It’s a Thursday evening at the 23rd Street C/E station, and Nicolas Cage is undergoing an involuntarily face-lift. As commuters wait for their train, the subway-art manipulator known as Poster Boy stands in front of an ad for Cage’s Bangkok Dangerous, razor in hand, and traces a circle around the actor’s eyes, nose, and mouth. Cage’s face peels away as easily as a trading-card sticker, and Poster Boy carries it down the platform, where he’s been hacking away at a hot-pink poster promoting MTV’s high-school musical The American Mall. He’s been rearranging swatches of color, text, and body parts to alter the movie’s title (now The American Fall) and tagline (“Love and Dreams for Resale”). Poster Boy slices out the Mall moppet’s head, replacing it with Cage’s appropriately stunned expression. The entire process takes less than ten minutes.
Since January, the 25-year-old has manipulated about 200 underground posters, turning MTA stations into his own public galleries. His pieces are conceived on the spot, and while most subway-poster vandals limit themselves to all-caps obscenities, Poster Boy’s improvised mash-ups recall both the cut-and-paste aesthetic of old punk-show fliers and the fake ads that appeared in circa-seventies Mad magazine: In his hands, AT&T skyscrapers are turned into flaming World Trade Center towers and Heath Ledger becomes a ghostly anti-drug pitchman. Most of his work disappears quickly—MTA employees have even ripped down his work before he’s finished—but you can see it on his sporadically updated Flickr account.
The defacing of posters doesn’t sound particularly lofty, but Poster Boy—who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous (vandalism is, after all, a crime)—has intentions that are surprisingly high-minded. The die-hard Fight Club fan hopes to start a decentralized art movement, one where anyone can claim to be Poster Boy. “No copyright, no authorship,” he says. “A social thing, as opposed to being an artist making things for bored rich people to hang above their couch.” That such a crusade might encourage vandalism doesn’t bother him. “Where I’m from, if you go by the book, it’s a very slow process to get what you want,” he says.
Poster Boy is reluctant to talk about his background, but a few details slip out: He was raised in a one-parent home in an East Coast neighborhood he compares to the South Bronx. He spent some of his teen years stealing cars and shooting out windows: “I’ve gotten arrested for a couple of little things.” He enrolled in community college, where he was exposed to Noam Chomsky, Lao Tzu, and George Orwell. “Books like Animal Farm and 1984 sparked something,” he says. “A new sense of independence, where I felt, I should take control of my environment.”
In January of this year, after dropping out of a reputable art school, he began loitering around the cavernous subway stations that link his Bushwick apartment to his Chelsea-art-studio day job. “I was playing with the posters, cutting them up, ’cause I have to use razors a lot at my job,” he says. His earliest works were hastily assembled, full of floating heads and juxtaposed slogans. But by the spring he was incorporating social critiques, rearranging the Iron Man logo into IRAN=NAM, and altering an NYPD recruitment-drive poster to read MY NYPD KILLED SEAN BELL. “No matter what I do to the piece,” he says, “as long as I did something to those advertisements and that saturation, it’s political. It’s anti-media, anti–established art world.”
New York City has a long history of reactive ad-jamming, from Ron English’s illegal billboard pasteups to the “stickeriti” artist known as Violator of the Regime, who last fall altered nearly 30 subway ads for the CW’s Reaper, replacing the show’s cast members with twisted Photoshop caricatures of Bush, Cheney, and Rice (the show’s tagline, “Meet Satan’s Biggest Tools,” remained intact). But the ubiquity of digital cameras and Flickr streams means that artists like Poster Boy or the Decapitator—a London-based ad hack who replaces celebrities’ heads with bloody stumps—can instantly take their regional agitprop to a worldwide audience, an impossible feat for English in the eighties. “If we did [a billboard] in Texas, only the people that commuted down I-35 that day would see the thing,” English says. “Unless we were clever enough to get it on the international news, we weren’t gonna broaden our audience.”
Poster Boy’s prodigious, easily accessible output has made him a leading figure among the next wave of media manipulators—a sort of Turk 182 with a 50-cent blade. But in order to remain viable, he has to keep producing new pieces, which puts him at an ever-increasing risk of getting pinched. (For now, he’s not especially high on the MTA’s list of priorities: “Vandalism of our property is illegal, and we prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” says spokesperson Aaron Donovan. “That being said, the problem to date has been minimal.”) At the 23rd Street station, he works quickly, pausing only when the trains arrive or depart. “While the train’s here, I scope,” he says. “Once it pulls out, I start cutting.”
He stares at the American Fall piece. Cage’s visage may be grotesque, but the poster needs one more inspired detail to set it apart. Poster Boy walks down the platform to collect pieces of sticky vinyl he cut from another poster and begins converting the neck of a guitar into a giant penis. He’s only halfway finished when he’s halted by a voice: “Stop!” The crowd parts, revealing four hard-charging NYPD officers. “You got ratted out,” one officer says, pointing to a Tropic Thunder poster that’s been defaced with a homophobic slur. Apparently, a commuter saw Poster Boy at work and mistakenly I.D.’d him as the culprit. He spends a few minutes pleading his case—he’s opposed to such sloppily executed epithets, for philosophical and aesthetic reasons. After taking his razor, the cops let him off with a warning.
Advice heeded, he hops on the next C train. As the door closes, he shakes his head. “I did a bad job of turning the guitar into a penis,” he says. “That’s my only regret: a poorly cut-up phallus.”