Stencilling is one of graffiti’s most popular methods, raising to new heights thanks to Banksy, but Banksy was hardly the first person to use stencils in their street art. The technique has been popular in street art for decades for a couple of reasons. First, it cuts down the actual amount of time painting the graffiti, which is pretty advantageous when you don’t want to be arrested for making art. The second is the high level of detail that stencilling provides, which can help with the generally imprecise tools of spray paint that graffiti artists generally use. And while Banksy may currently be the most famous stenciller in the world, he owes a great debt to two Italian artists who go by the name of Sten & Lex.
Sten & Lex were both born in Italy and grew up in Rome and Taranto. Their work has been showcased around the world and currently is on the streets of New York, Madrid, and their hometown of Rome. As one of stencil graffiti’s most prominent artists, they have become famous for their detailed work that has, up until recently, almost exclusively dealt in stencilling.
Stencilling is a form of art that uses cut outs of a design, the stencil, to paint without the need to do the lines by hand. An artist creates the stencil, which is an inverse of the design they wish to make, and puts it over the surface they want to paint. They then spray over the stencil and remove it once they’re finished, leaving the intended design on the surface with little to no spillover.
Sten & Lex were one of the first Italian street artists to use stencilling in their work, but they also pioneered the “halftone stencil” technique, which is when “the greater part of their stencil portraits is composed of thousands of lines,” leading to more complex stencils that can contain a greater amount of detail.
Sten & Lex’s art has traditionally focused on portraiture, choosing anonymous individuals or people they’ve found in their own family photo albums as subjects. Thanks to their methodology, the portraits have a level of detail that many artists envy. Their works have varied from near-photorealism to abstract, but they have also recently turned their attention to other subjects beyond that of portraits. In 2013, they started creating very abstract works, again using stencils, that ranged from plants that also look like fireworks to optical illusions on the sides of buildings. While the artwork remains detailed and still uses stencils, Sten & Lex have also moved it past their usual styles.
Sten & Lex are an important moment in graffiti art, not just in their home country of Italy, but around the world. Their pioneering work in halftone stencils brought a new level of detail and sophistication to the art style, and their continued exploration of different subjects continues to push the envelope. Banksy may be the world’s most famous stenciller, but Sten & Lex laid an extremely important foundation and continue to develop the techniques that others have drawn from.