Poster Boy: Can the street artists stop breaking the law?

Rainbow artwork by Poster Boy
Image caption Lepreconned, part of the cancelled Poster Boy art show at Trinity College

The street art collective Poster Boy has announced that its first solo show at Connecticut's Trinity College would be cancelled due to legal concerns. Can the anti-consumer vandals ever go straight? And would they want to?

Three years ago, a vandal with a creative streak caught the attention of the New York media. Dubbed Poster Boy and armed only with a razor blade, he cut up vinyl ads on the subway, turning bright, cheerful marketing campaigns into freakish collages.

The work was exciting but illegal. In 2009 and 2010, 27-year old Henry Matyjewicz was arrested twice, and later admitted his identity as Poster Boy in court.

Now on probation, Matyjewicz is forbidden from engaging in the vandalism-slash-public art that attracts attention from both cultural critics and the New York police department.

So when Poster Boy announced his first solo gallery show on his Flickr page - a six-week engagement at the staid, stately Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut - it raised several questions.

Was Matyjewicz back to his old tricks, or was Poster Boy finally going straight? Could Poster Boy's work translate to a highbrow, gallery setting?

The answer, in all cases, is no. The show has been cancelled. On Monday, the artist scrambling to get the exhibit down in case the police came calling was not Henry Matyjewicz.

He was, however, Poster Boy. As it turns out, Poster Boy is not a single person, but a group of men - and one woman - organised around the idea that artists, not advertisers, should have primary access to the streets. While there is a core group of Poster Boy members, fans and enthusiasts post their own work inspired by the collective online, an act encouraged by the artists.

Matyjewicz, one of the core collective members, supported the show, but was hands-off due to his legal situation.

The Poster Boy at Trinity College - call him Poster Boy O - is friendly and unfailingly polite, but wouldn't answer questions about where he's from or how old he is. He won't do phone interviews, appear on camera, or be recorded for note-taking purposes.

It's easy to be paranoid when your main materials are valuable commercial properties stolen right off the street.

Grand theft artwork

The show at Trinity was to feature two large works - one a bright red State Farm billboard, decorated with a dripping rainbow and the mascot from the board game Monopoly dressed as a leprechaun. Gold coins reminiscent of the Super Mario Brothers video game were affixed to milk crates and scattered around the floor.

The second work was an image of Captain America painted directly onto a billboard advertising the National Guard.

Both were taken off the street, selected as much for their ease of removal than their message. "These canvases are hundreds of pounds and over fifty feet," says Poster Boy O. They're also private property worth thousands of dollars.

The billboards are made of a tough vinyl and stretched across a large frame. A few deft cuts can liberate the material for Poster Boy's artistic purposes. "You can do it with one guy, but it's a lot easier with two or three," he says, noting that about that many members of the collective worked on the show.

Image caption From Poster Boy's Flickr stream: A Gatorade ad retrofitted with a gun

Called "Street Alchemy", the show was still being advertised on the marquee above the Austin Arts Center on Trinity's campus on Monday, despite being cancelled the week before.

"Late last week, it came to the attention of the curator of the exhibition that some of the materials used to create Poster Boy's artwork may have been obtained illegally," says Michele Jacklin, director of media relations for Trinity College. "At that point, we felt it was necessary to discuss whether it was prudent to stage the exhibition."

The show was put on hold until further notice, she says, at which point Poster Boy asked that the show be cancelled.

"They don't know where the billboards come from, and I'm not going to incriminate myself," says Poster Boy O.

He does, however, admit that the work his collective does is absolutely against the law. "It's all illegal, and that's part of the rush."

Questioning commerce

While some of the works done by Poster Boy have several layers of political and social commentary, others can border on silly.

A recent subway ad featuring a large colour photo of George W Bush was defaced with marker. Mr Bush's profile was transformed into a grimacing skeleton, the copy changed from "George W. Bush: The 9/11 interview" to "George W. Bush: he 9/11."

An earlier banner ad featured a more artistically sophisticated work, but a less highbrow message. An ad touting a sneaker company's sponsorship of the New York City Marathon was changed, almost seamlessly, to read "(Sound Wind) x (Sound Body) x New York = Fart."

To illustrate the point, the runner on the billboard now had a small cloud of gas trailing behind him.

Image caption Poster Boy's take on a sneaker ad hung near a basketball court

The politics of the group are muddled, their art influences varied. Poster Boy O, a fan of abstract expressionism, makes references to Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Some are bigger fans of pop art. More than one of them, he says, buy into 9/11 conspiracy theories.

All of them question the legitimacy of the advertising that permeates an average commute, and in their art, they seek to invalidate that legitimacy.

"It's rooted in growing up in a certain neighbourhood, certain economic background, seeing how things are," he says.

He alludes to anger over friends who are either in jail or fighting in Iraq and a culture that encourages poor kids to value sneakers, not school.

"It's something you can't fully express on a canvas. It takes a violent, visceral art. Think about what it takes to go up there and want to rip it down," he says of the vinyl canvases that once hung as billboards along busy streets. "There's something violent about that, and it's definitely part of the work."

Poster Boy has been compared to Banksy and Keith Haring, but the work also brings to mind the sci-fi B-movie classic They Live, in which a construction worker starts a revolution after gaining the power to see hidden messages behind glitzy advertising: submit, consume, obey.

Whether their work will spark a revolution is debatable: while ad companies and reality TV companies have come calling, sales of their book didn't raise enough money to fund their proposed legal fund for street artists.

They don't sell any other artwork, and their dream to turn Poster Boy into a global phenomenon without a leader has so far fallen flat. "We thought it could exist on its own, but it didn't happen that way," says Poster Boy O.

Currently, Poster Boy is planning a nation-wide art project, one that may take more than a year to execute due to the costs involved. Until then, the Poster Boy collective will continue to make art that challenges current laws - but without any real desire to change them.

"It's supposed to be illegal. That's what visionaries do," says Poster Boy O. "If they make it legal, we'll go find something else."