Often referred to as the ‘godfather of street art’, Richard Hambleton rose to fame in the late 1970s with his notorious Shadowmen; a series of black haunting figures that dominated the streets of New York city and prompted many a pedestrian to look over their shoulder in the dark of night.
Many claim that Hambleton was the first artist to use the city walls as his canvas, and that his later commercial success cemented his position as the creator of the genre. Despite Hambleton disagreeing and rejecting the title of the ‘godfather of street art’, his success transformed the genre, inspiring and paving the way for many of his contemporaries.
In honour of the late artist’s birthday, which would have seen Hambleton turn 69 today, we consider how the artist’s life and career shaped the future of contemporary art and explore the artists whose careers have been influenced by his lasting success.
Born in Canada in 1952, Richard Hambleton moved to New York in the early 1970s. Between 1976 and 1978, Hambleton executed his Mass Murder series, drawing chalk crime scene outlines across the city that appeared so realistic that they often tricked passers-by into thinking they were real. By 1979, Hambleton’s practice had evolved, and the artist began painting his infamous Shadowmen, using the walls of New York as his canvas. Rocketing to notoriety, Hambleton’s menacing silhouettes invaded the city and soon Hambleton turned to conventional canvases, translating the raw dynamism of his gritty figures into artwork that could be acquired by collectors.
In the coming years, the transition from a street artist to a commercial artist became common practice; however, Hambleton was arguably the first to traverse this step. Only a few years ahead of Basquiat and Haring, the Canadian-born artist’s success facilitated the careers of many of New York’s artists during the 1980s. During that time period, New York City was a melting pot of subcultures and it produced some of the era’s most influential artists from Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf to Keith Haring – all creatives who launched their careers as graffiti artists and in many ways are indebted to Hambleton. From 1980 to 1985, Haring executed his Subway Drawings, a series of chalk on paper works that launched his career and it was around this time that Basquiat also negotiated the move from graffiti to street artist.
Following Haring’s death in 1990, appreciation for street art remained strong, yet contemporary artists seemingly diverted from the genre in favour of other styles like immersive installation and new media. However, in the late 2000s, the rise of anonymous street artist, Banksy, signalled a new era for street art and contemporary art as a whole. Emerging on the Bristol graffiti scene, the elusive artist quickly captured the hearts of the public and collectors alike and soon Banksy became one of the most sought-after creatives of all time.
In the wake of Banksy’s success, the demand for street art has sky-rocketed even further. In 2010, the term, ‘the Banksy effect’, was coined to describe the impact the Bristolian graffitist has had on the contemporary art scene. In a world where painterly technique and institutional prestige once reigned supreme, now subversive street artists like Jerkface, STIK, and RETNA are dominating the market.
With graffiti and street art once again on the rise, it seems now more appropriate than ever to appreciate Hambleton and his illustrious legacy, which has undoubtedly paved the way for Basquiat, Banksy, Jerkface and many more.