The journalist, the stealth artist and the man in the shadows

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I would like to say that I just stumbled upon Nullbureau while painting a nightmarish, emaciated figure on a wall in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood last month. But I don’t usually go out at 3 a.m. In fact, our meeting was orchestrated by a publicist who, although not hired by him, admired his courage. And that would trigger uncomfortable questions about authenticity, ethics, and expediency.

Beyond the fact that property degradation is illegal, Nullbureau, a Seattle first-time street artist who wouldn’t give out his real name for fear of being arrested, didn’t even paint his own ideas – c ‘were replicas of the Shadowman figures of Richard Hambleton, a notorious and troubled East Village painter whom Nullbureau admired and who passed away in 2017. To darken matters further, the Replicator had the blessing of a collector and entrepreneur of art (or “disruptor” as he calls himself), Andrew Valmorbida, who said he gave Mr. Hambleton $ 1 million for the copyrights on all of his works.

For my article “The Return of the Shadow Man,” which was recently published in the Culture section of the New York Times, I wanted to learn: Was this a tribute or a marketing ploy?

I took to the streets with Nullbureau in the wee hours of a September Saturday as he searched for places to transform. He had been out every night for about a week and a half before I joined him, losing weight from walking – and occasionally running, when he was spotted. I watched him consider painting on the door of one of the many gyms that have taken over Manhattan, but a bar across the street had just closed and he couldn’t risk being seen by the crowds of smokers on the sidewalk. We walked around looking for another place for him to darken with his mark, and he landed on a bright ad for luxury real estate at a bus stop.

Much of the story has evolved as criticism, not praise. My editor, Barbara Graustark, suggested that outside lawyers check the copyright contract, and when I found out that Mr. Valmorbida, who gave Nullbureau permission to copy Mr. Hambleton’s work, also had plans for an immersive (and potentially sponsored) ‘shadow man experience’. in London scheduled for 2022, I knew I didn’t want The Times play by promoting a PT Barnum of the art world.

So I redoubled my efforts to elicit responses from critical thinkers, street artists and friends of the late artist. A public art expert told me he better take his daughter to Hambleton as Chuck E. Cheese. Graffiti and street artists, who also risk being arrested but without the support of an entrepreneur and his publicist (the one who pitched me), expressed rage and resentment. Yet others found copying another’s haunting work to be contemptible and immoral. “To discuss the fundamental value of another artist,” one detractor told me.

But then many, including those who knew Mr. Hambleton personally, applauded Nullbureau for his courage and love for a deceased artist.

Looking back, I have to admit that I came to admire a conceptual obsessive who seemed more concerned with an artist he adored than himself. Then there was the fact that all of her hard work disappeared as quickly as an Instagram story. (It uses a diluted, washable latex paint.)

As we walked, he told me how impressed he was with the way New Yorkers seemed to engage with the city’s public spaces. He said he knew he was doing something unsettling, but hoped it would help the conversation. He assured me that he didn’t want anything to do with anything that would allow him to enjoy his street paintings. “Nowadays, any business can pair an artist with a brand to look cool,” he said.

At 4 a.m., I could barely stand up while I watched him paint. A young passer-by held a phone to record it, muttering “amazing” over and over again. I wanted to tell the young witness to hang up because it was a “real life” moment.

Too late. Nullbureau had packed his paint and brush in his backpack and was heading to a CitiBike station to get into town to continue painting. I wished him good luck.

And I meant it. Copied or not, these dark figures made me look up and think.


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Margarita B. Bittner

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