One of Richard Hambleton's "Shadowmen"
It can be hard to recapture the unique context of Hambleton’s signature works when they were new and when New York was perceived as a dangerous place to be. Storyville Films

Richard Hambleton was a pioneering street artist in 1980s New York. His haunting works didn’t call attention to the city’s high crime—they piggybacked on it.

When Richard Hambleton died late last month, he was hailed as a founding father of street art, the man who’d made the world safe for Banksy. From a PR standpoint, his exit couldn’t have been better timed. After years lost to illness and addiction, over the past decade he’d reemerged into the spotlight. The street art renaissance secured him splashy gallery shows and the sponsorship of Giorgio Armani. A documentary about his life, Shadowman, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. His work is included in an exhibition currently at the Museum of Modern Art about the alternative space Club 57, which 35 years ago was a hub of the East Village art scene.

The documentary is named for the series that won Hambleton his reputation in the early ’80s. Originally from Vancouver, he festooned New York with jet-black, life-size male silhouettes. With a splattery, macho, punk-rock edge, the Shadowmen were jarring, bold, and exciting. They were of a piece with a city untamed, back before Manhattan became what it is today, a glittering high-rise parking lot for overseas cash and a Mall of America where you can get rained on.

Now that street art has been thoroughly domesticated and the grimy, gritty Big Apple of yore thoroughly romanticized, it can be hard to recapture the unique context of Hambleton’s signature works when they were new. The Shadowmen stood out because they played to the city’s weaknesses, making it dirtier, uglier, more menacing. A Google search turns up plenty of Hambleton’s more exuberant latter-day variations, graphic figures leaping and dancing, not far removed in spirit from the up-with-people vibe of Keith Haring.

But back in the day, these were outliers. The true Shadowman was a lurker. He liked hidden corners and dark recesses. Lying in wait, he was a night phantom. As a graffiti artist—a term Hambleton rejected, while accepting that he did in fact make graffiti—the painter was himself a friend of the dark. He needed it to commit the scofflaw crime of placing throughout the city specters who suggested far more serious transgressions.

A Shadowman would announce himself from the periphery, and never as a work of art. You felt the spike of apprehension, followed by the welcome surprise of recognition, and then it was over. You felt it was looking at you, the tables turned, and then you were looking at it. Consider the Shadowman a kind of single-frame horror cinema, existing at the intersection of the artist’s brushwork and the viewer’s imagination. Encountering one of the figures became a familiar experience, although you never quite got used to it. Even Hambleton could fall victim to them, having told a story of being scared off a work site by someone watching from a block away and returning later to find out he’d been suckered by one of his own paintings.

But the effect over time, as you accrued experiences of the different Shadowmen strewn throughout the city, was more pervasive and more durable, leading you to regard New York as an even more dangerous place than it already was. The shock was over, but the fear slowly grew.

What made the Shadowmen effective was also what made them kind of a dick move. With an actual horror film, you are a willing participant. Nobody walks into Suspiria without having a decent sense of what they’re in for. And yet Hambleton forcibly inserted himself into unwitting viewers’ experience of the urban environment. Worse, he amplified plausible risks. Serial slashers are rare and supernatural bogeymen simply don’t exist. But anyone who’s ever been mugged—even when violence is only promised rather than carried through—can tell you that you no longer look at quiet streets the same way. The figure of the mugger becomes a kind of unideological terrorist, putting you on edge, rescaling your assessment of safety.

The exploitative nature of the Shadowmen is underscored by their lack of legitimate political motive or effect. They were preceded in Hambleton’s oeuvre by the Image Mass Murder series, outlines of bodies on the pavement with garish splashes of fake blood. These works were convincing enough that cops and citizens alike had to be reassured that no one had actually died there. New Yorkers are viewed as stereotypically blasé, but of course they have fears and worries like anyone else. Only more so because of their environment—no one in 1980s Gotham needed to be reminded the city could be a dangerous place. Hambleton wasn’t calling attention to crime—he was piggybacking on it. And he’d shifted from evoking aftermaths to forecasting threats.

My understanding of the Shadowmen expanded when I encountered them again in 1985 in Venice, where I was doing a semester abroad. Hambleton had been included in the Biennale the summer before, and he’d brought his brush to Europe. But Venice was utterly devoid of nightlife and virtually barren of foot traffic after 10 p.m., so the Shadowmen lacked their previous context. They became welcome acquaintances, provoking pleasing frissons rather than gnawing fears, more like tourists than terrorists.

I loved the seat of the Most Serene Republic. Exploring this labyrinth of confectionary architecture was enchanting, and it seemed about as foolhardy as walking Maryland’s Ocean City boardwalk in the off-season. It was liberating to get lost in the tangle of empty streets and bridges. I felt relaxed, unencumbered. For the first time in my life, I was unselfconscious enough to learn to whistle.

In a sala overlooking the Grand Canal, I unspooled my hallelujah riff on the midnight city to the only other person still awake in the house, the woman who would become my wife. She shut my ambling fantasy down cold. The permissions afforded me as a 6-foot-3, 220-pound guy were unavailable to her as a 5-foot-nothing, 90-pound woman. No chance she’d walk the streets alone at night.

Her reaction threw into stark relief the manipulation and meaning of the Shadowmen. The shiver I felt at the thought of being liberated of my wallet for women signaled a far darker, more invasive prospect—even in Venice, never mind New York.

I’d failed to ask myself, when I admired these unruly works of art, if they were threatening others more than they were thrilling me. As they were opening my experience of the city up, were they shutting other people’s down?

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