On Tuesday afternoon, the New York street artist known as Poster Boy stood on Hamilton Street in Hartford, between Bartholomew Avenue and the railroad tracks, and looked up at an inspirational billboard that featured the image of the "Mona Lisa," next to the word "smile."
Only now, the face in the frame wasn't Leonardo da Vinci's famous woman. It was painted over with a yellow smiley face. And under the word smile was scrawled, in black paint, "i.c.u.p."
"I based this on Marcel Duchamp's original subversion of the 'Mona Lisa,' " said Poster Boy, who had altered the billboard the previous night. "[Duchamp] put a Salvador Dali-esque mustache on her, and then an acronym that didn't stand for anything, but if you read the letters in French, meant, 'there's a fire down below.'" (The 1919 Duchamp work is called "L.H.O.O.Q.")
So Poster Boy left his mark on the city anyway, despite the fact that his show at Trinity College, "Street Alchemy," which was scheduled to open on Thursday, was abruptly cancelled by school administrators who were leery about where Poster Boy got his raw materials. Poster Boy freely admits he steals them, and cried censorship.
"They are censoring the Poster Boy show because of the political or legal aspect — or illegal aspect — of the work, the fact that the materials are appropriated from the streets and used for the show itself," the artist said.
On Tuesday, Trinity College spokeswoman Michele Jacklin said the "Street Alchemy" show, which was to be unveiled in the Widener Gallery in the campus's Austin Arts Center, was postponed based on a decision by Paul Mutone, vice president for finance and operations, in consultation with outside legal counsel.
Jacklin said that the show's curator, Pablo Delano, didn't do anything wrong in setting up the exhibit, but she added that only a few people knew about it until a few weeks ago.
"Professors have a great deal of latitude in inviting a wide array of speakers, lecturers and artists to campus, even those whose opinions or work might be deemed controversial or provocative. Professor Delano followed the proper protocol in this case, notifying the appropriate college officials that he would be staging this exhibition," Jacklin said. "It came to the attention of certain people at Trinity late last week that there were legal issues associated with Poster Boy and his artwork, chief among them was that illegally obtained materials may have been used in creating his artwork."
Jacklin also said the cancellation, as opposed to postponement, was at the insistence of Poster Boy. He agreed that this was true, because he considered the postponement a virtual cancellation, and that if they felt that way they might as well cancel it.
The exhibit — centered on two altered billboards, one for State Farm Insurance and another for the National Guard — had already been fully installed by late last week when the show was scuttled. It had been dismantled and taken away by Tuesday morning.
Who Is Poster Boy?
In his interview on Tuesday, Poster Boy not only would not identify himself by name but he insisted that he is not a solo artist but part of a "loose collective" of guerrilla street artists who cut up subway and street billboards to make mash-up collages that cast a snarky and ironic commentary on the advertised product, and advertising in general.
But all evidence points to Poster Boy as a solo guerrilla artist, who, in bringing his art to Hartford, was coming home.
Poster Boy has been identified in the New York media as Henry Matyjewicz, who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Matyjewicz was arrested by New York City police in January 2009 while attending an art gallery opening in Soho and charged with two misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief, according to the New York Times.
Matyjewicz gave an interview to the alternative weekly, New York Press, several days later about "the Poster Boy thing," and told the interviewer that he was born and raised in Hartford. The New York Post one year later reported that Matyjewicz was arrested after a police officer spotted him at the Jefferson Street L train station in Bushwick slicing up an ad. The Post also reported that at that time, Matyjewicz admitted to being Poster Boy. A May 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal also identified Matyjewicz as Poster Boy.
Courant columnist Susan Campbell profiled Matyjewicz in March 2006 in conjunction with the installation of "City Limits," an art project at Manchester Community College, where he was a student, which made a statement on wealth and poverty in Connecticut. He was identified at that time as a 24-year-old native of Hartford's South End, a 2001 graduate of Hall High School in West Hartford and an art teacher at Mi Casa Family Service and Educational Center in Hartford.
Despite Poster Boy's generally accepted identification as Matyjewicz, in an interview Saturday in New York, and Tuesday in Harford, Poster Boy stuck with the "loose collective" story and said members of the Poster Boy group risk arrest by attending art exhibits.
"A couple of us are on probation. Some of us can travel outside the five boroughs. Others are limited to just staying in New York and not really doing anything too crazy until we're off probation," he said. He added that he is currently on probation, and when he traveled to Hartford to prepare the show, he was traveling legally.
The artist considers the cancellation "a badge of honor … a blessing in disguise.
"The main point of the show is to reach people and to bring awareness to the sort of visual pollution we see advertising to be and the whole hypocrisy behind being able to put advertising up yet street art and graffiti is illegal," he said. "When the media gets a hold of it the fact that this was censored and canceled, more people will hear about it, more people will be forced to think about what the work stands for and what Poster Boy stands for. Whether they agree with it or not it will definitely reach a lot more people."
Trinity's Jacklin bristled at the suggestion of censorship. "In all the conversations and discussion that occurred here in the last several days, that word, that issue, that subject never came up," Jacklin said. "This was strictly focused on the legal issues. Trinity prides itself on its academic freedom and freedom of artistic expression. I find it troublesome somebody is accusing Trinity of censorship."
Poster Boy has his own definition of the word. "Censorship is a loaded word," he said. "It implies a lot. But it is what it is. … If you're just giving in, or you're the Gestapo, you're using your authority to quiet someone down."
But he thumbed his nose at Trinity's decision with his billboard work on Hamilton Street. After showing off his "Mona Lisa," Poster Boy pointed out another altered billboard only a few yards away. A Geico advertisement with the famous gecko that featured the words "save money" was transformed by him into "slave money." The G in Geico had been crossed out and replaced with a $. (Read: psycho.)
"It's a commentary on the economy, which in the early days was made by slaves and indentured servitude," he said. "It still goes on today. It's called globalization and free trade."
He also spent Tuesday afternoon talking to kids at a Hartford high school he wouldn't identify, to protect the identity of the teacher who invited him.
Luis Cotto, a councilman on the Hartford Court of Common Council, said in an interview Tuesday that he has been acquainted with Poster Boy for years and introduced him to Delano. Cotto would not discuss anything about the show's cancellation — he did not know the reasons — but he did discuss Poster Boy's work.
"When he hit upon this thing, it was just genius, or really the flip side of genius," Cotto said. "When you talk about graffiti, people tend to think of it as art, or nuisance. But now you're talking about a guy not defacing anything. Now he's dealing with multimillion-dollar ad campaigns."
Cotto said one of the first sculptural pieces Poster Boy did was a temporary sculpture outside La Paloma Sabanera, a coffeehouse on Capitol Avenue that Cotto once owned with his sisters.
"It was a man, made of biodegradable materials," Cotto said, "so when it rained it decomposed."
The aforementioned March 2006 profile by The Courant suggested at Matyjewicz's artistic sensibilities:
"Matyjewicz's Hartford neighbors have stopped looking at him funny when he drives up with a pickup-load of old doors and windows. If they don't understand that used items have a character that new ones don't, they know that Matyjewicz is an artist, and he likes scratches and dents. Those are the objects to which he is most drawn."
In that article, discussing a project using door imagery, Matyjewicz said his artistic sensibilities were influenced by the city of his childhood:
"Maybe on one side of the door, I'll look at poverty, and then on the other, I'll look at people who are well off. Since I am young and idealistic, I'm attacking social themes. I am only saying this is what I see. This is the way it is, if you get off 84 and drive around and really look. This is what you'll see.''
They're right. Censorship is a loaded word. HOWEVER, as a person who has worked in an art gallery for almost 4 years, I can't see how they'd be so ignorant. I spoke about this with a Trinity fellow and the Exec. Director of another local art gallery last night. Turns out the artist who was supposed to show after Poster Boy had her studio washed away by Irene. What are they going to do now? Who's going to step up and give Poster Boy a place to show?
He can come stay in my kitten room.
"FOR ART IS ALWAYS CONFLICT:
1. because of its social mission.
2. because of its nature,
1. because of its social mission.
2. because of its nature,
3. because of its methodology."
- Sergei Eisenstein