DULUTH — Every era, it seems, has its own sticker fad. In the 1960s, rectangular bumper stickers proliferated among American drivers who wanted to display their travel history or political preferences for the world to see. In the 1980s, children traded Gremlins hologram stickers and puffy adhesive images of Cabbage Patch Kids. Inspired by European country-of-origin markers, oval decals with state abbreviations or resort insignia became
in the 2000s.
Now, permanent vinyl stickers are the craze of choice for tourists and teens to slap on their stuff.
"Look at any college campus or high school campus in the Duluth area," said designer Biff Ulm, of Nisswa sticker-maker
"They're no longer vending plastic water bottles, and this younger generation, they're using the Hydro Flasks, Yeti and that type of (insulated water bottle). They just want something that symbolizes them."
From the 1990s onward, as advances in digital printing technology made it more cost-effective to produce high-quality stickers in limited quantities, small businesses and independent designers started producing their own swag for consumers to sport. "I think the whole sticker culture really started heavily in the breweries," said Ulm. "You can't go to a Duluth brewery without seeing really cool stickers."
Superior resident Kateryna Nelson used to work in various Canal Park souvenir shops, and she kept getting customer requests for Duluth-specific sticker designs. "They'd tell you, 'Oh, hey, do you have a sticker with a ship going through the (Aerial Lift) Bridge?'" she said. "We didn't have anything. No one made those designs, because for bigger companies, it's hard to make a custom design specifically for one account."
After receiving an iPad as a gift from her husband, Nelson drew on her experience as an artist to digitally design the kind of stickers customers were looking for. Now, she's left the retail trade to run a company called Art Factory with her husband, Claude Nelson, producing stickers and other souvenirs to sell via
and in shops like the ones where she used to work.
"I'm just doing the designs, and my husband's putting them all together. We have printers (and) a heat press, just making (our products) at home," said Nelson. "We also have some magnets made in Ukraine, supporting Ukrainian small business. I'm from Ukraine, so we're just trying to help out."
Local retailers visited by the News Tribune last week confirmed that vinyl stickers are popular items, especially with their younger customers. "The tag line for our company is 'tattoos for your stuff,' and we think of it like that," said Ulm. "Kids are using Chromebooks in school instead of textbooks, so they want to decorate those things."
Duluth artist Barb Collette works primarily in
in partnership with her husband, Jim. "The stained glass images, the windows, are a little pricey," she said. In sticker form, the Collettes' designs become more accessible.
"You can purchase them, put them on your car, put them on your water bottle. It's just affordable art for everybody," she said.
Artists on Instagram
The stickers featured here are just a small selection of the designs available for sale at retail stores and other establishments across Duluth. Many of the designers whose work is featured here are active on Instagram; here's a selection of their accounts.
An Iron Range landmark, Bimbo's Octagon is one of the oldest standing veterans halls in America. For the past 55 years, it's been a bar and restaurant beloved by locals and regular visitors to the community of Side Lake.
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at email@example.com or 218-279-5536.