Who is Poster Boy? Who Cares?
John Doe's sentiment has less to do with Henry, who I think is an incredibly interesting character in this whole affair, than it does with Matt Harvey's incredible lack of interest in the "movement" he seems to put at the forefront of the article. When the interview byline reads "Henry Matyjewicz says he's part of an art revolution that's bigger than one person." I get excited, hoping to find an insightful look into what this whole "art movement" is, and potentially what it's goals are.
The Interview begins with a solid account of the last few months of activity surrounding PosterBoy. Interestingly, Harvey begins this account by framing the times, "After the economy crashed—and millions of straphangers were sick to death of being sold so much shit—Poster Boy’s style evolved into more sophisticated mash-ups." This is the first time I've seen the political climate used to help explain the recent overwhelming excitement and interest in this kind of illegal art activism. It was a similar situation of economic destitution which bore the consumer movement in the late 30's and early 40's, and I think an interesting insight on Harvey's part. Earlier in the century, consumers in an economic wasteland, unable to pay for the common goods they needed, rose up against the injustices that the economy had exacerbated, no longer able look past them. They demanded price control and consumer product grading systems, and in turn began to see their roles as consumers through their roles as producers, demanding minimum wage requirements and a standardized work week. If deepening economic woes can cause consumers to re-evaluate the economy they live in and demand restitution for things they look past in more favorable economic times, then maybe we are also at a tipping point where consumers of today might be fed up enough to want to openly discuss some of the ways in which they are currently being taken advantage of. After all, necessity is the mother of all inventions, and an artist working with no material costs whatsoever, discussing the purchase of products that people are quickly becoming unable to afford, rings pretty true in my ears.
The interview starts out promising, trying to nail down some of Henry's heroes, a good way to contextualize what Henry is interested in with his part in the project, but that doesn't turn up any interesting relationships. It goes on to immediately tackle whether or not the work is activist, but here Henry is unwilling to paint it solely in that light saying, "It’s activist work. It’s a bunch of stuff. You know? It’s illegal. It’s whatever. But there’s, you know, just one more thing that you can label it under." It's not Henry's job to be the champion of ideas here but come on, this is an opportunity to call out some of the serious ideas about how the work challenges existing structures in our city and for whom the city is currently operating. I mean for god sake the guy is facing jail time for something he may or may not have done as well as for something which I believe shouldn't even be a crime. Clearly there is an unjust system in place here working against the residents of this city (Henry included) and for the large ad corporations inundating our public space with private messages.
The interview then goes on to try and figure out whether or not Henry is PosterBoy, all the while seeming like an opportunity for Henry to once again shake off responsibility for some of PosterBoy's more aggressive acts. Henry saying, "I feel a lot more safe in a studio making a painting than climbing up a structure and cutting down a whole billboard in Brooklyn." I Don't know who this PosterBoy is, if it's Henry or a whole crew of disgruntled citizens, The fact of the matter is Henry has denied responsibility for that act so let's move on.
In fact regardless of who tore that billboard down, both of them were excited about the fact that it had happened. Harvey responding, "Yeah, I loved that." and Henry reiterating the sentiment, "Yeah, that’s one of my favorites too." A quick response on Henry's part is all we get in the way of explanation for why this act from PosterBoy was so politically charged. "But it’s very good when you turn it (the billboard) into something that’s more local and public and more of a community space." The article makes haste moving forward, more concerned with whether or not "they wanted to pin..." the billboard removal on Henry. Who cares?
I could go on but I think my point has been made. The rest of the interview passes by inanely with questions about Henry's background, family life, and what he thinks PosterBoy would look like if he was a superhero. Really? Really? A superhero? get out of town.
The one saving grace is that in the end Henry does assert that his role in this project is about participation, that when things are wrong you must decide you level of involvement and not be afraid of the consequences.
"I understand what I can do and what I want to do and my involvement; and I think people should do that too and not be afraid to get arrested because that fear is why were are in this predicament—this moral predicament— in the first place, you know. You need to stop being scared and being empowered and thinking you can make a difference."
Personally I could care less who PosterBoy is, and maybe even less about who Henry Matyjewicz is. The fact of the matter is some very bold illegal activities are taking place right before our eyes and I want to know why.
VIA The New York Press
Henry Matyjewicz says he's part of an art revolution that's bigger than one person. In his first interview since his arrest, he talks to MATT HARVEY about what Poster Boy means as a movement.
A full year ago, as the city was marching to the beat of BUY! BUY! BUY!, defaced posters began appearing throughout the subway system. The early cut-and-paste jobs were crude and clever puns loaded with obscenities. A glop of paint turns a reality show tagline—about some rock stars’ brats—on itself. Alongside a tow-headed child, a placard asks: “Are They Born to Fuck?” The images are simultaneously logged on a Flickr site of someone called Poster Boy NYC. Street art blogs such as “And I Am Not Lying” took notice and Gawker and Gothamist kept the ball rolling.
After the economy crashed—and millions of straphangers were sick to death of being sold so much shit—Poster Boy’s style evolved into more sophisticated mash-ups. He teamed up with a high-minded cabal, including the public space artist Aakash Nihalani—who framed Poster Boy’s petty criminality in geometric tape designs. By the time New York magazine published a profile of Poster Boy on Oct. 5 2008, the subway artist was an anonymous masked avenger (a sexy accompanying photo showed tan arms in a wife beater, with a bandana and conductor-style cap, slouchy jeans and Nikes). He was now a symbol for an ever-more frustrated creative underclass losing jobs every day.
Then there was the cold night in Williamsburg when a solitary figure hung over the top of a king-sized billboard next to the Marcy Avenue El. He cut two long strips into the 50-foot-long poster—featuring a cartoon Giraffe and the words “Reach?”—with a box cutter. As subway cars careened past, the sheet of vinyl peeled off like a giant bumper sticker. Again, it was all digitized for YouTube. An act of youthful rage was transformed into a rebel raid on a corporate Death Star—and taggers later descended on the blank canvas to finish it off.
On the evening of Jan. 30, undercover cops busted Poster Boy in a Soho gallery space where Sly Art vs. Robot had advertised a performance by “Poster Boy NYC.” Identified as Henry Matyjewicz, a 27-year-old art student originally from Hartford, Conn., he was arrested on vandalism charges and, according to him, shuttled to Rikers Island. The New York Post reported on Feb. 3 that he was fingered by his own hubris— when overheard bragging to a girl about his exploits—with the headline, “He’s a Boaster Boy.” Indeed, Poster Boy inexplicably gave up his anonymity when he’d let a cameraman from the Guardian follow him in mid-January for a video that was later posted on YouTube. The video showed a young man with olive-colored skin wearing a gray fedora, a gray hoodie, a leather jacket and a bandana over his nose and mouth. He deftly slices and dices subway ads in the name of art while explaining his intentions.
On Tuesday, Feb. 10, Matyjewicz refused a deal offering him community service, vowing to fight on in court. But people were already saying that Matyjewicz wasn’t really Poster Boy. A Feb. 4 New York Times piece posited that Matyjewicz was just a stand-in.
Last Thursday, I met Henry Matyjewicz (pronounced Matee-YAY-veetch) on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. He was bundled inside a black coat, and he pointed to a yellow sticker on the ground that was torn from one of his mashups. It was stuck across the doorway of The Charleston, where we planned to meet. I took in his short, athletic frame, handsome features and thick black hair. Over the course of the next couple of hours, his frequent and long discourses—on topics ranging from art and music to politics and metaphysics—gave me the impression he was repeating received ideas to see which ones stick. He was simultaneously proud and eager to please. First, he averted his eyes from my gaze to deal with the lightning bolt stuck to the concrete.
“It’s from a Gatorade ad. I swear to God I didn’t put it here.” As he explained what happened, things weren’t exactly matching up to the reports. He goes in and out of the third person when referring to Poster Boy. He explained it was to protect himself from prosecution, but I sensed there was something else more puzzling at work: Sometimes he really was Poster Boy and sometimes he wasn’t. Strangest of all, he didn’t seem to remember some of the specifics of his own arrest.
When I called Matyjewicz later for clarification on some of his comments, he told me: “I’m pretty sure I was arrested in Brooklyn and sent to Soho.” When I tell him that was not possible, he replied, “I’m not good with that stuff.” It’s not the first time I’m baffled by holes in his story.
So where are you from?
Born and raised in Hartford, Conn., and moved out to New York a little bit later to go to school, to art school.
I’ve been to Hartford before. I’ve been to West Hartford.
It’s like night and day, the difference. West Hartford is like...the difference would be like Upstate New York and Manhattan.
Some areas of Hartford are just like, whatever, you know, just laid back. But there’s a lot of places in Hartford that are pretty…you don’t want to walk to down the street unless you’re from there—or at least you’re strapped... Some places are pretty crazy in Hartford, and it’s not that big of a city. It’s predominantly Hispanic or black.
Are you Hispanic?
Half Hispanic. Grew up on the Hispanic side really. Half Polish, last name Matyjewicz. I mean, clear giveaway, but I grew up with my Hispanic side.
Puerto Rican or…?
Yeah, Puerto Rican, sorry. Puerto Rican-Polish.
[We get into a discussion of Keith Haring and his “Crack is Wack” mural along FDR Drive.] Is Haring a hero of yours?
Haring? I acknowledge, you know, I respect what he does, but he’s actually not a hero. You know, I like a lot of what he stood for, the energy he had. Just like his really bright colors, his line of work, you know, like sometimes he would have messages like “Crack is Wack,” and so I appreciate his energy.
But as far as like a full-blown hero? I’d have to say no.
Who are your heroes?
I’d say for art, it would be Basquiat; I mean that’s the dude that even his background his pretty close to mine, you know. Even he came from a more, like, upper-class background than me, but he still had to go through a ton of shit—especially being black. So he went through his own shit. I don’t want to take that away from him. I like...there’s a lot of Spanish influences I love as far goes, and like Egon Schiele and Goya; Marcel Duchamp—a lot of those guys [were] into activist stuff. A lot of musicians influenced me. I like jazz a lot.
How do you think the activism influences the work of Poster Boy?
Well coming from someone who is just a part of it, how does it affect it? It just...I guess it gives it another label to attach to the work. You know? It’s vandalism. It’s graffiti. It’s street art. It’s activist work. It’s a bunch of stuff. You know? It’s illegal. It’s whatever. But there’s, you know, just one more thing that you can label it under. I don’t, you know, hmm. Yeah. That’s all I can say about that.
So it’s mainly an aesthetic manifestation?
Right, right. Cause you gotta understand from what I hear that the Poster Boy movement is, you know, I guess like it’s activist work or high-minded art. It’s beautiful activism or… [he’s distracted by music and doesn’t finish the thought].
[He then says he wants to explain the difference between Henry and Poster Boy]
Henry is an artist just inspired by what’s going on with the Poster Boy movement.
So Poster Boy was started before you?
Well, I was born before there was a Poster Boy movement.
Poster Boy has been out for less than a year. But I got into art before the Poster Boy thing. So I’ve been, you know, a painter in New York. There’s more to me than just my involvement with Poster Boy. I share a lot of the same ideals behind Poster Boy, but I’m not that extreme. I still like the idea of painting on a canvas, you know. And maybe…existing [and] living in a gallery system. Maybe this would be the way certain things work in the gallery system, but I’m still willing to participate in it because I still love the traditional mediums.
My involvement with the Poster Boy thing was just the legal aspect. Maybe I’ve given an interview or two about the Poster Boy movement and, like, I’ll show up like I did at the art show [in Soho] and create a piece, you know, as Poster Boy. Just doing my part for something I believe in. I don’t get paid. I didn’t get paid for it. I just believed in it. I played my part.
So were you recruited or...?
No, I just found out about all that was going on. Then they said they needed volunteers, and my expertise lies in the arts. And they asked if you’d be willing to do a Poster Boy piece, and I said, “Yeah, of course.” And so I did. It’s a legal piece [of art], and there was a chance of getting nabbed by the cops. Not that that was what they were planning. But if you look at that piece from that night, it’s really ironic—or really genius. So I’m willing to make sacrifices for certain beliefs.
How did they nab you?
Undercovers showed up. It was on the flyer saying, “Live Performance by Poster Boy,” and I was aware of this. And like I said, I am willing to take the fall for something I believe in.
And that was the piece on YouTube?
No the piece on...I mean they’re trying to hit me up for it, the piece on YouTube, and attach that to me.
So you’re saying that’s not you?
Yeah I’m saying that’s Poster Boy and not Henry.
There are people that say that it doesn’t even look like you.
Of course it doesn’t look like me. When they nabbed me, I had a gray hoodie on underneath a pea coat. In the video, it’s clearly a gray hoodie underneath a leather coat. They took my gray hoodie and the scarf, and they said, “Oh look, this is the same person as the video.” And I said no, it’s not, it’s just a gray hoodie…They were just trying to get me with whatever they could. Well actually, they didn’t mind what was going on in the subways. They were like, “You know a lot of the stuff that you do is cool, but it’s illegal.” And I was like, “I don’t do it all. What I do on my part is just the legal piece, which was done at the Soho gallery at the show.”
So you only did that one piece?
Right, right. And I didn’t want to, like, you know, take it in with the spirit of Poster Boy. I didn’t sign it. I didn’t sign it as Henry. I didn’t sign it as Poster Boy because Poster Boy isn’t about copyright. The idea of originality is thrown out the window. It can belong to anyone.
Images are stolen from corporate media and reused for a greater purpose, and I like that, so I didn’t feel the need to attach this Poster Boy piece that I did as Henry as a community service thing. You know, a selfless act. I participated in it and did it, but I’m not trying to get any recognition as a part of something that is bigger than me. So that’s why I did it. Forget about it. Getting arrested was nothing. It was just dirt on my shoulders.
So you’re saying they arrested you for a private, legal act?
Like I said, the evidence that was thrown against me, these are random posters that were vandalized and not for what was at the show. It was a legal piece. They went to the show on the suspicion that Poster Boy was going to be there since that was on the flyer and since I was working on the legal piece, they were like, “This is Poster Boy, let’s get him.” So it was kind of expected in a way. And like I said, I didn’t care. I didn’t want to keep anything.
I didn’t want to get money off of this, so I did make the piece in the name of Poster Boy and, you know, let it happen. Whatever Poster Boy wants to do with that image…gets done. I didn’t feel any attachment...
So it sounds like you were a superhero?
Yeah, it was like a Robin Hood. As someone said recently, a Keyser Sze? From Usual Suspects? I’ve never seen that movie, but I’ve got to see it now. How I feel about things is that we’re too attached to material things and the need to be famous and have money and have that as the idea of success...It’s a little too wacky.
I mean, I want to make money and be a little successful making paintings and stuff. But I don’t feel the need to, like you know, make a ton of this shit and just spit out this artwork and make millions and millions of dollars. If it happens, it happens. I’m not trying to do that. I don’t feel the need to do that. This idea that’s kind of put out there by the media makes people feel insecure because, if they don’t reach that, then they feel bad. And I think that compelled me to partake in Poster Boy because, though I’m not as extreme as what Poster Boy stands for, I feel...I have an affinity for what is being said.
What do your parents do?
Well my dad, he doesn’t do too much of anything. He owns a building, and he used to do some construction. He’s not really that active. He’s trying to lay low with the construction, but [he’s] barely getting by collecting rent in this building that was passed down to him. My mom, she’s like a nanny— barely gets by.
So you come from the working class?
Brothers and sisters? Yeah, all that.
So you said you went to art school? What art school?
I went to NYU, and they had a pretty good art program. I felt like there was a lot of bullshit in the art school that I didn’t really agree with.
Did you graduate?
Yeah, I graduated. So, it was...there was a contradiction between what I feel art should stand for and what they were teaching. So that’s kind of how I was able to like...really...I don’t know, come together with the whole Poster Boy thing. Like I said, maybe I’m not as extreme as the ideas behind Poster Boy, but I agree with a lot of it. Again, [I’m] a little too chickenshit to go out there and do that kind of stuff Poster Boy is doing.
You mean as Henry?
Yeah, of course, I mean as Henry. I feel a lot more safe in a studio making a painting than climbing up a structure and cutting down a whole billboard in Brooklyn.
Yeah, I loved that.
Yeah, that’s one of my favorites too. The whole point was, from what I gather, is to free up space for public engagement, whatever that may be. And lo and behold, the next day it was tagged by an artist named Lee(to), and it’s perfect, and it’s still up there—which is amazing! The potential for that is great. Ideally, I wouldn’t want to see any of the ads you know? Cause they’re like big and out-there and in-your-face. But it’s very good when you turn it into something that’s more local and public and more of a community space. I’d rather have that than a big billboard—a big advertisement.
Do you think that’s why they’re so intent on persecuting somebody for Poster Boy: because no one wants to see these fucking ads? Why not tear them down and throw them in the fire?
But none of us have that power. None of us want to see those ads. Nobody wants to see those ads. Some ads are clever, you know. You watch the Superbowl and you see like a funny ad or a clever ad, and there is some art behind it. You know, composition and color, there’s some appreciation. But then when it’s that big and in-your-face and it’s so aggressive; you get kinda tired of it. You’re like, Damn, I wish that shit would just like disappear. And then someone like Poster Boy comes by and just says, “Fuck it.” I’m going to cut it down with same razor I use in the subway. That takes fucking balls. Maybe you can’t do the same thing. But support it. If you believe in it in some way...
Do you think they wanted to pin that on you?
You know anything they wanted to pin on me. Anything. Every vandalized poster. Every piece that’s on the Flickr site. Every video piece. The billboard piece. The YouTube video.
They’re trying to nab me with all of that. I was kind of, like, taken aback at first. So I was kind of scared like, “Oh shit, I’m gonna get hit for all of this stuff.” You know, I don’t mind getting arrested and making a statement. But Jesus Christ, I don’t want to go to jail for this stuff.
So with that in mind, I tried to cop a plea. Maybe I’ll give them something to throw me a bone here, so I said, “All right, a while ago when Poster Boy started coming up, I maybe vandalized a poster or two but nothing else. You know, I didn’t climb up and do the billboard thing.” But they weren’t hearing that. They said, “Oh, really?” So they sent a cop right away to take a picture of every vandalized poster… I mean if that’s what it took—for me to get arrested, for all this crap to happen— maybe it’s worth it. Maybe I’m playing my part more than I think I am. I think so. It’s more than just doing a piece as Poster Boy. It’s me serving as a scapegoat or almost like a...
Well that’s an interesting term. Let’s talk about being a scapegoat.
Well, as far as like a scapegoat, like the whole idea with the NYPD trying to pin everything on me. Like people can’t understand something existing like Poster Boy, so they need one person to pin it on. People can’t imagine something existing like Poster Boy, so they have to have an individual to put all this shit on. I guess that’s my role, creating the change that I’d like to see. And so be it. I mean, I’d hate to go back to jail and stuff, but you know, at this point, seeing the way the institutions have been reacting, like the NYPD or MTA and advertisers and stuff, then my resolve would be [to get] stronger and getting a little more courageous as an active citizen. They [want to] give me jail time, fine, give it to me. I’m going to be scared shitless probably, but sometimes you have to put that aside. Put your fear aside.
How do you make a living by the way?
Bartend, odd jobs here and there. I sell paintings once in a while, and I’ve been getting a little mention—before the whole Poster Boy thing started. We’ll see where that goes. Of course, I’d love to make it as an artist. That’s why I came over here. I wasn’t born and raised here, you know? But I’ve been here for a few years. Not opposed to it. But capitalism seems like a pyramid scheme almost. The more you make, the more you spend, and the higher up you get, you just want to keep going and going, and make more money and consume more… Things should be evened out a little more. Maybe not be an anarchist state, you know. I still believe in some kind of government, but like make things like school free, healthcare, things that are essential. Like rights, human beings...
You said you liked comic books as a kid. If Poster Boy were a superhero, what would he look like?
Oh man, I think automatically, V for Vendetta stuff or like Batman.
What would he look like? What would he wear, Poster Boy?
The image that’s in my mind is this guy with a black jacket, jeans, a pair of red Converse and a fedora hat and a bandana covering his face—cause that’s like a couple pictures I saw that sticks in my head. Poster Boy is a New York thing. No, like, fancy clothes but still with a rough edge in a way, fucking like James Dean cool and then the bandana, like a vigilante, like an outlaw.
So I think that’s how I pictured it.
Anything else you want to make sure people understand?Just that, in the spirit of Poster Boy, to understand that there are things out there that are not right and probably always will be things that are not right, and you have to decide your level of involvement and how you have to change that. I’ve decided that as a human being, as Henry Matyjewicz, as an artist, as a citizen, as an American. I understand what I can do and what I want to do and my involvement; and I think people should do that too and not be afraid to get arrested because that fear is why were are in this predicament—this moral predicament— in the first place, you know. You need to stop being scared and being empowered and thinking you can make a difference.
You feel like you’re this lone person that can’t make a difference, can’t do something about it, and you’re scared and you’re alone. But if you feel empowered and know that even a little bit can make a difference, then you feel empowered and not fearful, then you accept things like getting in trouble, jail, death… Poster Boy doesn’t want to hurt anybody.
He’s trying to bring awareness and letting people decide whether it’s art or not.