Meeting an artist for the first time at a Bushwick coffee shop is a little like finding Waldo: The world is a nervous disguise of beards and flannel shirts, glasses with thick frames, and fashionably-askew beanies.
The only photo I’ve seen of Hunter Fine shows him in a baseball cap and with a reddish-brown beard that seems to grow like a tuft of unruly Celtic moss. All I know is that he’s 39 and his artwork pokes fun at American subculture types, some of whom are peeping over MacBooks right here in this cafe.
In 2011, Fine baited fake bear traps with subculture stereotypes and left them on the streets of New York City. For Brooklyn hipsters, Fine placed decoy American Spirit cigarettes and Pabst Blue Ribbon cans in his traps. He left gold chains and bottles of spray-tan for the Jersey shore types, gun cleaner and NoBama pins for the Tea Partiers. Photos of the traps, which were made of painted cardboard and tied with bike chains to signposts outside subway stations, went viral on social media. In local press, there were short blurbs about Fine’s project; yet little seemed to be known of the man media called “Hipster Hunter.”
The bell on the cafe door suddenly chimed. A man in blue flannel, about five feet nine and with a face buzzed down to a fashionably-late afternoon shadow, entered, quickly looked around, and left. He returned a minute later and introduced himself with a smile. “I just shaved my beard yesterday,” Fine said with a laugh as we walked back to his studio. I asked if he had a day job. “I do freelance advertising,” he said. “It [art] gives me a break from working on corporate ads.”
On the way to the studio, we sipped our coffees and enjoyed the brisk air, passing street murals that serve Bushwick’s graffiti tours. Fine, in his puffy coat and well-paid career, seemed to be the most normal guy in the world; however, I still couldn’t help wondering: Was I missing something here? Who would want to trap a Tea Party member?
The list of quirky projects is long
Fine makes his art in a small room on the second floor of a converted warehouse on Jefferson Street. The space rents for $600 per month and is one of dozens of creative cells down a concrete corridor. Inside, the studio is cramped with the relics of Fine’s many projects: in one corner, boxes of props labeled with blue tape and artist scribble are stacked upon shelves; against the opposite wall, orange and blue puppets with lazy, half-closed eyes slump against each other next to a near-empty bottle of tequila. White paper covers Fine’s working table, on which stands a replica Empire State Building with a neon pink King Kong taking a selfie with the phone in his free hand. In the middle of the room, there are two chairs close enough for the people sitting in them to touch knees. The whole place smells of modeling glue. Fine makes no excuse for the smell, as if the slightly-intoxicating fumes were part of his daily air. He leaves the door open and the only sounds are occasional footsteps echoing in the hall.
As soon as we got to the studio, Fine seemed to go into artist mode, darting around the cluttered space and leaping over bundles of wires and piles of creative gear on the floor. His mind worked too fast for me; he would start showing me another project before he had finished talking about the last one. My head spun.
On one of two desktop computers, Fine showed me the websites of some of his favorite ideas in recent years. His resume of quirky art projects is long: He has more websites than you can count on two hands, and enough puns to fill a page. Most of the projects are apolitical. “So many artists are doing Trump — too easy of a target,” he said, insisting that whatever social criticism he makes is playful. “What I learned from advertising is you have to be comedic; people have to get it right away.”
In a mini-series called “Hikea,” Fine got people high on acid (or other psychedelics) and filmed them while they tried to assemble Ikea furniture. Another site showed some claymation work: a Visene commercial with bloodshot eyeballs as the actors and a spoof ad for Wendy’s Baconator sandwich. In it, a cow and pig fall in love to teach us why bacon and beef should “never be separated.”
“They’re visual jokes,” Fine said, his eyes fixed on the computer screen while I laughed. He then recalled a mantra of the advertising industry, which he repeated for me: “Can you generate P.R?” That seemed to explain the urban traps; in fact, it seemed that advertising has informed every art project Fine has ever done.
Screw those yuppies
Fine had wanted to work in advertising since his childhood in Cleveland. As a kid, he fell in love with “Thirysomething,” a TV show about an angsty group of friends who resisted the yuppie lifestyle of the eighties. “It looked cool; it showed people thinking of cool stuff,” Fine said.
Later, Fine went to the Miami Ad School of San Francisco, then worked as a junior advertiser in a New York firm. In 2007, he tried opening an animation company in LA — another favorite childhood show was “Wallace and Grommit” — but found it was hard to make money. Fine came back to New York and worked full time in an another advertising firm before going freelance. He moved to Brooklyn during the hipster boom of 2010. That’s when he started the urban traps project.
Fine has never made any money with his artwork, unless a lawsuit counts. Hot Topic, a clothing store that once sold offbeat bric-a-brac in many suburban malls, ripped off hipster traps with an unlicensed t-shirt in 2011. Fine still reminds visitors to the urban traps website with a picture of the shirt and a big caption reading “ripped off!”
“We sued them and got like, 300 bucks in damages,” Fine said. “We were like, ‘you guys are jerks, but we’ll take it.’”
Fine’s lifelong project is more complex than hipster traps and “Hikea”: It’s a stop-animation film called “Hunter’s Head.”
“I’ve always had it on the back burner,” he told me, standing before the set, which is staged on the working table next to the pink King Kong. The main character of the film is a G.I. Joe-sized figurine with a 3-D print of Fine’s own head. The plot of the story follows Hunter, a claymation character who thinks he’s different from the rest of the humanoid world. Hunter meets a clay girl, falls in love, and goes after her. In the film, Fine “plays” himself. “I still don’t know who the girl will be,” he said.
In the near future, however, Fine seems to be sticking to what works. He plans to sneak the pink King Kong into the real Empire State Building and use a selfie-stick to put the gorilla on the wall on the top floor. He doesn’t quite know how he is going to do this, or whether he’ll get tackled by security.
“I need to do some recon first,” he said, nodding his head thoughtfully.