Poster Boy

The irreverent street artists open up about big business and penis jokes.

  • Photograph: Zenith Richards

  • Photograph: Zenith Richards

  • Photograph: Courtesy Poster Boy

  • Photograph: Courtesy Poster Boy

Photograph: Zenith Richards

RECOMMENDED: Street art and graffiti guide

The notoriously private street artist known as Poster Boy is so protective of his identity that he won't reveal his phone number or his first name. Scheduling a face-to-face meeting required one week of e-mail exchanges, three phone calls, a dozen text messages with two different telephone numbers and a final change of location ten minutes before the appointed meeting time. These hoops that he throws in the paths of potential acquaintances make it even more intriguing that he will appear via Skype—if behind a mask—during the Open City Dialogue lecture "Notes from Underground: Re-purposing NYC's Adscape" to talk about some of his infamous hacks.

Eventually Poster Boy met with us—or rather, two Poster Boys came forward. It turns out he is no lone wolf, but a collective of about six core artists, including one woman. Only a single representative will appear at the lecture. These spokesmen, however, have been participating since 2008, when the figure first surfaced as someone who sliced up subway ads and cleverly pasted his irreverent slogans and images over the originals developed by corporate America. Poster Boy has lampooned, among other things, McDonald's, Chase and Capital One banks, Californication, the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 and the MTA. One of the Poster Boys TONY spoke with turned a giant noodle smile in a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ad into a frown. The other one recently showed his sympathies toward the Occupy Wall Street movement by manipulating a Chase "Freedom" logo in the Wall Street subway station so that it spelled CHEAT with a stack of dollar bills in the foreground, and ows crudely pasted in the center of the logo. A particularly detailed image featured Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner with testicle neckties, two penises for heads on Paulson and Bernanke, and a phallus for a nose on Geithner above the tagline goldman sacks. "Penis jokes are always good," says one Poster Boy, who works a nine-to-five job. "Humor's a big part of subversion."

Lately, the group has been applying those subversive powers to bolster the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the artists had been sleeping intermittently in Zuccotti Park when demonstrations started in September, until police cracked down on the makeshift camp. The two members pointed out that both their collective and OWS are decentralized, leaderless, and adamantly anti big business.

The collective has always straddled New York's underground and the fine-art world. One presumed member, Henry Matyjewicz (who owned up to being Poster Boy, though his claim is controversial), was convicted of vandalism in 2010 and sentenced to 11 months in prison. Trinity College in Hartford had organized the collective's "Street Alchemy 2.0" exhibit in September, only to cancel it because the school got skittish over the "illegally obtained materials" in the show's centerpiece, which used pilfered billboards. However, the exhibition opened in October at Hartford's Real Art Ways , and drew hundreds of street-art and graffiti enthusiasts. In November, a smaller show titled "Not for Profit" opened at Dumbo's Mighty Tanaka gallery, selling prints, zines and photographs "for bored rich people to hang above their couch," as one member put it.

In an ironic twist, even these anticonsumerists must bend to the capitalist system to share their message and artwork. The book and print sales help fund support for OWS, an annual pilgrimage to Art Basel Miami Beach, and an upcoming project they refuse to elaborate on other than to say, "We're taking Poster Boy national."

STEAL THIS ART! "Notes from Underground: Re-purposing NYC's Adscape," Pete's Candy Store, 709 Lorimer St between Frost and Richardson Sts, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (718-302-3770, Mon 12 at 7:30pm; free.

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