A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Hoffman, the creator and “custodian” of You Are Beautiful. You’ve probably seen the little silver sticker with the words “You Are Beautiful” around Chicago or seen the large signs popping up on fences with the same message.
ES: How would you describe the work you do?
MH: I like to call it public installation or public art.
ES: Do you consider yourself a street artist?
MH: Definitely in the early day, all the stuff was done without permission. [I’d] call some of what we do street art but it’s also arts in community, community art/public art, where we are getting neighborhoods chamber commerce [involved]. It’s work in the public and work in the street.
ES: You’ve mentioned how you were committed to be anonymous early on in part to keep the focus on the project rather than yourself. Was there any desire to keep anonymous due to legality of it?
MH: All the installs I was doing initially, I was doing something 100% legal, making the community a little more beautiful, definitely adding to it. Many works were large words in wood screwed into the sides of boarded up buildings or two inch tape. I did a lot of different messages, not just “You are Beautiful.”
ES: Could you talk about how you got from your initial sticker to the final design with the Helvetica font?
MH: I’m definitely someone who believes in making, doing, and refining. You can easily hide and keep it in a sketchbook forever. I take things and get them out even if they are rough. My feedback and other people’s feedback refine it from there. The initial ones were absolutely horrible. It took a bunch of trials with different ideas, with different stickers [to get to the final version]. It took somewhere from 6 months to a year.
ES: Why stickers?
MH: Stickers? Who doesn’t love stickers? There are a lot of fun, versatile, not messy. I have done wheatpastes and not enjoyed it. Stickers stick to anything. You can have a whole pack in your pocket. In 2002, when the sticker culture really exploding, all these kids started trading stickers, mailing each other stickers. It was an interesting way to interact with people on global scale; you put theirs up, they put yours up, and then send photos. It was a cool way to collaborate with other people.
ES: Much of your work focuses on words and lettering. Why are you drawn to lettering?
MH: I studied graphic design. I learned a lot of visual language, sharing your ideas, being able to tell your story. I love typography; there’s a lot you can to do with it. Words can be very simple or appear to be simple but you can read into them. It can mean a lot of things depending on how you read it inside your head.
ES: How does it feel that it has its own life – 3 million printed as of February 2017?
MH: We’re up to 3.75 million [as of June 1st]. We are doing a big show in September so there will be another printing before that, 4 million with that order. It’s super cool how the community has really surrounded the project and the message. It’s a great feeling to know so many people think the same way you do. It’s fun making a difference in the world. That’s pretty crazy.
ES: You describe yourself as the custodian of “You Are Beautiful.” Could you elaborate?
MH: Somebody has to keep the lights on and the floor clean; There’s a lot of thankless work to get everything going. The project is taking a life of its own; there is a community that can do way more than any one person can do.
ES: Where is the best place you’ve seen a sticker?
MH: I had never been Minneapolis. We went last year for a wedding. As we were walking to the art museum, there was a four lane road with a median and a sign between where we were and the art museum. I got sticker out of my pocket to put it there but when I got there and looked up, I saw there was already one. It was really funny. It’s one of my favorite placements.
ES: Could you talk a little about your woodworking?
MH: The Cliff notes version of that was I was always a tinkerer as a little kid. I made junk creations; I never knew much about art or understood it. In middle school, I took classes in woodworking (and metal) and loved woodworking. I learned how to do all sorts of things, built furniture. In my last year in high school, I took courses of graphic arts, photography, computer programs, [and went to] school for graphic design. I feel like all those things have come together into what I do now.
ES: For two of your projects, you took people’s input and made them into wood pieces. You mentioned in a different interview that you felt like you were “helping people tell their stories.” Could you talk a little bit about that?
MH: That was a fun project. It’s been on the back burner. It’s fun sort of collaborating with people. If they are already coming to you, they have an idea from past works and know what they are looking to expect. It is interesting what comes out of that.
ES: I wanted to ask about the shows for “You Are Beautiful” at Galerie F. Could you talk about that?
MH: I absolutely love collaboration. I have to let go and things happen that are unexpected, which can surprise you, good and bad. Most of time, it is really good. We are working on another show for November.
ES: There are other campaigns that have gone on like “Anything is Possible,” “Love,” etc. Could you talk about them? Do you have a favorite?
MH: I really like “Go for It.” It’s one of my favorite, how it looks, how it came together. It was a lot of fun. I’d never made anything like that. There was a lot of feeling of community while working on it. It made me feel really good [that] it was only supposed to be up for a couple months but it’s been a couple of years. People enjoyed it so much that it keeps on living.
ES: Could you talk about your show in the fall?
MH: There will be a show in mid-September. We are working hard on it, figuring out what it is. It’s a process. We’ll be completely taking over a space, basically to play around… at a warehouse in conjunction with ART EXPO.
Thanks to Matthew Hoffman and everyone who makes “You are Beautiful” possible. Check out their website https://you-are-beautiful.com/ for more details about the upcoming shows in mid-September and November.