An Artist's Controversial Stamp Acts

By Kari Lydersen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 15, 2005

CHICAGO Artist Michael Hernandez de Luna pushes the envelope.

Here's what he does: He makes fake stamps, puts them on envelopes and drops the envelopes in the mail. One stamp features an image of President Bush's face between spread buttocks cheeks. Another showed a stained blue dress labeled "Property of Monica Lewinsky." A third showed obese fast-food-fed Barbie dolls.

About 40 percent of the time, according to Hernandez de Luna, the Postal Service cancels the stamps and delivers the mail.

Why, exactly, does he do this? He says it's a way to get people to take a fresh look at the culture that surrounds them.

"My environment is my collaborator," he says during an interview in his cluttered studio in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, where many Latino artists live. "I've decided to just take what people are feeding me and go over the top. People are getting spoon-fed this mush of media and pop culture and being told: It's okay, just eat it. It's not okay. That's what I'm saying. I'm not being anti-American; I'm just being a caring person by telling the truth."

Hernandez de Luna's work has caught the eye of the federal government. His last run-in was in April, when the Secret Service visited a show he curated at Columbia College in Chicago in which artists from 11 countries created stamps to portray their definition of "evil." One of the images, by Chicagoan Al Brandtner, showed the president with a gun to his head and the words "Patriot Act."

Hernandez de Luna was fired from his job as a baggage handler for American Eagle airlines several days after a story about the incident appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times. A picture accompanying the article showed Hernandez de Luna in his American Eagle uniform.

Federal authorities also launched an investigation into his work in October 2001 after he mailed a stamp that featured the word "anthrax" and a skull and crossbones on a bright yellow background. That stamp caused the main post office in Chicago to shut down for several hours. The Postal Service sent him a postcard announcing an investigation.

"He straddles the line between artist, activist and criminal," says Diane Barber, visual arts director of the DiverseWorks gallery in Houston, where Hernandez de Luna's work is part of a show called "Thought Crimes."

"When I watch people walking through the exhibit, they really spend a lot of time with his work, engage with it, talk about it. People come up to me and say: 'Thank God you're showing this. We need to see more things like this.' I think people are hungry for some kind of counter-dialogue."

Hernandez de Luna, 48, graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1983. His philatelic fascination started four years later when he bought a collection of vintage U.S. stamps in Iowa City. He took up stamp collecting in Germany, where he worked for a company making visual and advertising materials for the U.S. Army, and played in a garage rock band that specialized in Hank Williams covers.

He never lost his fascination with stamps. When he returned to his native Chicago in 1994, he even bought a 1976 Postal Service Jeep. About that time, he made his first fake stamps with fellow Chicago artist Michael Thompson, who had started creating his own stamps several years earlier. In 2000 the two published a book documenting fake stamps they had sent through the mail.

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