It’s not common for artists to rely on the United States Postal Service, but for Michael Thompson, the service is imperative.
His process is 30 years in the making. He creates artistic stamps with ironic or funny stories, political messages and sometimes cartoons — used to replace actual postage stamps.
“Early on there were a lot of pornographic ones because early on I had to use things that were stamp size,” Thompson said. “Those little nudie cards, souvenir cards. This was in 1991,1992 maybe. Matchbook covers were the right size. So anything that had a graphic, I’d cut those out, soak them and peel them off.”
But the stories don’t end on the stamps. They have to make it through the mail system.
For that, he gives packets of envelopes to people “when someone is going somewhere interesting, to commemorate their trip,” he said.
It doesn't always go as planned
“People are nervous to do these things. … One girl landed in Dubai and was so nervous when she got off the plane she threw them away in the bathroom before she went through customs,” he said.
Thompson tries his best to have the stamps sent from the places they are inspired by. But because they aren’t official stamps — and are often controversial — they’ve gotten him into some predicaments.
“I was detained with Jeff, my attorney, in Turkey, and we’d rented a car and drove around,” he said. “We were way in the east. You cannot write ‘PKK’ or say ‘PKK' in Turkey. And this was in my car, these were in the car, there was a whole packet we’d just dropped and they arrested us and never searched our car.”
This story is one of many, because for Thompson, the stamps have no value if they haven’t been officially canceled by the postal service.
When we met Thompson before the pandemic, he said he would receive his stamps in the mail about once a month, but that his since slowed.
“The most recent one was Xi Jinping, the leader of China,” Thompson said. “Evidently he’s told he looks like Winnie the Pooh, who is now banned in China. So my last stamp was a picture of Winnie the Pooh with his hands over his eyes and in Mandarin it reads: ‘Uyghurs, where?’”
Despite those close calls, Thompson says it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
Thompson now includes a paid U.S. postage stamp inside of every letter he mails, a tip he picked up after his first couple of run-ins with the law.
Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3
Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.