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The life and times of Richard Hambleton

By Paul DeRienzo

I had the pleasure of being listed as a “star” of the documentary film SHADOWMAN, directed by Oren Jacoby about the life of Richard Hambleton, a world famous yet covert artist who was a guest on Let Them Talk, a public access program I hosted with Joan Moossy on cable in New York City. Hambleton was possibly most famous for his eerie black shadow paintings that popped up ‑ usually in the dingiest of alley ways where a drunken form might stumble for a piss before the yuppie flood of the 1990s arrived in earnest. There was always at least a hint of danger
in the dark streets and old‑ timers on the Lower East Side, while a potentially warm and friendly bunch, knew not to fuck around too much in the shadows ‑ for one’s own good.

Spotting a Hambleton image over your shoulder as the warm yellow stream seduced a false sense of relief could quickly shock the unsuspecting pisser back into 1980s urban reality.

“It had to do with location, a doorway, an exit,” Hambleton said. Describing his own need to avoid arrest during one outing, “I was looking around so I wouldn’t get busted, there was some one standing a block away. I said I’d come back, and when I came back he was still there. I realized it was one of my shadows.” Scared by your own shadow? Hambleton nodded, “I was.”

The artwork that first catapulted Richard Hambleton into fame appeared in his home town of Vancouver in 1977 and was called the “Image of Mass Murder.” A police‑ like outline of a dead body on the street with red paint splattered like blood to make the image resemble a crime scene. I asked if his artwork was meant to be political, Hambleton resisted the idea, but said the work was, “A statement about painted realism, but it also had messages of violence attached. It was realism, people thought ‘who died?” Adding that the Image of Mass Murder was about “if something had happened, while the shadows are about something happening, it was direct, it was Richard Serra, right there.”

Serra is the Tribeca-based artist famed for large sheet‑ metal sculptures among the most famous for “Tilted Arc” a 120’ long and 12’ high metal wall at the base of Federal Plaza. Hated by as many as it was loved, Serra fought attempts to remove the sculpture in an infamous trial and subsequent appeals that left “Tilted Arc” standing for seven years. The government argued for removal of the sculpture saying that it would aid terrorists by impeding security at the Federal Building. Supporters and Serra argued that their eventual loss and removal of the artwork was a victory of “capitalistic property rights over freedom of expression.”

According to Hambleton, his “Image of Mass Murder” was a “mixed media piece where the media was part of the piece.” Hambleton reminisced that the San Francisco Examiner headline showed a photo with the caption “nobody died here, and informing the city that these outlines all over the place were not by the police.” Similar to Serra, Hambleton’s public art became identified and anchored to spot where it was displayed.

The iconic nature of the images are reminders that Hambleton was a member of that special historic coterie of Lower East Side artists in the 1980s that included his close friends Jean‑ Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, artists whose work adorns the great social issues of the time. Haring willed his work to supporting anti‑ AIDS fighters, Warhol enshrined pop icons and reminded us of our duly-promised 15 minutes (or seconds?) of fame and Basquiat liberated street art to become a internationally recognized art form. Hambleton said his work is graffiti, but he cautioned, “I’m not a graffiti artist, it’s public art.”

Hambleton’s contribution included seventeen shadow figures painted in a line along the Berlin Wall, conjuring the spirit of East German escapees shot down trying to escape to West Berlin. It was a dangerous endeavor and Hambleton recounted how the museum folks warned him that if he got caught by the notoriously trigger‑ happy East German police, no one could help. Hambleton’s compassion and opposition to artificial barriers foreshadowed the Trumpian wall between Mexico and the U.S. that’s already becoming a mecca for artists who are decorating its massive surface even as this monument to American isolationism is just beginning to be erected.

Speaking of the Berlin Wall figures Hamblen said, “The color black, could be so imposing,” comparing the stark image with Richard Serra whose large sweeping wall‑ like works are just “right there.”

My contribution to SHADOWMAN was to get the notoriously reticent artist on live TV in the first place and then ask one important question that few could get the artist to answer. “What’s next for Richard Hambleton?” His one word response is for folks who see the documentary and the adventurous who can find our interview with Hambleton at

Richard Hambleton died the day before Halloween in 2017 from the potentially curable cancer that he let haunt him for years and for the most part refused to treat. Starting on the skin of his cheek, the disease eventually ripped away his flesh. The affliction didn’t seem to bother him. Hambleton didn’t think much about the future. He cared about his art and even worried about the eventual fate of his shadow portraits being defaced by real graffiti artists.

Hambleton possessed the ability to promote himself and his work, which
is a key attribute of any artist who wants to be famous actually in their own lifetime. His love affair with heroin, which caused a spine curvature called scoliosis, reportedly from nodding out on smack for so many years, forced him to spend his money teetering on the edge of economic disaster and eviction. A roller coaster ride from fame and fortune to poverty and back again.

But, no matter how much fame and wealth Hambleton gained and lost, he always returned to his Lower East Side roots. The artist loved and drew creative juices from this neighborhood in a way that only long‑ time insiders can ever really understand. New York City and especially the Lower East Side may never again be the same incubator of creative explosions as it was in the 1980s, but we’ll always have the shadows of what once was.