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Banksy of Brooklyn

Originally in: The Economist's Intelligent Life.

February 4, 2009

For four seasons running, the city’s greatest art crawl has been the New York subway system, courtesy of an anonymous razor-witted and -wielding graffito who calls himself Poster Boy. His flair for remixing subway advertisements into strident polemics on late capitalism has drawn an enthusiastic following. But that gig may be up. Police arrested him this week–outing him as 27-year-old Henry Matyjewicz (though this identity is still up for question)–making it a fitting time for a retrospective of his work.
This “Matisse of subway-ad mash-ups,” as New York magazine approvingly dubbed him, recalls the street-centric hacktivism (and potentially lucrative self-promotion) of Britain’s Banksy. In a tart parody of the now-tired HSBC campaign, Poster Boy labelled the back of a bald-headed woman–a stand-in for Britney Spears–as “Slut. Psycho. Star.” Then there’s his adaptation of a poster of a suave David Duchovny promoting his television series “Califonication”, re-titled “Gentrification–In Way Too Deep”. It features a drowned city skyline and is strewn with loose dollar bills.

Like a character shoplifted from Don DeLillo, Poster Boy’s mystique has come largely from his anonymity. He mixes the raffish spirit of street art with some high-minded rabble-rousing (sometimes known as culture jamming), tossing in some juvenile giggles for good measure. Subway poster ads are refashioned into biting visual screeds against commercialism, celebrity and military adventurism. Perhaps best of all, his work is preciously transient: Transit Authority staff often paper over it within days, if not hours.

Poster Boy’s gambolling has inspired serial coverage online, with many documenting the freshest evidence of his fleeting handiwork. Gawker touts exclusives whenever he deigns to be in touch. It was through this steady simmer of hype that I first learned about Poster Boy. Then I noticed his work at various subway stops, and interviewed the man himself.

Although we’d spoken on the phone a few times and exchanged e-mail, I wasn’t convinced Poster Boy was more than a persona until we met at a Bushwick cafe one evening last summer. Far from a guerrilla artiste, he came across as affable and easy-going. He was guarded yet receptive–earnest, even. He expressed hope that his work might spark a wider community of street art. Not only was Poster Boy instantly likeable, he also cut the least pretentious figure in the room.

At a time when the city is as well-scrubbed as a prep-school boy in short pants, his handiwork triggers some nostalgia for the tagging of 70s-era graffitos. He works exclusively on his five weekly subway rides in and out of Manhattan, he told me. The effect is a welcome tweak on the monotony of commuter advertising.

Poster Boy’s creative underclass credentials are impeccable. He lives in the scruffy, gentrification-defying Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and works in Manhattan as a weekday handyman for an established artist. Now he seems to be right on the verge of a lucrative career. When I first contacted him for this story, he reported that he’s received wide interest from gallerists, agents and fellow artists–some with whom he’s already collaborated.

In person he readily admits he wants to work as an artist, but preferably not within the confines of a gallery. He’s content to keep a lasting inventory of his work online. Truth is, the unvarnished guttersnipe theatre of the streets has made for a splashy, high-profile entree otherwise denied most emerging artists.

Unsurprisingly, Poster Boy’s appeal extends beyond art-world circles. Copyranter, an advertising industry blogger who also uses a pen-name, counts himself among Poster Boy’s fans. “I give him the thumbs-up because advertising is changing so slowly–the traditional won’t cut it,” he told me. “And if he’s moving it along, all the better.”

The line between artist and advertiser can be slight–they are both about getting noticed in the thrum of a public space. “It’s an advertiser’s tool, too, you know,” he said of Poster Boy’s razor blade. “He’s retooling. Somebody I’m sure will try to get in contact and try to sway him to do something for them.” Poster Boy might cringe at the thought: “No matter what I do to the piece,” he told New York magazine, “as long as I did something to those advertisements and that saturation, it’s political. It’s anti-media, anti–established art world.”

Perhaps he’ll have time to be anti-media after the hours of community-service he’ll probably have to satisfy following his arrest. I hope so.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

judah October 21, 2011 at 11:36 am

I know the poster boy. i grew up with him. iknow his whole family. The kid is brilliant. I know everything about him.

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