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SOMERVILLE — Billy Markowitz knows there aren’t many people into “cardistry,” the art of shuffling, tossing, and manipulating playing cards in impressive ways.
But if you’re searching for fellow fans of the niche hobby, targeting the throngs of college kids, artists, and creatives who pass through Cambridge and Somerville daily is a good place to start.
So when it came time to promote his new monthly “cardistry” meetups, that’s where he headed.
And he knew just how to get their attention: paper fliers.
“I’m a big flier guy,” said Markowitz, 25, who has used them to get to know the area after moving here from Los Angeles last year. “I’m kind of always looking at telephone poles and seeing what’s up. So sometimes it’s nice to reach out to the broader audience of people with eyeballs on the street.”
As the telephone poles, bulletin boards, MBTA stops — and virtually every other vertical surface — in Davis Square show, he’s not the only one with that idea.
Even as online ads have become the most popular way for musicians, shops, clubs, and other groups to reach their audiences, paper fliers endure as an art form and subculture. In fact, promoters say, the tried-and-true method of reaching people on sidewalks is especially appealing to a generation raised online and burnt out by internet sales pitches.
“I think sometimes people get annoyed by social media ads, but they’re a little more interested when they see something cool on the street,” said “Static,” an LGBTQ dance party and drag show organizer who goes by her stage name.
For five years, she’s been hosting an event called “Gay Bash’d,” and each time works with a graphic designer who makes custom flier art for it.
It’s a “whole art project each time, which I think has been a big part of our success,” she said. “Each flier tells its own story.”
It also gets results: More than 400 people bought tickets to a five-year anniversary party she was hosting after scanning a QR code printed on fliers pinned up around Cambridge, Somerville, and Allston.
“Fliers kind of reach everybody,” she said. “Those that need to be reached will stop and look.”
On a leisurely walk down Elm Street on a recent afternoon, there was indeed a lot to see.
Fliers for touring musicians and local indie bands were posted side-by-side. Professionally printed, glossy posters flapped in the wind next to listings for piano teachers and Aikido instructors.
Some fliers are up-front about their purpose, pointing viewers to concerts, yard sales, block parties, or other events on specific dates.
But others are more mysterious by design.
One poster promoting a band’s upcoming show simply depicted a scannable QR code next to a cat wearing a bowler hat — and the words “Do you like live music?”
From a distance, a trio of puzzling signs on light poles sought help finding random items like a “lost hat” of “inestimable value.” Up close, they were actually ads for a new wine bar in Cambridge.
In the square’s Statue Park, a ragged, waterlogged piece of paper taped to a transformer asked, “Have you seen this dog man??”
Another flier promoted a help line — “1-WILL-TO-LIVE” — for people with existential angst.
Both were ads for, of all things, Paper Crane Coffee Roasters, a Boston company that just launched its first line of beans.
Neither have anything to do with coffee. But that’s the point, said Marina Long, the company’s chief operating officer.
“Our vision was, can we make excellent coffee with a heavy dollop of satire and communicate our wry sense of wit?” Long said.
Another poster, which looked like a flier for a punk show and featured angry cartoon monsters with dramatic haircuts, was actually an ad for a French wine tasting in Porter Square. The promo was made in partnership with a local comics artist.
Online, “you’re infiltrated at all times by marketing and you don’t know what’s real or fake, or what’s good or what’s not,” said Sean Geary, head of business development for Pipeline DBG, the company behind the “Frankenrocker” wine.
“So going back to basics with fliers, show posters, direct mail to people’s mailboxes — that’s all coming back around,” he said.
Not every neighborhood welcomes the incursion of paper ads on every corner. But Davis Square has been a haven for fliers for decades, and those who work in the arts and culture scene like it that way.
“If people want to make the effort to promote their gig, I think it’s a great thing, you know?” said Tommy McCarthy, owner of The Burren, an Irish pub and music venue.
When the bar repainted the front of the vacant Family Dollar next door, and put outdoor seating in front of it, fliers began popping up on the exterior windows. Now, they’re routinely plastered top to bottom with them — with McCarthy’s blessing.
“If there was a policy against them, Davis Square wouldn’t be what it’s become over the past 30 years,” said McCarthy, a musician who spent years posting fliers on Mass. Ave. ”I’m an instigator myself.”
So is Worcester’s Niki Luparelli, who has promoted variety shows and burlesque acts for more than a decade. While so-called flier-ing has always been a key driver of ticket sales, she’s also spent thousands of dollars over the years on digital ads on Facebook and Instagram.
But lately, parent company Meta has been more “puritanical,” she said, and keeps flagging her ads as “pornography” — despite not showing any nudity.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “They won’t even let me say ‘burlesque’ anymore.”
On the streets of Somerville, where promoters police themselves, she never has that problem.
Some fliers come and go. Others, like the ones designed by Somerville performance artist Rebecca Kopycinski, become legends.
Her fliers, which pose the strange question, “Is Your Thotbot Glitched?” have appeared around Boston since 2018. They promote her live events and exhibits, which involve the story of a nefarious brain implant and are set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event in the ‘90s.
The fliers have become a fixture around Boston, and people will routinely post pictures of them online and ask about the backstory.
Ever since she started putting them up, she said, all of her live performances have sold out.
“People tend to be like, ‘I thought it was sort of a cult.’ Then they’re intrigued, pull a tab, go down the rabbit hole, and end up at the show,” Kopycinski said. “I’ve thought about making the flier into a digital ad, but now that I have all this momentum, I kind of don’t have to.”