Mail art is art which uses the postal service
as a medium.
art is also, simultaneously, a message that is sent, the medium
through which it is sent as well as one of the longest-lasting art
movements in history. To be precise, an amorphous international
mail art network evolved of thousands of particpants in over fifty
countries between the 1950s and the 1990s from the work of Ray
Johnson and influenced by earlier groups, including Dada, the
Surrealists and Johnson's contemporaries in the Fluxus group. Mail
artists characteristically exchange ephemera in the form of illustrated
letters, zines, rubberstamped, decorated or illustrated envelopes,
artist trading cards, postcards, 'artistamps', mail-interviews and
Whether or not one is a formal mail artist, there exists a rich
history of creative products sent through the post to draw upon.
The most familiar example is the illustrations on envelopes carrying
first day issue postage stamps, which philatelists refer to as first
day covers, but mail art encompasses other "decorated envelopes"
as well as a wide range of other procedures and media such as rubberstamping
and the creation of artistamps. Mail art is traditionally, though
not always, distinguished from simply "mailed art," which
is art that does not truly use the postal service but is simply
regular art when sent through the mail.
There is a common legend that mail art began when Cleopatra had
herself delivered to Julius Caesar in a rolled-up carpet. However,
perhaps the initial genesis of mail art was in postal stationery,
from which mail art is now typically distinguished (if not defined
in its broadest sense). The first example of postal stationery was
the pictorial design created by the English artist William Mulready
(1786-1863) for mass printing-press reproduction on the first stock
of prepaid postage wrappers or envelopes produced for the launch
of the Penny Post in Britain in 1840. Mulready's design was not
well-received by the public and various cartoonists and artists
produced lampoon versions. However it was recognized that an innovative
and powerful communication adjunct piggybacking on the basic letterpost
service had become available, and over the next 50 years or so millions
of pictorial envelopes with a wide variety of motifs and designs
were processed by postal services worldwide.
As an art form the early genre produced low- and high-minded works
ranging from the comic and satirical through commercial and industrial
advertising to the promotion of socially worthy causes such as free
trade, world peace and brotherhood, and the abolition of slavery.
Examples exist of pictorial propaganda envelopes with patriotic
motifs produced by both sides during the American Civil War.
The enthusiastic use of this piggyback medium continued throughout
the second half of the 19th century until postal administrations
worldwide began to authorize the use of picture postcards, which
were first approved and offered for sale at all Post Offices in
the Austrian Empire on October 1, 1869.
In a sense this was the beginning of the end of the heyday of the
pictorial envelope. Producing a card with an illustration on it,
whether executed by hand or by a mechanical printing process, is
less involved than producing it on an envelope. A card is flat and
usually rectangular like a canvas; an envelope starts out flat,
but the sheet from which it is formed has to be shaped and then
folded. The extra difficulty which producing multiple printed envelopes
entails eventually led to the establishment of the commercial envelope
printing and overprinting industry which, like commercial envelope
manufacture, is perforce an economy-of-scale activity, which means
it is at its most economically efficient when the print run is very
This was the situation prevailing until the advent of digital electronics
in the late- 1960s/early-1970s. The convergence of this technology
with telephone technology led to the development of the social-change
engine known as the Internet by the early 1990s, so that by the
end of the 20th century it had become increasingly common to find
households with a digital computer and a sheet printer. By employing
suitable software the printer could be used to customise machine-made
envelopes, each with a unique composition of colorful digitised
text and graphics.
In principle this meant even the most graphically challenged could
employ the pictorial or illustrated envelope medium and produce
a work categorizable as mail art.
Some works, whether or not produced with the aid of a computer,
might be constructed with postal distribution in mind; others might
make use of the postal service to facilitate a collaboration or
work of 'correspondence art' between artists.
When the electronic telecommunications network known as the Internet
gave rise to e-mail art, conventional mail-art artists came to refer
to the international postal service as the 'paper net'. When a group
of these artists are in some way linked through their works they
are collectively referred to as a Mail Art Network.
The Mail-Art Network concept has roots in the work of earlier groups,
including the Surrealist and Fluxus artists and the notion of 'multiples'
or artworks manufactured as editions. Most commonly, Mail-Art Network
artists have made and exchanged postcards, designed custom-made
stamps or 'artistamps', and designed decorated or illustrated envelopes.But
even large and unwieldy three-dimensional objects have been known
to have been sent by Mail-Art Network artists, for many of whom
the message and the medium are synonymous.
Fundamentally, mail art in the context of a Mail Art Network is
a form of conceptual art. It is a 'movement' with no membership
and no leaders.
The 1980s anarcho-punk duo APF Brigade individually recorded each
copy of their first mail-order only cassette release Live Brigade.
Each was therefore a unique artifact, and thus could arguably be
considered to have been a part of the mail art movement (see also
The International Union of Mail Artists (see external link) is
a group of mail-art artists individually practicing in several countries.
Anyone can join just by saying so; in this way the group is merely
Mail-art artists were among the first to see and use the networking
possibilities of the World Wide Web when it appeared in 1992 to
bring graphics to the previously text-oriented Internet. But at
the same time, the Internet offered nothing new to them (as it is
certainly not possible to send objects over the internet). Mail-art
artists, like graffiti and poster artists, often work anonymously
or collectively under aliases. Artist Trading Cards or ATCs can
also be sent by mail and are actively traded by many mail artists.
It is believed that the largest mail art project is Ryosuke Cohen's
Brain Cell project, started in 1985. As of 1998, more than 400 issues
had been created, with new issues every 8 to 10 days.
Created by The Panman (email@example.com)
© copyright 1995 Mark Bloch (with thanks to Ray Johnson and
all others I may have omitted)
A mail-art show usually consists of disposable art that is sent
though the postal system for the purposes of an art exhibition and
The works are unjuried (uncensored) and not returned.
The purpose of a mail-artshow is to present the diversity of human
Artists and non-artists can all participate. This allows artists
to increase their visibility to non-traditional audiences; it expands
the public's conception of what art can be; and it allows individuals
to express themselves without taking account of their artwork `s
marketability or "quality".
The "art" is the ongoing exchange between artists, sort
of like a perfomance work or "happening".
Mail-art has a certain purity and equality to it.
It crosses many art world boundaries, because it is non-hierarchical
and focuses on the process instead of the final product.
Mail-art is not bought or sold, eliminating the middle man function
of the art world.
It is its own currency.
Mail-art is cross-cultural. It is inclusive of all colors, ages,
languages, sizes, able-bodiedness, and nationalities.
There is no chance of rejection, because everything is opened, studied
Time and attention are assured for those whose voices need it.
(text from Ashley Parker Owens,former editor of the networkermagazine