When Matthew Hoffman started the You Are Beautiful project in 2002, he had no idea just how far his message would spread. He began with a batch of just one hundred stickers. The message was simple: "You Are Beautiful" - a small but positive affirmation for whoever might be passing by.
The message clearly struck a chord. Fifteen years later, Matthew estimates that he may have distributed close to five million stickers.
We spoke to Matthew about the origin of the project, and how it has grown and spread over the years.
Where did the idea for the You Are Beautiful project come from? Why those words?
When I moved to Chicago it was my first time in a large city. There was a lot going on - a lot of visual noise and a lot of audible noise. It was exciting!But also kind of overwhelming, and you could feel lost in the chaos. I wanted to make something that was quiet and comforting to be a part of that conversation.
The project was one of the very first viral messages, spreading out in the real world rather than online. What is it about realness that makes something so vital?
My favorite thing about the stickers is that they're out there in the world and anyone can come across them in their daily life. I tried to make stickers that blended with the environment, so that the message could really pop out at you in an unexpected moment. Most of the time we're running around - we're late for something, we're in this daily grind - anything that can change that moment for you… that's really one of my favorite things.
You Are Beautiful is an exceptionally long running project. How has it changed over the years?
The project started before Facebook and Instagram. We've had a PO Box forever, and the cool thing there was that people could not only write in for stickers, but could also send stuff. Drawings, photos - physical, printed out photos! We would keep those and categorize them and map out where each sticker was in the world.
Now, especially with Instagram and sticker hashtags, there's zillions of photos. There's no real way to track them all. It's exciting because there's so much going on. A lot more interaction, and a lot more of it just spreading. It's not as centralized as it once was.
People have done all sorts of cool things with your message, from art installations to sculptures. Are there any things that you're particularly pleased with?
I always love how people put their own voice and their own spin on things. One that was a lot of fun was where someone had drawn the words in the sand with their footprints. They stayed in the photo for scale, and so you could see it was massive. I love that because he was doing that with absolutely no materials or budget, just a little bit of time, which is awesome.
Do you still put up stickers as you go about your day to day business?
Yeah, I do. It's kind of the only way I'll take a relaxing walk. It's a great way to explore a new city. It gives me something to stay focussed on while exploring. It's kind of funny too - I have a nine-year-old son, and he puts them up everywhere, although sometimes we have to talk about appropriate sticker placement. At one stage the entire front of our house at his height was covered in stickers! It's really fun to see the project through his eyes.
The You Are Beautiful project is still ongoing. You can, as always, request free stickers, or place an order for a larger number if you want to blanket your neighborhood with a simple, sweet and positive message.