The rubber stamp is the official weapon of officialdom. Anyone who’s used one knows why: it feels great to smash a carved piece of wood and rubber onto a piece of paper, leaving an imperious mark where once there was empty space. Properly applied, a stamp is almost onomatopoeic, and its satisfying thump is the bureaucrat’s easiest pleasure. It’s a tactile expression of power: with a few fluid motions, you make a neat, loud sound, and maybe, depending on what the stamp says, you’ve just ruined the life of a total stranger.
Vincent Sardon, a French artist with a small shop in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, sees the rubber stamp as a kind of talisman of the bureaucratic West. A stamp, he argues, is never an impartial object:
It packs a symbolic wallop because of the millions of judges, cops, customs officials—agents of public authority—who use them to validate passports, to turn people away at the border, to pass judgment, to pass laws, to sentence, to record proceedings, to excommunicate—all sorts of evil documents that have the power of putting people in impossible situations.
His practice is to reclaim the rubber stamp, and the act of stamping, as something playful, banal, even impolitic. In his shop, he designs and sells stamps in a range of sizes and subjects, many of them vulgar, all of them practically useless. There are insults in many languages: “Eat shit and die,” “Go piss glass,” “T’étais moins con quand tu buvais” (“You were less insufferable when you were still drinking”); remonstrations in commanding block capitals: “SORRY, NOT INTERESTED,” “SHUT THE FUCK UP”; and a parade of naked cowboys, porn starlets, and disfigured homunculi, any of which would make a great gift for someone you hate.
A new book, The Stampographer, collects Sardon’s most volatile and pointless contributions to the art form. Its pages produce a kind of alternate bureaucracy, a profane portal dedicated not to renewing your driver’s license but to spreading chaos and fatalism, one inky impression at a time. The book testifies to Sardon’s misery as much as his ingenuity. In an edifying interview at the end, he says, “My work simply reflects the world, which seems to have been created by an absolute moron.”
That moron got his hooks in Sardon from a young age. As a student, he landed a summer job at an insurance company, where it was his job to void the tall stacks of cancellation letters from pissed-off clients. “I had a big stamp that read TO BE DESTROYED,” he says. “I stamped each page. My interest in stamps and in a certain kind of written violence that stamps convey and amplify might perhaps date from that time.”
The salient feature of that violence is that it can be replicated, with minimal effort, over and over again. The stamp reflects the ruthless quest for efficiency that warped office life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, transforming a class of fumbling, snuffling clerks into a “workforce”—a word Sardon finds especially loathsome. In its clean, orderly layout, The Stampographer reminds us at every turn that stamps were made to administrate, to regulate, to institutionalize. He arranges his creations in tidy grids, as if in a catalog; only the prices are missing. The effect can be genuinely disturbing. To encounter vile slogans (“Go get a vasectomy,” “Your life is meaningless,” “Nobody will notice when you’re dead”) all in a row, all carefully stamped, is to see the viciousness of the id through the prism of office life—and to understand why the windows in skyscrapers are suicide-proofed.
Sardon says that his stamps were inspired by “the hatred I would sometimes see on people’s faces,” but he can be whimsical in his animosity. For every expression of pure malice—“STOP DREAMING,” “YOU’LL NEVER MAKE IT”—there’s a display of impudence or absurdity. One stamp reads “Stalinist cheese steak”; another, “petty bourgeois anarchist.” Others suggest that the reader is merely a “pumpkin on a riverbank” who should “die beating your head on tofu.” And a stamp in German says simply, “JEANSBÜGLER”: “you iron your jeans.”
Sardon doesn’t always assail the reader this way. The Stampographer’s most inventive spreads are entirely imagistic, though no less severe for it. He delights in busy displays of dancing knaves, bug-eyed monsters, monster-eyed bugs, weeping lovers, and splaying skeletons. A trio of roller stamps have a military theme: bombers, tanks, and infantrymen stream uninterrupted across the page, forever committed to destruction. (One of the book’s best touches is that it often depicts the tools themselves—utilitarian slabs mottled with ink stains and fingerprints, and looking like they’ve been through a war.)
Sardon’s images are intricately rendered and weirdly enchanting—but though these redeem the rubber stamp as an aesthetic object, they lack the punch of their verbal counterparts. I found that I preferred to linger on the page dedicated to honorifics—“Inventor of Disco,” “Dark Side Slut,” “Matador of Love.” Tellingly, Sardon dedicates a whole page to his simplest stamp: “I’M RIGHT.” This is the Ur-stamp. Every stamp, in the end, is made to exude certitude. Remember the library scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Harrison Ford needs to bust a big hole in the antique stone floor, as archaeologists so often do. Wielding a heavy stanchion, he times his blows to coincide with the brutal rhythm of the librarian’s stamp, hoping to escape notice. It provides the perfect cover; three times, the old librarian brings his stamp down and puzzles over the formidable noise it makes. He stares at his stamp as if to say, Damn, what an awesome stamp! He suspects nothing. Why should he? The stamp gives him authority: “I’M RIGHT.” The Stampographer invites us to destroy that authority. A page full of Sardon’s ready-made rejections—nothing rejects like a rubber stamp—is floridly ridiculous. “YOUR MANUSCRIPT IS SO BAD THAT WHILE CONSIDERING IT, OUR ENTIRE READING COMMITTEE GOT CANCER AND DIED,” one stamp says.
If this sounds dumb to you, it is. It is very dumb, and it becomes even dumber when you realize that Sardon’s customers are buying these stamps and going out into the world to do God knows what with them. “I don’t really know what people do with the stamps,” he admits. “It escapes me … In truth, some things are so ugly I would gladly refrain from taking credit for them.” At the same time, he claims that his work is for “innocent people,” and it’s hard to disagree. When you can buy a T-shirt that says “YOU FUCKING SUCK” on the boardwalk at any shitty beach town, a rubber stamp that says “DICKWEED” can’t do much harm.
The Stampographer is at its best when it conjures piles of paperwork, but this yields another form of innocence in the stamps: for all their misanthropy, they’re deeply nostalgic. They belong to the pre-digital bureaucracy, to the world of print and postage, and as such they can seem quaint. Today’s technocrats operate through a concert of databases and fully automated transactions; they send us emails from addresses like email@example.com. “Please do not reply to this message,” the fine print says, because there’s no one on the other side to answer. The past month brought the news that U.S. immigration policy may soon be determined by algorithm, and that China is opening an unmanned police station. In the post-human economy, the rubber stamp, as rigid and indifferent as it is, appears almost friendly. At least there’s a human hand behind it, a guiding force betrayed by some unevenness in the ink or a telltale smudge.
Dan Piepenbring is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.
All images excerpted from Vincent Sardon: The Stampographer (Siglio Press, 2017). All rights reserved.