Who is Poster Boy?

Written by Matt Harvey on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


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?

Yeah.

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.

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