People say there’s no place like Harvard Square. Red brick, iconic restaurants, and international leaders draw thousands to the Square every day. Despite the Square’s uniqueness, there are elements that connect it with cities across the United States. Over the course of the semester, FM will share some of the “Secrets of the Square,” the little noticed and often overlooked features so foundational to its brick-toned character.
Little neon men are pressed into the pavement at street corners throughout the Square. These mysterious figures are called “stikmen,” and no one knows exactly when they arrived in Cambridge. Two decades ago, an anonymous artist known as “Stikman” started placing stikmen in New York, before expanding his project to other cities.
The art came to my attention only recently. I am the type of person that tends to look where I am walking, but there are those days when I’m looking down at a study sheet in my hand, trying to cram before a midterm. It’s then that I met my first stikman—on Mass. Ave. by the crosswalk connecting Out of Town News to Harvard Yard.
Later, I walked into Out of Town News to ask if anyone knew anything about the robot-like images. The two men behind the counter said they had never noticed. I tried the Coop, Bob Slate, Black Ink, Cardullo’s, but no one could give me an explanation besides the fact that they have been there for a while.
It was the Cambridge Office of Tourism that directed me to a blog about these stikmen, and from there, I uncovered the artist’s online following. What I thought was another one of those unique art exhibits in Harvard Square turned out to be a presence in New York, Philadelphia, and even Boston.
The artist celebrated the 20th anniversary of his street graffiti project this year. For a special exhibit at a gallery in Brooklyn, New York, he shared his desire for his pieces to come alive in public places. “It finds an indigenous space in our surroundings like a flower escaping from the crack in a sidewalk. Continuously altered by time and circumstance,” he wrote.
Harvard Square has been an office to famous men and women since its inception. But Stikman continually brings mystery and merriment to the Square every day. So look down, pause, smile, and walk on.