Richard Hambleton's Shadowman and 1980s New York

Artsy Specialist Erin Kim takes a closer look at the connection between the artist's iconic figures and the gritty world of 1980s Manhattan.

A study of Richard Hambleton's life and work provides a unique glimpse into both the raw excitement — and the hushed terrors — that characterized 1980s New York. He was integral to that moment, with his art not only providing a backdrop, but also amplifying the senses of paranoia and teeming creativity that defined that decade. He moved to New York in the late 70s, right when the art and music that is immortal today was just beginning to break ground. The East Village was filled to the brim with artists and galleries putting up exhibitions in unconventional venues. The Ramones had already played over 100 shows at CBGB’s. Club57 nightclub was open and in business, frequented by the likes of Kenny Scharf, Keith Haringand Madonna. Blondie was just right on the cusp of entering into mainstream fame.

He had arrived on the scene as a well-dressed, attractive and soft-spoken artist, who would run in the same circles as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring — then lurk through the streets and alleyways painting the town black. He first became known for hisImage Mass Murderscenes, chalk outlines that resembled actual crime scenes dripped over with fake blood, which shocked and frightened spectators and even policemen who would play as a kind of witness to these ‘crime scenes.’ Today everyone is quite familiar with street art in a public place, but Hambleton was creating his ‘public art’ even before anyone had a specific term or concept for it.

His most iconic image is the Shadowman paintings, that would become part of the fabric of the 80s cityscape and collective memory. His Shadowman paintings of mysterious, looming silhouettes would live in the darkest of corners. Passers-by would turn the street and get startled by these imposing, dark figures. They would appear to be jumping out at them, or simply standing and watching them quietly from afar. For some, they served as a kind of guardian of the night, watching and protecting them in the dark. Hambleton’s work was playing on the exact nature of what the streets of 80s New York was like for its inhabitants: unpredictable and, at times, seedy.

This decade was certainly an exciting place of creativity that would later become iconic, but it was also among the darkest of times for the city. Crack and heroin were flooding the streets of Lower Manhattan, a pandemic that Hambleton would not be able to survive unscathed. HIV/AIDS became an alarming epidemic, and it seems as though barely anyone lived through those times without losing someone. Sociopolitically, there were looming Cold War tensions, as well as staggering numbers of homicides in the streets - 1,817 in New York in the year of 1980 alone.

Hambleton was acutely attuned to these problems, and ultimately managed to create work that now help to define this decade.

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