A bald, bearded guy wearing a women’s mesh bathing suit and hot-pink spectacles showed up one day on a pair of blue steel doors on Crosby Street. By the mirth in his glance, his coy little grin, he knew the reactions he provoked and loved every minute of it. A couple of months later, a pouty-lipped cowboy appeared just up the block. He wore strands of antique women’s beads, vaguely tribal, draped across his chest and a fuzzy, pink cowboy hat, smoking a grossly oversized cigarette—in one word, decadent.
Both pieces were signed “Judith Supine” in a large, loopy scrawl. The name taunted and it teased, and it revealed nothing. Who was Judith Supine?
A Google search returned pages of hits debating, documenting or otherwise assessing Supine’s arresting street art, which is obsessed with these garish, neon-colored characters. They live among us—collages of big lips and staring eyes—on industrial doors and abandoned walls throughout Williamsburg and lower Manhattan. Emissaries from the reclusive street art ingénue, they refuse to be quietly passed by. In one dramatic act, Supine hung a fifty-foot-tall piece over the side of the Williamsburg bridge of a man with brightly colored lips and a receding hairline, looking skyward. He wore an “I [heart symbol] NY” t-shirt.
Personal information is conspicuously absent from Internet search results, raising doubts about the name “Judith Supine.” But then, an artist working in public spaces (very illegal) often adopts a pseudonym, which evolves into the carefully crafted public persona. It’s become virtually impossible to preserve your anonymity on the Internet otherwise, particularly if you’re someone who’s being talked about. Which, the search revealed, Supine clearly is.
Wooster Collective and Streetsy, the city’s two most prolific street art blogs, have dozens of photos of past and present pieces. Supine has a Flickr page and three self-produced YouTube videos with an impressive number of hits. Gothamist and Visual Resistance, among other news blogs, have reported on Supine’s riskiest installations, including the Williamsburg Bridge piece and a midday paste-up at the Army Recruitment Center in Times Square.
The Internet is the lifeblood of the street art community. It enables artists to connect with an audience who can’t see their work on the walk home from the subway every day, while still maintaining a comfortable degree of anonymity. And sites like the ones tracking the work of Supine as well as many others, collectively document what is otherwise an ephemeral art form.
“Ten years ago, the only people who would have known about Judith Supine would have been three dozen super graffiti enthusiasts like me,” says Jake Dobkin, Streetsy moderator. “Now that circle extends to thousands of people…. It’s good for people who appreciate art. It’s good for everybody.”
It would have been impossible to trace how Judith Supine’s style has evolved over the last three years without the artist’s own documentation on Flickr, the photo sharing website, since February 2005. Looking at the pictures chronologically, there are clear connections between the miniature collages Supine used to put up on street lights and phone booths and the current work—increasingly misproportioned collages that are Xeroxed, enlarged, painted in a bright palette and pasted up just about everywhere.
With the early miniatures, Supine was already splicing images together, switching heads, bodies, faces, accessories, to create often political, occasionally disproportioned, sometimes surreal images. A ninja miniature (March 2005), with its contorted torso and unexplainable attributes—a machine gun in one hand, a large, naturalistic brown bird out of scale to everything else in the other—is not unlike the smiling burka’d woman from August 2007, standing in front of a cluster of fern-like vegetation, her broad, pearly smile taking up half her face, two huge hands with pink manicured nails extending toward us.
“Judith is very much of the new,” says Dobkin, referring to the street art revolution in the late ‘90s that marked a dramatic departure from the graffiti of New York’s storied past. The highly-stylized text and tags of the earlier, large-scale pieces gave way to a more “European–style” street art: more poster work, stencils, and stickers, with a decidedly more figurative bent.
Beyond the images, the artist’s Flickr profile is about as faceless and impersonal as it can be. Supine never chose a photo for the profile, so the icon image is still the generic gray square with two bit-dot eyes and a straight line for a mouth. There is no external contact information, no personal details. Yet digging deep in the comments section of some of the oldest photos, a pattern of references to Richmond, Va., emerges. Through April 2005, the photos are mostly tagged “Richmond” as well.
The first “New York” tag appears shortly thereafter. Assuming that Supine moved here in the intervening months, the timing corresponds perfectly with the artist’s ascendancy in the New York street art scene. The infamous piece at the Times Square Army Recruitment Center went up in December 2005. Wooster Collective, for one, has photos documenting Supine’s work dating that far back. Dobkin also recalls seeing Supine’s work a couple of years ago, noting that the artist has continued to “bomb very strongly” since.
It’s almost surprising that an artist whose identity is as closely guarded as Judith Supine’s would make a YouTube video. And yet, there are three, two of which show Supine in action.
In both of those short videos, most of the shots are angled so that we hardly see more than his profile—yes his—if that. In the rare moment that we see his face straight-on, cutouts of a big pair of lips and eyes straight out of his character grab-bag immediately obscure his features. He’s masquerading as one of them. Still, it is satisfying to finally see something of him: tall, lanky, a little scruffy, ex-college student. Brown hair cut short but a little shaggy, at least at the time of the video.
The footage trails Supine through his process, opening with a shot of the artist, clad in a well-worn hoodie, gray pants and sneakers, digging through a dumpster and surfacing with an old issue of Vogue. Supine scavenges nearly all the magazines he uses for source material, from the trash and otherwise “free” sites.
He pages through the issue of Vogue, cutting and ripping out different parts: faces, eyes, hairpieces, toothy grins, miscellaneous shapes. He plays around with the assembly of the collage, layering different pieces until he the composition is just right. The next scene shows Supine guiding a photocopy of the collage—which he enlarged to nearly 3’ x 4’—out of an oversized copier.
The character is then “painted out,” cut from the sheet and pasted up at the site with wheat paste, an ultra-binding glue made from white flour, water and a couple spoonfuls of sugar heated to the consistency of goo. (Instructions for everything from wheat paste recipes to tips on talking your way out of trouble with law enforcement, if caught, flourish on community sites for graffiti and street artists.)
The installation of the piece is key, since the site may be as important as the piece itself, as witnessed in the piece critiquing the Iraq war that Supine pasted up on the exterior of the Army Recruitment Center in the middle of Times Square—in the middle of the day.
A YouTube video documents the action. Supine appears from around the corner of the building with the artwork, pastes it up, and walks away. None of the pedestrians hurrying by seem to notice. The camera zooms in: the piece is a drawing of two politicians with blood on their hands standing behind a television set. On its screen, a class of military recruits hold numbers in front of their chests. Pasted on the Army Recruitment Center, it carries quite a loaded meaning, pun intended.
In a posting on the Times Square event, Visual Resistance, the alt-culture website that advocates the use art for political ends, describes Supine’s work as “delicate and subtle while the content still packs a real solid punch.” “Got something to say?” writes Eliot, the website’s moderator. “Head to Kinko’s, experiment a little, work up the nerve, and go post it on the corner.”
Supine’s participation in last winter’s “Wooster on Spring” show further certified him as a member of the New York scene. Curated by Marc and Sara Schiller, the dynamic couple who run the Wooster Collective blog, the show was a final homage to 11 Spring Street, a historically important site for street arts, before it was demolished to make way for condos.
The Schillers invited dozens of street and graffiti artists from around the world to put up pieces anywhere and everywhere inside the four-story building—on the walls, on the floor, under the stairs, wherever. The exterior was also fair game. The New York-based Graffiti Research Lab installed a replica of the terrorist alert scale on the corner of the building, calling attention to the fact that New York has remained at “high” alert since 2001.
After all this preparation, the show was open for one week only. But in that short time street art enthusiasts turned out in legions, waiting in line for as long as five hours to get inside and do what they do best: document what is destined to be transitory. There are thousands of photos, video clips and blog reports online, enough raw source material to piece together a fairly accurate simulation of the experience.
For these often isolated artists, the show was also a rare chance to discuss styles, exchange ideas, meet other artists and actually learn from how they work. Judith Supine collaborated with an artist named Rekal out of Venice, Italy. They created one of the largest and most impressive pieces in the show: a floor-to-ceiling montage of the characters of each artist standing casually among a couple of trees, leafless except for a weak flurry of red, orange and yellow leaves. The phrase “There Is Hell in Hello” arcs across the top of the scene, almost like sunshine.
Browsing sites devoted in any extent to street art and graffiti leads to unexpected connections.
On a Flickr group discussion board, a member named Coiffeur de rue said, “Hey all, Starting a new print site working with a great line-up of street artists who are regularly featured on streetsy. It launches today, check it out. www.papermonster.net –PM”
The site is a digital gallery of sorts run by artists out of Williamsburg. They act as a liaison between artist and printer, artist and collector, selling small-run editions of prints by about eight different street artists—including Judith Supine.
“A lot of artists just don’t have avenues to put prints out,” says Matt Barber, the site’s go-to guy. Barber works with Patrick and Patrick, the guys behind Faile, who conceived the site. It’s modeled after picturesonwalls.com, a similar portal for European street artists run by the artists’ own friends. As Barber tells it, the duo first met Supine at 11 Spring months before the website launched. They became friends and invited him on board.
Another Flickr comment—an offhanded send-up of Supine on the event of his gallery show in L.A.—leads to Maresa Goldberg, director of New Image Art Gallery in West Hollywood, Calif. She discovered Supine’s work on a trip to New York. “It had everything,” she recalls, unleashing a torrent of praise: it was funny, unique, fresh, quirky, kind of sexual, kind of ironic. Goldberg included a half-dozen original pieces by Supine in her summer show, The Wall. It was Supine’s largest stateside gallery showing to date. (He’s participated in several group shows at the Leonard Street Gallery in London’s East End, as well.)
Goldberg is a good barometer for Supine’s potential. For the past fourteen years, she has lived and breathed young, emergent talent, not shying away from the street, surf and skate artists of the “beautiful losers” movement, before it was called that.
“If you really study art and you really study the scene, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly,” says Goldberg. A lot of street artists do it just to be “cool,” which makes their work “vapid, skill-less and not passionate.”
Judith Supine, on the other hand, has soul. “He’s young and spirited and he doesn’t seem to really give a damn, which I really like,” says Goldberg. “He’s the kind of character that would do it with or without [his career] taking off.”
A purple-haired witch with ruby-red lips and a wide, bucktooth grin appeared on Crosby Street recently, the newest ambassador from Supine’s neon-colored tribe. She looks tired; deep grooves under her eyes hint at many a sleepless night. But she’s still smiling. What does she have to say? Is her condition an indication of his state of mind? How many late nights’ toil did it take to produce this witch? These are the questions no amount of savvy sleuthing can crack. The answers remain a secret.