When he first moved to New York from his native Vancouver in the late 1970s, the smiling, good-looking, well-dressed Hambleton made his name on the street. Locating himself in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he became known only as The Shadowman, known for the dark figures he secretly painted on the walls of the city. The “Shadowmen” were life-size or larger, dripping and rough, with a kinetic, menacing presence, as if they could reach out from the wall and swallow you whole. Hambleton would carefully choose where he painted his figures: just around the corner of a dark alleyway; leaning from behind a street light; about to jump from a ledge. They were designed to exert a physical response.
They were unattributed, without any tag or identifier beyond their distinctive shape. But word got around, and Hambleton’s profile grew. (On one “Shadowman,” painted near 34 East 12th Street, Basquiat drew a skull over the shadow.)
Crepuscular, grainy footage in Jacoby’s documentary shows Hambleton, swaying precariously on scaffolding, smearing dark paint across the graffiti-covered walls of an alleyway. In a few seconds, we watch his brushstrokes yield one of the 450-odd “Shadowmen” he painted across New York: huge, looming figures that, according to director Jacoby, “would appear unexpectedly overnight and scare the living hell out of you.” Hambleton’s friends recall how the artist would often have to run from the police, paint can in hand, when they happened across him mid-creation.
Although Hambleton’s art was etched on New York’s built environment, he soon started to transfer his “Shadowman” motifs to canvas, thus opening himself up to a hungry art market.
His success was almost immediate. Hambleton was the first street artist to be embraced by the established New York gallery scene, with
and Basquiat following in his wake. He exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art
in 1984 and 1985, and at the Venice Biennale in 1984 and 1988, where he painted “Shadowmen” across Venice. A subsequent tour of Europe brought his figures to the streets of Paris, Rome, and London. He also travelled to Berlin to paint 17 life-size “Shadowmen” on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, returning a year later to paint more on the western side. He was twice featured on the cover of LIFE
repeatedly asked Hambleton to paint his portrait, and Hambleton, who thought of them as equals, always turned him down.