What’s up with that big stamp?

Ever heard the name Claes Oldenburg?

Me either, but apparently he’s an American sculptor who, along with his wife, had a thing for creating very large replicas of everyday objects and displaying them as public art.

He is the man responsible for the Free Stamp in Cleveland. Maybe you’ve seen it while wandering around downtown, especially near the Rock Hall or the harbor.

Free Stamp

It is the world’s largest rubber stamp, after all.

So…why exactly? Honestly, most Clevelanders can’t even answer that question.

After some research, I found out that there is of course a story, although maybe not quite a completely understood explanation.

The work of art was originally commissioned by Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio) to sit on a pedestal at the foot of the company’s skyscraper on Public Square, opposite the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. BP America took over Sohio shortly after and new management wanted nothing to do with the sculpture, actually thinking Oldenburg was mocking BP with the word “free”. The stamp was placed in storage for a few years and finally moved to Willard Park in 1991, where it sits today.

As with any artwork, there are many thoughts about the art’s significance, specifically in reference to the word “free” on the stamp.

The piece was originally designed to stand upright, with the lettering of the stamp hidden from view on its “stamp pad”. Because the stamp would have pressed down on the word “free”, it is thought to have referenced the Civil War struggle to eradicate slavery. Oldenburg said instead he and his wife simply wanted to play with a word that has enormous resonance in America, one that is very open-ended and has many meanings, but also doesn’t mean anything.

In today’s location, Oldenburg reportedly said that it looked as if a giant hand had picked up the sculpture from its intended location at the BP Tower and angrily hurled it several blocks, where it ended up on its side.

Whatever the reason, it’s a good display of public art and quite the photo op for visitors and Clevelanders alike.

Free Stamp


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