Written by Eliza Lee, News Editor
Design by Drea Garcia Avila, Design Editor

Earlier this week, I was absent-mindedly clicking through a social media timeline when an image caught my eye. An acquaintance had shared a picture of some math-themed graffiti she’d discovered Sharpie-d onto a bathroom wall: The word “series” repeated across several tiles, with “Taylor,” “MacLaurin,” “Fourier,” and “geometric” printed above each.

Given that I was working on this article, I did what anyone would do—I awkwardly DM-ed her, (“aha this is so random”) asking where this artwork was located. I ended up in the wrong bathroom, but it too boasted an impressive display of stickers and graffiti littered on the stalls.

As any student knows, these small-but-mighty acts of so-called vandalism aren’t unique to a single destination. It’s not hard to find handwritten notes and peeling stickers on elevator doors, street corners, and partitions between library desks. Impermanent yet often difficult to remove, public, and against the rules, stickering and graffiti share several traits that set them apart from other forms of communication. I wanted to explore how these unique features lend themselves to use by students and groups across campus.

Media of “Resistance-based action”

Opposition to formal rules governing the use of space is baked into graffiti and stickering as forms of media. This is certainly the case at McGill, as McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle explained in a written statement to The Tribune that building directors must approve any notices and posters on the university’s premises.

“No posters are allowed anywhere other than on notice boards provided for the purpose,” Mazerolle wrote. “When unauthorized posters are found, it is standard practice to remove them. The protocol is to remove the graffiti/stickers as soon as possible and when it is safe to do so.”

Melissa Proietti is the assistant director of the Montreal campus of Champlain College and served as the festival director for Montreal’s annual Under Pressure International Graffiti Festival for 15 years. Her research—including her PhD completed in McGill’s Department of Integrated Studies—looks into the ways that graffiti can be incorporated into educational contexts. In an interview with The Tribune, Proietti explained that graffiti culture is rooted in the artist making space for themselves in an environment where they may otherwise lack the power to change their surroundings.

“[Graffiti is] a mindset for people who identify with a lifestyle that’s associated with it, and a mindset of understanding what it means to take space for yourself in often urban areas, city spaces that are really densely populated, and that are not often really equitable in terms of space and living situations.” Proietti said. “Traditionally speaking, and where we see graffiti culture really becoming noticeable in more popular culture is in that resistance-based action, [...] taking space and doing it for yourself [...] your friends, and for that kind of notoriety.”

Like graffiti, stickering as a medium is shaped by its resistance to institutional and legal rules. Lola Milder, U3 Arts, has been involved with stickering campaigns for student groups such as Divest McGill and Let’s Eat McGill, as well as for organizing against tuition hikes. Milder highlighted that despite their contested use, the persistence and accumulation of stickers across campus works to legitimize the practice in the eyes of students.

“When you come to a place where there are stickers—even evidence of stickers being ripped off—it’s a reminder to new students that there’s something going on that students are trying or community members are trying to get information out, especially information that the administration is not interested in being circulated,” Milder said. “And that creates this classic [feeling] of, ‘oh, there’s something subversive [and] anti-institution going on.’”

In this way, the mere presence of graffiti, stickers, or their remnants encourages more students to join the dialogue and add their own messages. Even messages that are not explicitly political support this “classic” anti-institutional attitude by nature of their media, sometimes quite literally. For example, when the remains of partly torn-off stickers become a surface for a new crop of graffiti, or when one message scrawled on the wall sparks an entire debate below.

From her experiences speaking with graffiti artists, Proietti recalled that many of them discussed a feeling that once they paint a piece of graffiti, it enters a public space and no longer solely belongs to them.

“[The graffiti] does [belong to you], because it’s your identity, but it also now lives outside,” Proietti said. “When things live outside, [they] become part of a bigger picture.”

There are works of graffiti so iconic that they’ve become a familiar sight in my day-to-day life: “FUCK MEN” with “command or declaration? Instructions unclear” printed neatly underneath in response; “you can do it dont give up” on a bathroom wall; a portrait of a person with eyes closed in quiet contemplation drawn in swirly, looping black marker. Indeed, while the identities of these unknown graffiti artists are meaningfully absent from this article, their impact goes beyond an isolated message. It builds upon this culture of resistance and serves as a way for students to assert their voice and express their frustrations toward a university that fails to support them, listen to them, and be honest with them.

A tool for mobilization and organizing

Given that graffiti and stickering inherently undermine the institutional rules governing a space, it’s perhaps unsurprising that student activist groups use them as ways to rally the public around a cause.

Milder attested to the way that stickering can familiarize the work of an organized group to students, showing them it’s “safe for [them] to engage.”

“I feel like there’s a rule of thumb or something where people have to see something multiple times before they think of it as legitimate and consider getting involved,” Milder said. “Let’s say the first sticker is just that first thing, and then they see an Instagram post, and then they see an event from afar. And it like builds into [a feeling of] ‘oh okay, maybe I’ll actually go closer and see what they’re doing.’”

Through form of viewing, stickering has the potential to articulate thoughts the viewer may not have considered acting upon and motivate them to partake in the group’s next action item.

Zahur Ashrafuzzaman, BA ’23 and former member of Divest McGill and Let’s Eat McGill, echoed the importance of stickering in familiarizing the public with activist campaigns on campus. They also attest to the efficacy of large outdoor works of graffiti as a strategy to get students talking about a campaign, even if they disagree with its tactics.

“A group like Divest or Let’s Eat, does lots of different actions with many sorts on campus but some of the major ones that I’ve seen that actually get people talking on an online platform like the McGill subreddit, are these graffiti eye-catching sort of actions even if [...] they might not necessarily not match up with [different measures] of impacts.”

Ashrafuzzaman remarked that one of the practical benefits of graffiti’s “decentralized, autonomous [...] style” is that certain activists can take on the task by themselves, limiting the likelihood that the artist or the group be held accountable by McGill staff.

This past week, as I walked home from class I noticed that the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) had put stickers all over campus promoting their strike. AGSEM President Mario Roy told The Tribune that the union encourages members to take posters and stickers from meetings and put them up where they see fit as a way to reach community members within their faculty or program.

Roy noted that as a result, the representation of stickers is a reflection “that [AGSEM] members really want to show to McGill and to the entire community that they care for what they are fighting for, and they really want to win what they are fighting for.” In addition to sharing information, stickers can be powerful visual symbols of the support behind a movement.

Stickering as a site of resource-sharing

Not only is stickering a useful form of student activism, but it can also raise awareness of support services on campus that students may otherwise overlook. In the women’s washrooms at McGill, it’s not uncommon to see stickers for the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), the Eating Disorder Centre of the Students’ Society of McGill University, and McGill Students’ Nightline.

Aiya Hyslop-Healy, U1 Arts and VP External of McGill Students’ Nightline, explained in an interview with //The Tribune// that the group had stickered on campus to raise awareness about their services among students. The strategy has seen success, as some of their volunteers reported expressing interest in joining after seeing these stickers.

At a time when social media is a dominant approach for grabbing the public’s attention, Hyslop-Healy highlighted that stickering can work in tandem with social media to reach audiences that would otherwise be inaccessible.

“[With] social media [...] people have to actually follow us to receive the content that we do,” Hyslop-Healy said. “So I think that’s why stickers are so useful, because anybody can see what we have to offer. And then they can go and look it up on Instagram and find out more about us.”

Potty talk: Messaging and Location Matters

The words that go into designing graffiti and stickers are also crucial in ensuring they capture their audience’s attention. As the fabled series graffiti illustrates, humorous wording with a relatable message is a sure way to catch someone’s eye. Ashrafuzzaman explained that in their sticker design for Let’s Eat McGill, they try to use wordplay to create catchy messages that are memorable for viewers. Due to the often simple nature of graffiti’s in particular, it relies heavily on shared context for audiences to understand its meaning. For example, messages like “Divest” spray-painted on a building may conjure different meanings depending on what issues are in the spotlight on campus.

“Around McGill campus, there’s quite a bit of graffiti recently with things like ‘McGill Funds Genocide’ or ‘Divest,’” Ashrafuzzaman said. “In this case, it’s relatively clear given the available context that ‘Divest’ here means divestment of McGill’s investments in Israeli apartheid and genocide, whereas a few years ago, ‘Divest’ would be probably taken as referring to fossil fuels [....] But of course both these movements have been going on for some time and aren’t exclusive in any way.”

The specific locations where creators place graffiti and stickers are also strategic, with the bathroom stall being perhaps the most iconic example. Proietti noted that bathrooms are a unique space for their sense of privacy and safety, opening them up to graffiti as a form of expression. Because of their unique position as private areas that users may perceive as dirty and less maintained, “the rules get a little bit grey.”

“[T]hose spaces are [...] kind of contestable in the sense of who they belong to, and how well maintained they really are, and if that’s truly vandalism at that point, or if you’re kind of more taking part in a communal dialogue,” Proietti said. “It’s not like you’re out on the front line of some kind of really intense debate. It’s a really low-pressure place.”

In addition to being contestable spaces, bathrooms are places of repose. Milder spoke to the way that “moments of forced pause” around campus—such as bathrooms and elevators—are prime real estate for stickers because they’re more likely to capture someone’s attention. At the same time, she highlighted practical considerations surrounding the threat of stickers being noticed by McGill staff and taken down. For instance, while staff may consider a sticker outside to be a threat to the university’s public image, one “in fifth floor Burnside” might slip through the cracks.

Milder also explained that when there are other stickers in one space she is more inclined to add one to the same group, fostering camaraderie between the causes.

“It’s almost like you’re supporting the other stickers,” Milder said. “You’re like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna put another one here, and then maybe it’s less likely they’ll take both of us down.’”


Clustered around bathroom stall doors, on elevator walls, and on stair railings, stickers and graffiti serve as a timeline of recent student activism—from the Association of McGill University Support Employees floor fellow strike in 2022 to the demand “Free Palestine.” These messages do more than occupy space in bathroom stalls, they support mobilization and organizing efforts and act as a means to share important resources on campus. Their very forms are tools for students to make space for themselves at a university that does not adequately support them or take into consideration their voices.

There’s no guarantee that the graffiti and stickers we pass each day (the “series” family included) will last. But given the role that these practices play in activism and expression, the writing’s on the wall: For every bathroom door replaced and Sharpie that’s scrubbed away, a new generation of creators will be ready to take up the torch.