Stencils – propaganda in WWII

This is written for all the stencil artists out there on the streets, especially the ones doing political stencils. Or anyone wondering when did stencil graffiti start? This is also for all the politicians who think that they can stop graffiti; yes, I’m talking to you Steve Beardon. (But I suspect that it will probably be mostly read by WWII buffs.)

Italian fascists, Americans and local resistance forces, used stencil graffiti for propaganda in Europe during WWII. The  French street artist, Blek le Rat became aware of stencil street art after he saw a stencil of Mussolini amongst some WWII ruins during a trip to Italy. “The fascists in Italy used a lot of stenciling during WWII. They would do Mussolini’s portrait. I had seen this when I was young, and I remembered that when I was considering how to interface with the street.” (Blek le Rat in Swindle Magazine)

The use of stencils as propaganda tools is described in declassified OSS files (the OSS being the forerunner to the CIA) from WWII:

“These (stencils) have been especially designed for clandestine work and are small enough to be concealed in shirt or coat pockets…A special paint brush combination is designed for use with the stencils also small enough to be carried in the pocket. No special paint container is necessary…Any paint can be used, old or fresh…it is necessary to carry a rag with which to wipe the back of the stencil…Little risk is involved in the use of stencils, and a sign can be painted in 7 seconds, with implements concealed immediately. This method of spreading propaganda has a special appeal to the young who can have little other part in the action against the enemy.” (Quoted in Psywarrior)

The final two sentences of this description makes it clear the futility of anti-graffiti campaigns; even in Nazi occupied Europe there is “little risk” and “this method of spreading propaganda has a special appeal to the young”. So unless an anti-graffiti campaign is more draconian than the Nazi occupation of Europe there is no hope of its success.

The OSS stencil “Parole Heimat” (Password Homeland) was approved on 7 July 1944 and 300 stencils were delivered on 9 August 1944. What happened to them then is not known but there is photographic evidence of the Polish resistance use of stencils.

WWII graffiti - Grunvald on a wall, from Wikimedia Commons

It is interesting to note, in this propaganda war, that the ethics of graffiti is the same for military and anarchic psychological operations. Melbourne street artist, Junky Projects says: “Never hit churches, houses or small business” and the Canadian PYOPS manual: “PSYOP personnel should discourage graffiti on historic, religious, or private structures.” (Canadian 2004 Joint Doctrine Manual B-GJ-005-313/FP-001 Psychological Operations)

It is important to note that, as is the case now, most graffiti in WWII was not propaganda but personal – basically tagging. Examples of WWII tagging can be seen in the photos of American WWII graffiti by Paul and a gallery of photos of Soviet WWII graffiti at Trend Hunter.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

One response to “Stencils – propaganda in WWII

  • Street Art & Anarchy « Black Mark

    […] The streets are chaotic image of the mass of humans and a few other animals that manage to survive in such a hostile environment. The idea of a well-ordered tidy street is the image of a dystopic totalitarian state; disguising them as a garden city or behind historic facades only hides the fact. There are always back alleys, service lanes, the backs of signs; and as the philosopher, Max Stirner points out kids love getting behind things and seeing their backsides. The street is a media that the authorities cannot censor; it can never be controlled completely, stickers, dead drops and all kinds of uncontrolled communication (see my posts on Political Graffiti and Graffiti in WWII). […]

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