be in the style of Stikman, a figure posted all over Philly and other cities by a local anonymous artist, though no one has yet claimed responsibility.
The new figure and symbol seem embedded in the asphalt in the middle of zebra crossings – art on the street, if you will. It’s not entirely clear how the artist was able to navigate the traffic during installation.
In any case, the robotic character wears the colors of the Ukrainian flag, which has become a common symbol of support for the Ukrainian people since the Russian invasion in February.
What/who is Stikman?
You may have seen Stikman in Philadelphia before, and no, that’s not an artist’s name. It’s a robotic figure that has been displayed for decades on telephone poles, street signs, zebra crossings and other public surfaces – familiar to some observant passers-by, but often unnoticed by others.
The boxy guys can be made of things like wood, metal, or plastic glued to surfaces, or some sort of tile embedded in asphalt.
The creator has talked to art blogs and the press before, but managed to keep their name hidden the whole time.
“Sometimes I make something that I think is extraordinary and no one else responds to it; sometimes I make something that I see isn’t that much, and people flock to it,” the artist behind stikman told WHYY via email in 2015. “But it all has its own life and sings its own tune. I don’t have 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 is inspired by a plaster mold from a flea market in the late 1980s, depicting a man made of sticks.
Stikman has since appeared all over the continent — mostly installed by the original artist, they told the blog Streets Dept in 2020, and “much less than 1%” installed by other people tasked with the work.
The character has appeared in places like DC, Denver, Indianapolis, St. Paul, Nashville and Toronto, according to news reports, online commentary and a 16-year-old Flickr pool group that is still active.
And there are plenty of them 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 been featured in galleries in New York and Philadelphia.
Some have compared or mixed the asphalt-embedded work with that of the Toynbee Tiler, another elusive Philadelphia-based guerrilla artist who began laying linoleum tiles in streets in the early 1980s and may not have been active until 2016. Toynbee Tiles — found in cities around the world — usually contain a 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 stitcher artist told WHYY, “They each have very different aesthetics and composition, although some might say they share a sense of the power of mystery.”
Where can I see the artwork?
Recent street art (we use this term) has been documented by Instagram users on several streets of Philly over the past four weeks. They have also appeared in New York.
People have seen them on zebra crossings in a few spots in Old City, on Broad Street in Center City, and around Ben Franklin Parkway.
Each design is unique, but all are a variation of a stitcher-like character in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, alongside a white peace symbol.
If you have more Philly sightings to add to this list, let us know.