By day, 21-year-old Riley Nester is a mild-mannered solar energy advisor to homeowners in San Benito County. By night, he is a renegade ex-graffiti artist making artwork that travels the world on its own path, moving from artist to artist. It is an art form that nobody—and everybody—owns.
Welcome to the world of sticker packs.
Sticker packs begin when an artist draws their signature character in some form of action or pose on a postal sticker. That sticker is sent out into the world where another artist attaches a similar sticker and draws their character working off the same action or pose. Then that sticker is sent out into the world, and so on. There is a beginning to each sticker pack, but the end? In theory, there is no end.
Nester’s interest in art was not always as innocuous.
“I really got into the graffiti culture and started meeting people who did graffiti out at Fort Ord,” he said. “They taught me how to paint on abandoned buildings out there. I fell in love with the community and the art, and the way they pushed each other to be better.”
Graffiti has a downside, of course. While it might be celebrated in major art museum exhibits, law enforcement authorities tend to not love the art form.
“I started working for myself and attaining things I was proud of,” Nester said. “I got to a point where I had too much to lose if I went painting. I feel that’s partly a reason people do graffiti. It’s an art form for those who either don’t have much to lose or are willing to risk it all.”
When Nester moved to Sacramento in 2018, he knew it was time for a change. “I wanted to clean up my act, but I also wanted to pursue graphic design.”
Instagram proved to be a way to participate in an artistic community again, and it was there he discovered the collaborative art form of sticker packs.
“On one of the first sticker packs I ever received, the first piece of art on it was dated 2013,” he said. “It had the work of seven or eight different artists from around the world and had been traveling for six years. I added my sticker to it and mailed it off. The next artist will do the same and it can go on forever that way.”
Nester’s character is a mushroom named Psil, part vibrant ’60s psychedelia and part hit-and-run graffiti.
“I view my character as a person I have kind of figured out how to draw,” he said. “I’ve watched him as he developed from year to year and when I see him in other people’s postings I feel like Walt Disney must have felt when he saw Mickey Mouse.”
Mailing sticker packs to other artists is just one way of keeping the collaboration going.
Nester also attends regular gatherings of sticker artists in Los Angeles at a meetup called the Adhesive Blackbook. There, artists can swap their finished collaborations or offer one-off drawings which will grow in time as they are passed around from artist to artist. Artists put their contributions in a box for others to root around in and grab packs or single drawings that catch their interest.
There is no limit to how many miles the art can travel.
“This is a worldwide thing,” Nester said. “I have sent off sticker packs to Germany, Mexico, England, Sweden, Spain, and a few other countries.”
There’s no real way to track a sticker pack’s journey. Often the only time Nester finds out where his work has gone is when a collaborator makes an Instagram post showing its progress.
“Sometimes there are stickers I have drawn and sent out and I will see a picture of it a year later. Someone I have never met has it and five people have added to it since I sent it out,” he said.
Some of the stickers stay within particular groups—art crews—and Nester belongs to three of them. One of the crews is primarily United Kingdom artists; member “maniakdrawsthings” is one of Nester’s favorites.
“She does a little ghost and we have done a lot of work together,” Nester said.
Maniakdrawsthings—real name Loz Sayner—said that even though Nester lives an ocean and a country away, “he’s the first guy I go to when I want honest feedback on my work.”
“He’s got a brilliantly funny mind and a great attitude towards trying new ways to express himself and try new things,” said Sayner, 35. “His art is so colorful and really intricate, they’re always beautiful to look at from afar but when you get a really close look you can often find patterns and details that you’d probably miss from just a glance.”
Sticker packs are a new enough art form to allow anyone to get in on the ground floor, yet it’s established enough so that the more popular artists have backlogs of work to send out to new contributors.
“I have a list of people who want to work with me,” Nester said. “Most of the artists I know have long lists, too. But it is really cool to have created a character other people want to be a part of and work with. It is kind of like ‘hot potato.’ You want to get your guy on it and back out to someone else as fast as you can.”
Nester’s end goal is close to his starting point: public art.
“I would love to do actual murals in a city and get paid for it or even do it for free if I was given full rein,” he said. “I want to keep doing this art just because I take joy in it. I hope down the line people get to know my work and hire me to do what I am good at.”