Who can maintain in all honesty never having been fascinated by a beautiful stamp coming from some far away land? Exotic landscapes, ancient galleons and space rockets, luxuriant flora and endangered species, presidents and kings in bizarre uniforms... A huge inventory of inexpensive miniatures, fragile, like butterfly wings, almost sensual to the touch, with a light massage produced by tiny sets of teeth and smooth gummed skin, sensitive to perspiration (and salivation). A children’s hobby from past times (today, kids prefer to collect Pokémon cards), but also an adult pastime for people who like to dream with an eye glued to a magnifying glass, or for professional philatelists who trade rare items at astronomical prices, always hunting for some legendary Penny Black or Pink Gronchi. A microcosm, the philatelic world, ruled by precise laws and consolidated practices, with its peculiar jargon and specialized shops (or market stalls), its conventions and auction sales, its magazines and exhibitions. Above all, with its bulky Official Catalogues, where every single stamp of every country past and present is measured, classified and described down to the slightest detail. Even “poster stamps” made for advertising or propagandistic purposes, lacking a face value but nevertheless of some interest for collectors, are researched and studied by a specific branch that deals with unofficial stamps, or cinderellas. Besides, stamps containing any sort of typographic mistake - and therefore different from all the identical stamps of the same kind printed in hundreds of thousands of copies - are the most rare and valuable of items for collectors, as everybody knows.
The subject of this book is a sort of postage stamps that is somehow “wrong”, certainly not “official”. Stamps that rebel against the monopoly of governmental emissions, claiming for each of us the right to self-produce these small objects of desire in any number, shape and theme that suits us. Stamps sketched one at a time then, or photocopied in limited editions, or even printed in regular typographic editions: modest looking or precious, some hand-coloured, others proud of their stark black and white, others still in glowing four-colour offset. Stamps simply cut out with scissors (possibly with zigzagged blades), or perforated with a normal sewing-machine or with some other rudimentarily ingenious system, making up for the eventual lack of a professional perforator with the use of imagination. A revolt of do-it-yourself postage stamps that has nothing to do with the mischievous acts of counterfeiters in search of easy gain. With rare exceptions, these alternative stamps are not created as illegal substitute for official emissions, rather they constitute a sort of parallel philatelic dimension, dominated by unrestrained creativity, where seemingly innocuous small images express their free comment on the authorities and on the real world represented by the “official” stamps.
Even if some governments, like those of Canada and Australia, introduced recently the possibility for customers to order a set of stamps (perfectly valid, but at doubled price!) with a photo of their own face on them, it is very unlikely that you might walk into a Post Office and buy, for example, stamps with underwear as a subject (like happens on a sheet made by J. Upton) or with the scantily dressed pin-up Betty Page (like on stamps created by Dennis P. Jordan), or with the disquieting faces of the Messianic cult-leaders Charles Manson and David Koresh (Jeffrey Dixon) or of the “multiple individuality” Luther Blissett (Pere Sousa). Or again, pseudo-stamps of South Africa in which a white man and a black man bite each other’s foot (Peter W. Kaufmann), or commemoratives of the “Naked Postman” in Adamitic posture (Angela & Peter Netmail), or intergalactic emissions with words in an alien language (Tim Mancusi)... All stamps, those just mentioned together with a thousand others no less unusual or “impossible”, created and distributed at various latitudes by participants in the international mail art network.
Mail art is a phenomenon that, in the last four decades, has involved thousands of people from every corner of the world. It has been an experience open to everyone and founded on the direct and free exchange of any kind of creation of the intellect that can be transmitted through the postal system. Participants in the mail art network produce, among other things, stamps (and rubber stamps) inspired by their personal visions and obsessions, pushing themselves to the formal and conceptual limits of the medium, even exceeding sometimes the legal limits imposed by international postal regulations: the Canadian Mike Duquette designed in 1980 a whole sheet of stamps dedicated to mail artists (Genesis P-Orridge, William Farley, Buster Cleveland, etc.) who incurred troubles with the law because of mailings that had been judged indecent, politically offensive, or irregularly stamped, and so on. Therefore, mail artists may emit stamps dedicated to their favourite authors of the past: a work by Leslie Caldera for Kurt Schwitters to commemorate the “104 years of Merz”, a sheet by Gerard Barbot for Warhol exhorting to “Vote Andy”, or a Raymond Roussel sketched in ink by Mark Bloch, etc. The opening of a new line of urban transportation may inspire an artist (Kalynn Campbell from Los Angeles) to create a “First Day of Issue” envelope with related stamp and rubber stamp, or it may happen that radical concepts are explored such as the black stamps by Endre Tót bearing only the caption “Blackout Post”.
With the passing years, mail art has taken the configuration of a proper network in continuous transformation, constituted by individuals who, to the impersonal and alienating one-way communication of the mass media and to the often perverse mechanisms of the art critique and market, prefer the intimate and disinterested two-way contact that can be gained through a simple and unexpensive medium like correspondence. If the personal and private contact can be considered the true beating heart of mail art, shows and publications devoted to this form of expression are all the same very frequent. Exhibitions of alternative stamps have been organized in different parts of the world (you can find a selected list at the back of this book), often accompanied by rich and informative catalogues. Specialized bulletins and “assembling” magazines, or magazines including original stamps by various authors (like the stylish and long-lived Nuestro Libro Internacional de Estampillas y Matasellos, edited in the 1970’s and 1980’s in Argentina by Edgardo-Antonio Vigo and Graciela Gutierrez Marx) have been founded and discontinued, or are still active (Artistamp News in Canada, Correo del Sur in Uruguay).
Overlapping but not always perfectly coincident with the mail art network is an open and informal community of artists busy in the creation of customs, myths and languages of imaginary countries identified on their stamps (like the Dao Badao and Karenni by Marc Rastorfer, the Kingdom of Edelweiss by King Alexander, the Napoleon Islands by Richard De Meester, and many others to be found in the following pages). Some excellent works come also from authors that are totally unrelated with mail art. This is the case of the American minimalist rock group Savage Republic lead by Bruce Licher, who emitted in the early 1980’s various stamps of the “Savage Republic” after which the band is named, self-produced by their label Independent Project Records. Even more peculiar is the case of the multi-media organization NSK, connected to the experimental-electronic group Laibach from the ex-Yugoslavia, whose complex project of a “spiritual” and extra-geographical State contemplated, among other things, the emission of official passports and of seven different kinds of stamps in colour (produced in 1994 in editions of one thousand copies). No less curious is the story of Adanaland, a virtual and deliciously old-fashioned philatelic world created in Great Britain by Alan Brignull, using a miniature press for children produced in the 1920’s by a firm called Adana.
We speak therefore of “artists’ stamps”, because (mail) artists are mostly responsible for the creative use of philatelic formats, not intended just for decoration or propaganda, giving life in the end to a real international movement. It must also be pointed out that, given the universal diffusion of philately and the spontaneous human inclination for imitation, satire and parody of formats of daily use, there are countless examples of unofficial (and not postal) stamps produced for the most diverse purposes not only by commercial firms, illustrators, comics artists, writers (see Nick Bantock’s 1991 “epistolary novel” Griffin & Sabine, successfully translated in various languages), but also by people without any artistical pretence or background (be it “highbrow” or “popular”). Stamps are made just for the fun of it, perhaps to play a joke on some friend, without even suspecting the existence of a consolidated tradition of alternative stamps: to report a small personal anecdote, Fabio Bruno started mailing me from Genoa witty examples of his home-made commemorative stamps - from the Sapphic kiss for the “Gay Pride Day” to the merry women of easy virtue for the “casino of Montecarlo” - after casually finding in a bookshop a copy of my guide Arte Postale (AAA Editions, 1997). Fake stamps and artists’ stamps may therefore appear in the most unconsidered manners and in the most unexpected places, as a gift hidden in a cereal box or as a free enclosure with a CD record of slow electronic grooves (this happens in the audio compilation Stamps, Headphone Music & Lazy Penpals edited by Giacomo Spazio and Stefano Ghittoni for the Italian label Milano 2000). A complete census of all these occasional forays into unofficial philately would obviously constitute a venture of titanic proportions, doomed to sure failure!
More often, governmental Postal Services are commissioning the sketches for their stamps from famous contemporary artists (for example, the Millennium Stamps 1999 series by the British Royal Mail features new works by 48 artists, including David Hockney, Bridget Riley, Peter Collingswood, etc.), with interesting and sometimes innovative results that must however be considered part of official philately. In addition to employing famous artists, the postal agencies of several countries have been trying hard in recent years to build up for their services a “young” and even transgressive image, by producing stamps unusual in formats (adhesive, holographic, embroidered, with heart-shaped perforation, etc.) and aggressive in content, with portraits of comics characters, monsters from horror movies, or rock stars. Bugs Bunny and other Warner cartoon characters have become the testimonials for the United States Postal Service, as part of a big promotional campaign aimed at reviving the interest for stamp collecting in the new generations. Not to be left behind, the creators of home-made stamps are therefore pressed to refine their techniques and become always more biting and inventive, retorting for example with parodies of official stamps that show a fat and drunken Elvis (J. Motheson), or a British “crazy cow” with the head cut out (Michael Thompson), or real cartoons of political and social satire like those produced by Joel S. Cohen and Thomas Kerr for Ragged Edge Press in New York (for example, the two cent pseudo-stamp about a “Pre-Nuptial Agreement Plan”, where a couple is seen fighting violently on a small boat on the point of sinking). The iconic “Marilyn Nixon”, created by Steve Smith by mixing together official commemoratives of the two famous personages, is even more disturbing than the Marilyn Manson you see jumping around on MTV!
The first piece of advice given to an aspirant philatelist is to specialize in a particular genre of stamps, choosing a precise theme, geographical area or historical period, to avoid getting lost in the big ocean of world philately. Artists’ stamps, usually produced in limited (hence rare!) editions and sold at little more than symbolic prices (generally, they are exchanged and bartered among the artists), are just starting to be discovered by serious collectors. Therefore, they represent a marvellous opportunity to start a peculiar collection of contemporary art (in miniature), at relatively little cost. The hunt for artists’ stamps is open, through the international postal systems and, if “snail mail” should appear to you too anachronistic, also through the many sites devoted to unofficial stamps to be found on the World Wide Web. It must be added that, notwithstanding the manifest situation of crisis and degradation of the postal services in many parts of the globe, the lively world of artistamps - adopting an Anglo-Saxon neologism now widely used in the field - continues to expand, always attracting new practitioners (and puzzling their postmen).
To outline a synthetic compendium of the history of artistamps AAA Editions has commissioned one of the world’s leading experts, as well as an artist and collector of the genre: James Warren Felter, a.k.a. Jas W Felter or in brief Jas (Jim for his friends!), with Anna Banana (founder of Artistamp News in 1988) as “special advisor”. Felter is a tireless promoter of philatelic exhibitions and creator of Postes Mraur (from the name of a large island part of the legendary lost continent of Lemuria that sank in the Pacific Ocean thousands of years ago), evocative stamps that combine the austere classicism of vintage philately with optical-minimalist geometrical figures created with the computer. It has not been possible, for obvious space limitations, to include in this book - complementary to John Held Jr.’s Rubber Stamp Art (AAA Editions, 1999) - works of all those artists, estimated in several hundreds, that in the past forty years have operated with some continuity in the area of alternative philately. However, a consistent number of the most prolific and respected personalities active in the field are represented, sufficient to provide an exhaustive picture of the wide palette of themes, techniques and poetics offered by this little known form of miniaturized art: from the nostalgic lyricism of Donald Evans’ watercolours to the sarcastic conceptualism of the Fluxus authors, from the neo-dada playfulness of Anna Banana to the political statements of Clemente Padin, from the surreal symbolism of Joel Smith to the mordant satire of Michael Hernandez De Luna, from the stamps transformed by Guy Bleus into light feathers for the naked body of a model to the “tactile” emissions in relief of Sandy Jackson. But let’s not anticipate too much here the surprises that your mail box might present you if you choose to enter into the artistamp network, unveiling echoes of extraordinary events from virtual lands. Just like the meeting between a glowing light bulb and a sheet of gummed paper under the needle of a sewing-machine.