I first heard of poster boy on a fellow blogger’s site about a year ago. I admired his nerve immediately. There’s something admirable about the obvious social consciousness of his work and the fact that he does it under a mask of anonymity. But just like British graffiti artist Banksy before him (I also love him), whose work is now fetching some steep British pounds, I guess I find it a bit ironic that it is precisely Poster Boy’s desire for anonymity that is garnering him so much attention.
If you’ve ever ridden in the subway here in New York, perhaps you’ve seen his work, if you’re lucky that is, to have caught sight of it before the MTA cops. New York Magazine recently did a quick, but thorough profile of the ad mauler, who by all accounts lived the typical life of an underprivileged inner city kid: single parent home, tough breaks & a criminal record that had him headed down all the wrong roads. Except that Poster Boy, who is all of 25 years old, had enough smarts and creativity to clean himself up and enroll in community college, then art school, from which he perfunctorily dropped out.
Apparently, he has some lofty, socially ambitious goals for his work, which has me raising an eyebrow. He wants to inspire others to do the same and start a decentralized art movement, where anyone can pick up an Exacto knife and assume the role of Poster Boy. It’s not that his art isn’t already doing what so many artists fail to achieve, to promote dialogue and awareness of serious social issues. I mean, here I am blogging about him, and I admit wholeheartedly to being a big fan of his art.
But I guess by the time Poster Boy does become a movement, I wonder if we’ll see his work hanging in a gallery. But then it won’t be for free and for a few stolen moments. It’ll be at a steep price, with a lot of zeroes behind it, you can be sure.
The article from NY mag:
- By Brian Raftery
- Published Oct 5, 2008
(Photo: Christopher Anderson)
It’s a Thursday evening at the 23rd Street C/E station, and Nicolas Cage is undergoing an involuntarily face-lift. As commuters wait for their train, the subway-art manipulator known as Poster Boy stands in front of an ad for Cage’s Bangkok Dangerous, razor in hand, and traces a circle around the actor’s eyes, nose, and mouth. Cage’s face peels away as easily as a trading-card sticker, and Poster Boy carries it down the platform, where he’s been hacking away at a hot-pink poster promoting MTV’s high-school musical The American Mall. He’s been rearranging swatches of color, text, and body parts to alter the movie’s title (now The American Fall) and tagline (“Love and Dreams for Resale”). Poster Boy slices out the Mall moppet’s head, replacing it with Cage’s appropriately stunned expression. The entire process takes less than ten minutes.
Since January, the 25-year-old has manipulated about 200 underground posters, turning MTA stations into his own public galleries. His pieces are conceived on the spot, and while most subway-poster vandals limit themselves to all-caps obscenities, Poster Boy’s improvised mash-ups recall both the cut-and-paste aesthetic of old punk-show fliers and the fake ads that appeared in circa-seventies Mad magazine: In his hands, AT&T skyscrapers are turned into flaming World Trade Center towers and Heath Ledger becomes a ghostly anti-drug pitchman. Most of his work disappears quickly—MTA employees have even ripped down his work before he’s finished—but you can see it on his sporadically updated Flickr account.
The defacing of posters doesn’t sound particularly lofty, but Poster Boy—who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous (vandalism is, after all, a crime)—has intentions that are surprisingly high-minded. The die-hard Fight Club fan hopes to start a decentralized art movement, one where anyone can claim to be Poster Boy. “No copyright, no authorship,” he says. “A social thing, as opposed to being an artist making things for bored rich people to hang above their couch.” That such a crusade might encourage vandalism doesn’t bother him. “Where I’m from, if you go by the book, it’s a very slow process to get what you want,” he says.
Poster Boy is reluctant to talk about his background, but a few details slip out: He was raised in a one-parent home in an East Coast neighborhood he compares to the South Bronx. He spent some of his teen years stealing cars and shooting out windows: “I’ve gotten arrested for a couple of little things.” He enrolled in community college, where he was exposed to Noam Chomsky, Lao Tzu, and George Orwell. “Books like Animal Farm and 1984 sparked something,” he says. “A new sense of independence, where I felt, I should take control of my environment.”
In January of this year, after dropping out of a reputable art school, he began loitering around the cavernous subway stations that link his Bushwick apartment to his Chelsea-art-studio day job. “I was playing with the posters, cutting them up, ’cause I have to use razors a lot at my job,” he says. His earliest works were hastily assembled, full of floating heads and juxtaposed slogans. But by the spring he was incorporating social critiques, rearranging the Iron Man logo into IRAN=NAM, and altering an NYPD recruitment-drive poster to read MY NYPD KILLED SEAN BELL. “No matter what I do to the piece,” he says, “as long as I did something to those advertisements and that saturation, it’s political. It’s anti-media, anti–established art world.”
New York City has a long history of reactive ad-jamming, from Ron English’s illegal billboard pasteups to the “stickeriti” artist known as Violator of the Regime, who last fall altered nearly 30 subway ads for the CW’s Reaper, replacing the show’s cast members with twisted Photoshop caricatures of Bush, Cheney, and Rice (the show’s tagline, “Meet Satan’s Biggest Tools,” remained intact). But the ubiquity of digital cameras and Flickr streams means that artists like Poster Boy or the Decapitator—a London-based ad hack who replaces celebrities’ heads with bloody stumps—can instantly take their regional agitprop to a worldwide audience, an impossible feat for English in the eighties. “If we did [a billboard] in Texas, only the people that commuted down I-35 that day would see the thing,” English says. “Unless we were clever enough to get it on the international news, we weren’t gonna broaden our audience.”
Poster Boy’s prodigious, easily accessible output has made him a leading figure among the next wave of media manipulators—a sort of Turk 182 with a 50-cent blade. But in order to remain viable, he has to keep producing new pieces, which puts him at an ever-increasing risk of getting pinched. (For now, he’s not especially high on the MTA’s list of priorities: “Vandalism of our property is illegal, and we prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” says spokesperson Aaron Donovan. “That being said, the problem to date has been minimal.”) At the 23rd Street station, he works quickly, pausing only when the trains arrive or depart. “While the train’s here, I scope,” he says. “Once it pulls out, I start cutting.”