How A Sticker With A Positive Message Grew Into A Global Street Art Movement

At the outset of this series, The Mad Ones, we planned to talk to people about travel. People who were going places, doing big things, and changing, if nothing else, their own respective worldviews. We wanted to highlight people vagabonding around the globe in ways that were uniquely their own.

From that jumping off point, we expanded. We began to realize that a change in worldview can come from any particular genesis — as long as someone commits to a bold choice, wholly and genuinely. So we began interviewing people who made things, and had weird weird ideas. We started chasing people who cultivated the change they hoped to see in the world. Many of these people traveled, sure, but their creative outlets were often the cornerstones of their respective lives.

This installment checks all of those boxes at once. As a street artist and graphic designer, Matthew Hoffman decided to create something that would send good vibes percolating through his home of north Chicago. He wanted to share the simple message: “You Are Beautiful.” No more, no less. As the popularity of that message caught on, there was plenty of traveling done, but not by Hoffman. His “You Are Beautiful” stickers, in all of their metallic, rectangular, heart-warming, glory have been printed over three million times, in over one hundred languages. The message is the thing hitting the road.

As Hoffman’s message continues to grow and expand, we sat down to talk with him about how he got started, how the current political climate plays into his goals, and how none of this would have been possible without Oprah.

In the beginning of the project, did you wrestle with what the message was actually going to be?

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was. I knew I wanted to interact with the community or the world at large and I spent a lot of time thinking about what it was and how it was and played around with a lot of messages but when I hit on that one it was like, “this is perfect.” So I ordered a couple stickers.

What were you doing at the time?

For eleven years I worked at a publication firm doing design.

Where were you from initially?

I was born in Ohio and we moved around every couple years. Then we moved to Indiana and I went to school for graphic design in Indiana. Then, in 2002, I moved to Chicago.

I wanted to pick your brain about the background of the project and how it got started.

For sure. The short of it is that basically, I moved to Chicago in 2002. When I moved here I was just from small towns and stuff and so the city was very exciting and overwhelming to see all the visual signs everywhere. I just wanted to add something to that that was comforting. There are a lot of things that are vying for your attention and everybody seemingly wants something and I just wanted to put something out there that said “you don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to buy anything, you don’t have to be anyone other than yourself and—just be yourself, that’s enough.”

I made a hundred stickers in 2002, and it was just an organic thing. A year later I made a website. I said, “Hey if you want five free stickers send in a self-addressed stamped envelope and you can get five stickers in the mail.” It kind of always has been a passion project but throughout the years people were like, we really want way more stickers. We want thousands and thousands of stickers so we put a PayPal button on the site that said, give X amount of money for X amount of stickers. That worked for a while and then it was four years ago I got a call from Oprah’s people and they wanted to do a piece on it. That experience was exciting and interesting.

It aired on a Sunday morning and they’re like, “Get ready” and I’m like, “Get ready for what?”

No one’s ready for Oprah’s kind of publicity.

So that morning we had thousands and thousands and thousands of clicks on our PayPal button. [We were] Completely unprepared. We took down the button. We didn’t even have that many stickers on hand and, like I said, it was still just a passion project on the side, nights and weekends. I was working full time. So that kind of made me reevaluate everything and get my act together. Since then I’ve been doing it full time and now we have a little team which has been really great and really exciting to work with. We just printed our 3 millionth sticker in a hundred different languages.

Wow, that’s incredible. So four years ago everything kind of hit.

Yes. From nights and weekends to full time.

Thanks, Oprah! Aside from just the stickers and the murals here and there and the booths at art shows, I don’t know the extent of it. Did it just extend organically into the international scene? How did the expansion happen?

Internationally kind of started really early. I was trading stickers with people, with other kids all around the world, online. You would get their stickers and go put them up and take photos and send the photos to them and they would do the same. That’s kind of what it grew out of. At some point more and more people started finding out about it and people were taking them on trips. A lot of people would use the stickers as travel companions.

At some point we at least had photos from every continent including Antarctica which was super cool. Most major cities and small towns. So each one little sticker has kind of gotten almost everywhere. They were originally all without permission you could say. Then as far as getting invites from different places … The only way I’ve taken trips. I don’t take vacations, all of my vacations are working vacations. We’ve gotten invited out to most major cities like New York and LA. We’ve been out to Portland and a few places in Texas. One summer we got to go and paint murals across Italy which was really cool. The inspiration has always been a bit more temporary though. Recently we’ve been working on trying to make them more permanent.

The stickers are still the staples though, correct? They’re the backbone of the whole operation.

Yeah, absolutely. The stickers and then the big installations are two things that keep us going.

It really is an amazing message to get across. Especially now given the election and all the aggression that’s coming at us from all fronts. “You are beautiful” is a nice mantra to keep. That’s a beautiful message at the end of the day.

Absolutely. I feel like it’s needed more than ever at this point. I just did a show in Iowa last week and they did a podcast while I was there. They were asking different questions about how the project has grown and if I was surprised, of course I’ve been very surprised with how it’s gone and there’s been no plan or whatever. What’s interesting about it is that it’s so unexpected. I said, yeah, but also that’s kind of sad. It is so unexpected.

It’s kind of like being human to each other is an unexpected act. Hopefully that changes.

Do you think that’s true though? Do you think that common decency is dead?

No, I don’t think so. I do think that we’re not used to strangers delivering a nice message like that without something in return. The stickers, they’re just kind of out there in the world and … You’re going through your daily life and all of a sudden … Life can just get sort of tricky and confusing and then you’re aggravated by different things and you’re running around and all of a sudden, a lot of times people can just feel annoyances or you just want to get through the day. You look at the person in the checkout line like they’re the enemy. You’re trying to get past people and all of a sudden you see the sticker that, hopefully, slaps you out of all of that and gets you back to a much better place.

I’m sure you hear stories of that happening, right?

Yeah, what’s been interesting is you hear the entire gamut from “I was having great day and it made it even better.” All the way to people saying “it really affected my day” or “completely changed it around.” We’ve got letters over the years that have said that basically the sticker pretty much saved peoples lives. I was kind of surprised by how much power a little sticker can have. Basically some people have been going through a really rough time and they just met with that message at just the right time when it was able to knock them out of that funk.

Absolutely. I think on a global scale, positivity tends to welcome positivity. By virtue of putting a positive message out you’re going to receive positive messages and positive stories. How often do you hear the inverse of that? Has anyone ever been upset by the message or had critiques?

Yeah, it’s been very few and far between but there have been people that have either sent letters or emails or whatever. What they’re talking about is, from their perspective, the message is about physical or exterior beauty and they don’t think that that should be pointed out and looked at. We respond very nicely and hopefully get across this point that it’s not about exterior, it’s about that there’s something beautiful about every single person no matter what.

We think it’s a universal truth. That’s been the only negative reaction we’ve gotten. You hear the word beautiful related to cosmetics or different ways to improve your exterior self and marketing so I think some people … It might be a trigger word. We talk through that and hopefully get across what we’re trying to do.

I was about to say you could probably cut together the amount of times “you’re beautiful” was said in a hair commercial. The word has become synonymous with exterior beauty which is really unfortunate because that’s not the case. The word means so much more than that. Has the success of it made you hopeful for … part one of the question is “America” but part two is “the world at large?”

Yeah, I think so. For the world at large and also America. We all go through tough times and when I was younger, I completely lacked self confidence. As you said, putting positivity breeds positivity. By putting this out in the world it all builds on itself and it makes me really excited and really hopeful that it’s such a fun thing to do.

We touched on it a little bit before but given the current political climate, do you guys plan to actively try to combat the amount of hate and anger that’s being thrown around now?

I’m writing a talk for a conference this Thursday where I’m going to be talking about the project. I was thinking about it more and more and, how do you combat those things? I finally wrote, “I hope people don’t think this sticker is silly or a hippieish thing—I see it as sort of a flag that we just planted in the ground and are using to say enough is enough and just focusing on the positive.” I’ve kind of seen it as this thing to combat all that. One thing I’ve always said is this project won’t change the entire world. That’s just a big thing that isn’t possible, but it definitely has the power to change someone’s world and we just kind of focus on it in that way.

You touched on an incredible point, to change the world doesn’t mean you have to change everyone’s lives, you change one person’s life and that could ultimately go down the line and effect five other people. So by changing one person’s day you’re essentially…