The epic rise and disgusting flameout of the artist who ruled 80s New York
In the early 1980s, a series of shadowy street paintings — life-size monsters and cowboys — loomed large over the East Village. Anticipating the works of Banksy by more than a decade, the unsigned figures were created under cover of darkness on buildings and bridges. They weren’t mere graffiti, but painterly works reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. Downtown residents buzzed about who could be behind them.
The art world knew who it was: a soft-spoken Canadian — often clad in a cravat and sunglasses — named Richard Hambleton.
At downtown galleries, his mysterious figures fetched thousands of dollars more than work by his friends Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. He attended parties with beautiful women on his arm, and Andy Warhol begged him, in vain, to sit for a portrait.
Hambleton canvased Manhattan with some 450 shadow men — and managed to get a few on the Berlin Wall, too. But by the 1990s, he was largely forgotten, living in a drug den on the Lower East Side. He was so poor that he would shoot himself up with heroin, then use the blood in his needle as paint. At some point, he lost half his nose. (He won’t discuss his health, but he has numerous ailments, including skin cancer.)
But lately, Hambleton, 64, has been emerging from his shadowy existence. Hip galleries have begun showing his work again. He’s recognized as the godfather of street art, and his influence can be seen in the works of painters such as Banksy, Blek le Rat and the Brooklyn duo FAILE. And a documentary about his life and work, “Shadowman,” will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival Friday.