He committed his first crime shortly after 2:00 in the morning on a recent Friday. With an athlete’s grace, he hopped a rusty gate and pulled a plastic bottle of black latex paint from his backpack. Then, in broad muscular strokes, he painted a shadowy silhouette of a scraggly man on the glass door beneath an abandoned cafe on West 23rd Street. It took form in 10 minutes, finished when he splattered droplets creating the impression that the brains of the menacing figure’s head were exploding as if from a geyser.
“I just think that door looks better that way,” he told this tagalong reporter who pointed out the police car on the corner. “And now the space is completely transformed.”
A man walking past it admired how the moody silhouette changed the setting. “That looks a lot better than it looked before,” he said to his companion.
The stealth artist, a 47-year-old Seattle resident, former mountain bike racer and industrial designer, goes by the street name Nullbureau and would not give his real name for fear of arrest. But anyone who knows the history of street art in New York City would recognize the figure he had replicated. It was a fairly accurate facsimile of one of the Shadowman figures painted by Richard Hambleton.
Hambleton (1952-2017) is often referred to as the godfather of street art, inspiring Banksy, the popular underground artist, and others. Before he painted his shadow figures around an abject Lower East Side of the early 1980s, he painted outlines of murdered figures on sidewalks. He became so well known for his early provocative work, some for the streets, others on canvases to sell, that he landed in Life magazine.
But decades later many who knew him still feel protective, and recent replications have unleashed, along with fond memories, skepticism and even rage.
Many found the original street paintings frightening. Hambleton thought of them as picking up on the psychology of the city when it was a scarier place than now. He wanted pedestrians to be surprised or better, shocked. “I’m just adding to the picture,” he said in Oren Jacoby’s 2017 documentary, which played at the Tribeca Film Festival the same year the artist succumbed to cancer.
But if his peers Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat died young with careers skyrocketing or about to Hambleton had a much less solidified course as his stormy life stretched out until his death at age 65. He was conflicted about selling his best paintings, according to many who worked with him, and he had become homeless at times. That and a heroin habit (it never stopped him from painting) made him his own shadowy figure.
Enter, among others who saw his value artistically and financially, Andrew Valmorbida, a London-based art entrepreneur and self-described art world “disrupter” who has collaborated with P. Diddy. Along with Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, he engaged Giorgio Armani about a dozen years ago to back a Hambleton retrospective presented in Milan, the Cannes Film Festival, Moscow and New York.
Valmorbida said that he acquired the copyright to all the artist’s original work in 2017, the year he died, for $1 million and provided a document signed by Hambleton assigning his company, AVA Holdings Ltd. (now known as Untitled-1) the intellectual property rights “perpetually, irrevocably and exclusively” to do anything — from making T-shirts to digital art — except create fakes to sell. “He needed the money at the time,” Valmorbida said by telephone from his home in London. “I always believed in him and knew his work deserved recognition.”
He emphasized that along with helping to fund the “Shadowman” documentary he plans to use his own money to create a catalog raisonné of Hambleton’s oeuvre and an authentication process to support the troubled artist’s legacy.
What Valmorbida did not volunteer to The Times until asked was that he has plans in the works (and a splashy proposal for sponsorship) for “The Hambleton Experience,” an immersive extravaganza that includes a skate park, playground and snack bar in London, something like the Banksy and van Gogh experiences. “It’s going to happen in 2022,” he said.
An Obsessed Replicator Makes His Mark
Six months ago Nullbureau approached Valmorbida to pitch the idea of replicating Hambleton drawings on the street. He said his reverence for Hambleton went so deep that he was willing to create a Hambleton website from Valmorbida’s archive for free, and then risk arrest to put new Shadowman paintings around New York City.
“People only see photographs but never have the experience of finding them on a wall,” Nullbureau said, likening his own executions to cave paintings. “And you can’t create that feeling with a poster.”
“And I wanted to know what it felt like to struggle to do his kind of work,” he added.
Starting in September he went out, putting up the threatening silhouettes in places he felt could use a little jolt of social commentary. He put one up on a Supreme store window in SoHo, one of the early bastions of art branding and previous seller of Hambleton T-shirts. He put one on the windows of Hauser & Wirth, a mega-gallery associated with the speculative boom that has driven art to Wall Street levels of trading. He hit Shubert Alley near Times Square too. Within weeks 150 shadowmen had gone up and he had lost 15 pounds as he stalked and walked the nights.
In New York, graffiti vandalism remains a crime punishable by a jail term, fine and/or community service but when two policemen questioned Nullbureau one night on a deserted West 14th Street he politely explained to them that the watered-down latex paint he was using was intentionally washable and they left him alone.
As he did his work, he sometimes left QR stickers leading to a tab on Valmorbida’s Hambleton site. Soon he attracted a different kind of policing. It came from seasoned street artists and others protective of the deceased against authenticity infractions. Valmorbida (who has Nadine Johnson, a high-end publicist, on retainer) had given Nullbureau the legal blessing as the copyright owner. But was it ethical?
“It might be permissible, but I don’t think that it’s appropriate,” said Tom Eccles, the executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, former director of the Public Art Fund in New York City and a board member of the Keith Haring Foundation. “The public spaces where Hambleton put his original work were different when he was painting them, so how does all this really reflect on the artist’s legacy?”
Asked about the family-friendly Hambleton experience project in the works in London, Eccles said: “Things like that depreciate the value of art and I wouldn’t take my daughter to a Hambleton, Banksy or Van Gogh experience just like I wouldn’t take her to a Chuck E. Cheese.”
Never mind the idea of nightmarish figures used as a family attraction, branding with artwork is hardly shocking these days. Thirsty street artists — whose images can have cross-cultural appeal and the potential for digitization — frequently monetize their work on social media, baseball caps and T-shirts.
In a high-profile instance of art used to promote commerce, a controversial Tiffany ad campaign featured a rarely-seen Jean-Michel Basquiat work with Beyoncé and Jay-Z. (The painting had recently been acquired by the jewelry brand’s new owner, LVMH.) Perhaps not coincidentally the art is the same robin’s egg blue as the jeweler’s bags.
Nullbureau said he wasn’t being paid, and wants nothing to do with Valmorbida’s Hambleton “experience” in London. He has not even posted the pictures he took of his shadow figures on Instagram. Most of the work gets removed within a day.
One night at Limelight, the former church that became a famous dance club — now defunct — he paused before painting on the imposing red Gothic revival door. “Because it used to be a church, I wondered if I should do it,” he said. Then he thought about all the cocaine that blew around the club and carried on with his graffiti. A week later, his Shadowman was still there but with an addition by another street artist of two graffiti-like angel wings. “People added to the original Hambletons, too,” he said.
Less simple to remove are the caustic responses to what purists and skeptics see as a clumsy tribute and perhaps a marketing ploy to promote Valmorbida, his collection and his proposed Hambleton experience.
“The fact that one human hand seeks to recreate or capture the exact hand of another is both mathematically impossible and conceptually corrupt,” Eric Haze, a painter, designer and former graffiti artist wrote in an email. “It’s important and powerful to name and honor one’s sources and heroes, but there can be a fine line between owning the intent versus simply trading or profiting off someone else’s core value.”
Adrian Wilson, a street artist and photographer, found the lack of transparency troubling. “What is the initiative to do this and why is he risking arrest?” he asked about the copycat artist, after posting a diatribe on his Instagram account that drew comments such as “Gross” and “Disrespectful.”
“I’m not against capitalism but I’m against PR masquerading as art,” he said, “and if it were for charity that would be different.”
In fact, Hambleton’s own modest estate recently sold 14 works through Sotheby’s Art of the Street online auction, for a total of $586,500, with the bulk of the proceeds going to the New Museum’s art education programs. Many of the works sold for twice their estimate.
“One of the things that makes his work so exciting to European, Asian and American buyers is that his iconic Shadowmen typified the last generation of hip, pre-gentrified New York that feels completely lost to many people now,” said Harrison Tenzer, who oversaw the Sotheby’s auction.
Sotheby’s will be offering works from the estate into 2022. Tenzer added that Hambleton’s work sold especially well due to “the greater recognition of artists who were his peers, like Haring, Basquiat, Rammellzee and Kenny Scharf.”
The record for a Hambleton painting, “As the world burns” (1983) was $552,000 in 2018. It doesn’t take a media strategist to see that the promotion of copycat Hambletons and a theme park could make the value of the better works soar.
Brian Vincent Kelly, the executor of the Hambleton estate, whose documentary “Make Me Famous” about another underrecognized ’80s artist, the painter Edward Brezinski, opened this month, has no issue with the copied shadow figures. In fact, when he noticed one near the West Side Highway he thought it was a “lovely homage.” He helped care for Hambleton in his last years and, with his wife, Heather Spore Kelly, helped him put up a last show in Midtown.
“This work is on the street, not for sale and it’s getting people to talk about Richard Hambleton again, who wanted to be remembered,” he said.
Mette Madsen, a former girlfriend of Hambleton who once got pulled into court covered in paint, while not outraged, was skeptical of both the duplications and the freewheeling ambitions of Valmorbida.
“The replications are beautiful but they’re a little neat and contained to feel authentic,” she said. “They lack movement and I’m not sure Richard would approve.”
Al Diaz, who made graffiti under the name Samo (often linked to his high school classmate Basquiat) had a more forgiving attitude toward Nullbureau. “I was at first suspicious,” he said. “But then I felt his sincerity in his appreciation for the artist and the risk he’s taking of getting caught.” He sent a text that seemed a kind of benediction and validation.
“It’s yours, and take it as far as you can,” he wrote. “Be vigilant and swift.”
Indeed, Nullbureau had to be swift on his late September rounds in Chelsea. At a subway stop after 3:00 in the morning he painted a black figure at the bottom of deserted steps as announcements about arriving trains echoed up from the platform. Moments after he had finished, Aaron Allen, a young lawyer heading home to Harlem, smiled broadly.
“I love when artists extend themselves beyond their limits,” he said to Nullbureau, who had just finished packing up to flee. “Thank you, I appreciate the effort.”
At the next site, the brightly lit wall of a driveway leading to an apartment building’s garage, he painted on rough cement so porous it took longer than expected.
As he was putting his paint bottles into his backpack, he looked up to find a man in a white shirt and tie who had seen him on the building’s camera.
“Hey, what’s up?” the security guard asked.
Then he looked over at the fresh Shadowman, a cave painting, marketing attempt and conversation starter for these conflicted times, and shook his head. By then the perpetrator was long gone.
But he will be back on the streets, in Florida in November — just ahead of Art Basel Miami.