The Short History Of Stickers


Is there anyone who doesn’t derive pleasure from edging a thumbnail into the corner of the sticker to release the backing from the decal? It’s so satisfying that the ones which come with a pre-perforated split halfway along are almost a disappointment.

In primary school, there were few items that were as tradeable as stickers: they smelled intoxicating, the graphics were cool, and there was the hanging tension in the air about when and where you‘d peel that backing and apply it. Once applied, the majority of stickers could never be relocated. Especially the papery ones.

When you stop and think about it, the concept of applying a surf-brand sticker to your ride is no more or less weird than wearing surf-branded clothing. In either case, you’re assisting the company in propagating its brand message. The surf companies, ever-willing accomplices in this viral campaign, began using stickers as swing tags in shops: armies of light-fingered grommets swept through retail premises ripping off as many as they could. But behind the counter, it was a different economy. Buy a board, and you’d be offered a sticker. And usually it was the small ones. You’d wave a tentative finger through the display glass at the two-foot long RIP CURL in the rounded, four-colour capitals, and the guy would give you the little circular black and white logo sticker.

In the mid-90s, the Oakley Thermonuclear Protection sticker became so big it would occupy the entire back window of most passenger vehicles, thereby fulfilling its own promise – virtually no light could penetrate. More practically, stickers serve other purposes: Ozzie Wright once used Volcom Stone Team decals to get a football-sized rust cavity through a roadworthy check. Similarly, stickers will cover dings on your board. But if overdone, they create an unrealistic expectation among others in the line-up that you’ve got the skills to pay the bills. This is also an inbuilt hazard when buying ex-pro boards: several companies reportedly ban their team riders from passing on team stickers or even selling boards with the team stickers on them, for fear it might suggest they were sponsoring kooks.

There are more than 13 million passenger vehicles registered in Australia, and it’s been estimated that 55% of them have one or more stickers on the back window. How many of those are surf-related? Probably most of them. I had a giant Sex Wax sticker on the tailgate of my HQ panelvan, and it worked like a repellent to most people (except to cops, who hardly needed an extra reason for a “routine check”).

Surf culture somehow got the jump on the rest of society with this particular form of visual pollution (the other back window options: family characters, southern crosses and frangipani don’t even bear thinking about). Carlo Lowdon, the inventor of the widespread “postcode” stickers, believes human beings have a natural tendency to form social groups, and stickering your wheels helps to do that.

The fun’s gone out of it – now you can design your own on a thousand websites. But researching a story a few years back, I had cause to drop round to the house of a middle-aged big-wave surfer. Son of surf royalty. Nice house. Wife and two children. He took me down to his board shed, and slid a hidden box out from under a desk. His eyes were shining like Indiana Jones as he removed the lid. His drug of choice? Stickers.

Jock Serong