By RANDY KENNEDY
New York Times, February 3, 2009
If you’ve been half-awake in the subway sometime in the last year or so and thought you noticed two guys drowning in a glass of beer in a Michelob ad, or saw an ad for a television program about the Drug Enforcement Administration altered to say, “Iran: Every Deal Can Turn Deadly,” or that familiar subway door sign reworded to read, “Do Not Lean on Poor,” you have most likely seen the work of Poster Boy.
While most other street or graffiti artists concentrate on adding their own imagery, illegally, to parts of the subway system, Poster Boy, a kind of anti-consumerist Zorro with a razor blade, a sense of humor and a talent for collage, has made his outlaw presence known all over the city by cutting and pasting the images that are already there in the form of ads.
But his stealth campaign, which has entertained thousands of normally glassy-eyed commuters and infuriated the police and the companies whose costly ads he has chopped up and scrambled, will probably get a lot harder now. At an art event in SoHo on Saturday, a group of plainclothes New York City police officers finally caught up to and unmasked, at least metaphorically, the man they say is Poster Boy.
He is Henry Matyjewicz, a 27-year-old who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and he was found after a tip from someone who saw the name Poster Boy on a flier for the event, the police said.
Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said that Mr. Matyjewicz (pronounced Mat-ee-YAY-veetch), who was also being sought on a warrant for a petty larceny charge from last year, was arrested in the art space, at Broadway and Howard Street in SoHo, and charged with two misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief.
“The officers had information that he was, in fact, going to be at that gallery that night,” Mr. Browne said, adding that he believed that the department had evidence of Mr. Matyjewicz at work scrambling parts of subway posters. (Although his face is obscured, there is also plentiful video of Poster Boy doing his thing at friendswelove.com and on YouTube.)
But a man identifying himself as “Henry,” who called The New York Times on Tuesday in response to messages for Poster Boy sent through friends, cast some existential doubt on whether Mr. Matyjewicz was, in fact, the man the police were after.
“Henry is one of many individuals who believe in the Poster Boy ‘movement,’ ” the man wrote later on Tuesday in an e-mail message, referring to Mr. Matyjewicz in the third person. “Henry’s part is to do legal artwork while propagating the ideas behind Poster Boy. That’s why it was O.K. for him to take the fall the other night.”
He added, “Henry Matyjewicz is innocent.”
Moni Pineda, a co-creator and producer for Friends We Love, a New York documentary video series that profiles young artists, said that she and the series’s other creator, Mike Vargas, had just begun a benefit event in the SoHo space on Saturday evening when they noticed a commotion involving a person Ms. Pineda would identify only as “a friend,” adding, “Poster Boy could be anybody.”
“The police came into a private event,” Ms. Pineda said. “They didn’t show a warrant to me or anybody. And the next thing we know, our friend is walking out with a bunch of guys we didn’t know.”
Ms. Pineda said she and others came up with bail for their friend, but not before he had been transferred to Rikers Island, where he stayed before being released in the wee hours of Monday morning.
In one of his YouTube videos, Poster Boy says that he started rearranging subway ads because he wanted to make art but could not afford materials. “I mean, a razor pretty much anybody can afford,” he says.
His work grows out of a wave of remix culture that has inspired many young artists and musicians over the last decade, though in Poster Boy’s case it is decidedly analog. And he would like to see the idea spread, he wrote on Tuesday in a series of answers to e-mailed questions.
“Socially, I’d like people to understand that there is a difference between what is right and what is just,” he said. “If there is a law that is outdated, impractical, and/or immoral, people should have the right to challenge it. Remember, slavery was considered legal at one point. I consider the world’s current modus operandi a modern slave system. I intend to challenge it in any way I can.”
In a recent interview with Gothamist.com, Poster Boy bragged that the police vandal squad officers had been “hounding” him for his autograph. He added that he had begun moving on to more ambitious — and, legally, probably riskier — projects involving whole billboards and, mysteriously, “something planned that, if successful, will make the poster and billboard stuff look trivial.”
On Tuesday Poster Boy said that Mr. Matyjewicz’s arrest meant only good things for Poster Boy. “More awareness,” he wrote in the e-mail interview . “More support. Outdoor advertising, a blight that can’t be ignored, will become illegal.”
Yet Ms. Pineda, who said she had seen her friend on Monday after his release from jail, said he might have to reassess his plans in light of his looming legal problems.
“He believes in what he’s doing,” she said. “He still has a lot to say. But I don’t think even he knows how things are going to shape up.”
“And again,” she made a point to add, “Poster Boy can be anybody.”