I first met Canadian renegade artist, Richard Hambleton, in early 1981, a short while after a series of enigmatic posters started appearing in conspicuous locations in the Soho and Tribeca neighborhoods of New York City.
The life-size photographic posters of a well-dressed white man, head cocked and standing in a Napoleonic stance, was intriguing. The figure’s full frontal glare at passersby was also disconcerting. Upon seeing the posters you would undoubtedly ask yourself: who is this man, why is his picture plastered all over the city, and why is he staring at me?
These were typical reactions during the post Punk and New-Wave years of 1977-1983 in New York where every square inch of vertical real estate was papered over with political or handmade cultural posters. This phenomenon was the early stages of what we now know as the “East Village” sensibility. Even in the midst of all the chaos, the strange “Business Man” posters stood out.
Hambleton’s first attempt to crack the hardcore New York art scene realized some success because he managed to catch everyone’s attention. His posters where different from the usual glut: they had no text, they didn’t advertise anything except, perhaps, himself. This was certainly an intriguing mystery.
Richard Hambleton would travel incognito for the first year or so while living in New York City. A friend introduced me to Richard in 1980. I felt somewhat privileged whenever I would see him because he was elusive and enigmatic. He would speak to me in an almost inaudible sotto voce as if he was a fugitive. He went on to tell me of his next venture for Gotham’s city streets, and this one sounded more original and groundbreaking than the last. He was going to paint flat black life -size figures directly on the walls of New York in the dead of night.
Brain Blast, 1982
He was determined not to get caught or arrested as a vandal or graffiti writer because Graffiti artist was not an accepted vocation in 1982. He roamed the streets at night, always dressed in black, with a long black cape-like trench coat to hide his one paint can and one brush. He would strike not at random, but in carefully calculated spots that would deliver maximum impact to unsuspecting pedestrians. The paintings appeared at the beginning of dark alleys, at a portal around a busy corner or jumping from behind a dumpster. The life-sized paintings would take perhaps only 30 seconds to complete. They were all fresh graphic silhouettes executed with Franz Kline -like strokes. They looked like sentries guarding the mean streets. The liquid shadows were positioned frontally, in profile or in three-quarter view, and exuded a certain physical attitude.
They were confident, with arms at their sides, on both hips or with one arm raised as if ready to charge. Some were stiff, and some seemed to be dancing. The latter paintings were more animated with figures jumping and leaping 10 to 20 feet into the air, up the wall, and at times they appeared as twins with their hands spewing black paint as blood. One dynamic figure has an exploding head with a large 10- foot plume of thick black blood gushing from the top of its head.
Sometimes even 30 seconds was too long to be painting in the street. If a cop were cruising near by, Hambleton would stop in mid-stroke and scramble away like an insect when the lights are turned on. Some of the unfinished figures are the most haunting of all. They look like victims caught in a horrible war where they were burned beyond recognition or had been napalmed with limbs missing and bodies charred.
I soon became somewhat obsessed with Hambleton’s creative nocturnal prowls. He would tell me in advance where he was going to strike next, so I felt like a lucky scoop reporter for a News Daily looking for my next breaking story. I wanted to know where the figures were going to be painted because I wanted to capture them fresh, all black and unadulterated in their virgin state. In New York nothing is left alone for very long, and almost immediately other wanna-be street artists would add their prosaic tags on top of the Hambleton’s figures.
Luckily, early in my photo documentation and before the general public caught on, I was able to capture many clean black figures on color print and slide film. All of Richard’s night maneuvers were in familiar territory to me because from the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was already photographing urban walls and had spent several years documenting street art, signs, graffiti, murals in New York, Europe and China. I knew that because of Richard’s wall paintings, New York City would never be the same.
As time went by, I had compiled a substantial number of photographs of Hambleton’s shadow paintings and after several months, I noticed a whole new crop of street art had sprouted along side Richard’s silhouettes. I was no longer annoyed by the visual intrusions of others and began photographing all the ancillary scribbles, writings, posters and cartoons attached to the black figures. The uninvited additions transformed the sinister Hambletons into whimsical interactive community exercises. Richard’s flat black house paint gave way to Day-Glo pinks, skeletons, telephones, living room furniture, red evening gowns, happy faces, guns, whips, dogs and scarecrows.
While Hambleton was getting fantastic press coverage, he managed to stay a mystery. He made me promise not to give out his name or telephone number and I kept my promise. Eventually, the press caught up with him and he was an instant art star with full-length articles in People magazine, many art magazines and local and regional television news stories. Many lower Manhattan pedestrians trade stories of encounters with the painted figures, and how they were startled by them. I believe playing off New Yorkers’ fear of crime was part of his clever master plan.
While the New York Press was catching up to Hambleton in New York, Richard was already roaming around Europe doing the same thing. There are black painted figures in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Venice, Florence, Rome, Milano and other cities. I managed to find and photograph a few in Europe several years after they were painted. On a stroll through Tompkins Square Park in the East Village in the early 1990s I found a Hambleton I missed the first time around because it was painted on a tree. I just didn’t think to look there.
Nightlife raises many questions. Were the figures self-portraits of the artist or do they represent everyman? They are permanent and ephemeral at the same time. The haunting effigies broke down barriers between aspects of art that were acknowledged years later. They were an illicit act in the appropriation of public space. Were they high art or low art? In the civic sphere, the authorities would see the paintings as vandalism, pure and simple. The paintings were an act of performance that could not be easily collected or sold in galleries. All along, Hambleton was always a step ahead of the police and years ahead of the art cognoscenti. Without a doubt, the shadow paintings left an indelible mark on my brain. Once you see them, you never forget them.
“Were the figures self-portraits of the artist or do they represent everyman?”
In 1982, I was the first artist/photographer to compile the Hambleton shadow wall paintings into book form. My initial 1982 volume (an original edition of 200 signed and numbered handmade books) was sold independently. They are now included in many public and private collections. Over the span of several years, I photographed over 100 of Richard’s shadow paintings, of which 73 are included in this second volume. The NightLife series, 1981-89, was an exciting episode in the contemporary art scene in New York City, and I am glad to have been a part of it. I hope NightLife serves as a comprehensive historic documentation of this memorable body of work by Richard Hambleton.