Friday, 11 August 2023, 20:20
He likes to blend in with the public at his art openings and listen to what they say about his work, even if it's not good. He prefers the freedom of anonymity to the false adulation that comes with fame. Very few know who is behind the Imon Boy tag. Not even some of his relatives, much less the landlady who rents him the apartment from which his paintings fly to Hong Kong, London and Dubai.
What began as a protection measure for a teenager who painted illegally in the streets has become the hallmark of a young artist from Malaga scaling the heights of the art world, with a waiting list and offers from galleries and collectors across half the world. Two of his canvases measuring just over a metre in size auctioned a few weeks ago on the Artsy site, for over $4,000 each. One of his works was bought for $20,000.
He remains anonymous, but he's no recluse. "If someone wants to get to know me, they can, but only those whom I choose, not just anyone."
Imon Boy (born in Malaga, 1991) opens the door to his studio apartment somewhere in the Axarquía. The living room is a workshop, with dozens of brushes, cans of paint and several canvases scattered around the room. Two large canvases stand out. One will be part of the next exhibition at the Yusto/Giner Gallery in Marbella in September; the other will travel to Hong Kong for an exhibition that will open in early 2024 at the Aishonanzuka Gallery. His hand in these works is immediately recognisable: rounded figures that invite a smile at first, with the police in one and nature in the other.
"What I paint speaks about me, about my generation. My paintings could be viewed as a diary," he explains. That is why references to video games, anime, the music and films typical of a child of the 90s, sneak into his works. Yet there are also animals, the beach, diving, aspects of his daily life that he shares with the onlooker through his paintings and also via social media.
The police presence is in his DNA as an artist. It comes as a result of his origins as a graffiti artist, the eternal game of cat and mouse. At the age of 13 he spray-painted his first wall. All those experiences, the secrecy and the nightlife that accompany this illegal activity, are the foundations for his creativity.
Today he still goes out in the streets when he feels like it and, if you were to drive along the A7 from the Axarquía towards Malaga, or stroll along the eastern coast, you will come across his tag, a name he made up that is "completely meaningless", but which gives rise to multiple interpretations. "Some say it's 'I'm on' in English; others say it's NOW! the other way around. I like that people make up their own story for it," he says. It is part of the mystery.
However, Imon Boy rebels against the graffiti tag: "It doesn't represent me. It is a very closed world and, for the graffiti artists, I am not one of them because I step out of the design norms for graffiti".
His portrayal of seemingly friendly police officers, for example, "jars a bit" in the graffiti scene. "They don't get the irony," he adds. Neither does he constantly brag about his street paintings on Instagram – where he has 75,000 followers – or take on the attitude associated with graffiti artists: ego, rivalry, testosterone. "All that is what removes me from that world".
But on the odd night and always when on his travels, he takes paint with him and "something goes down". His tag, in capital letters, is on the streets of London, New York, several cities in France and almost all of Spain. "Never in places where it is harmful, I would not paint anything that I would not want to be painted for me and never on private property," he says, in the full knowledge that what he's doing counts as vandalism. But that side of him, he says, is now a mere 'hobby': "I'm more interested in developing my painting and having an exhibition than spray-painting in another country."
He was first spotted by the art galleries, then he came to the notice of the 'inner sanctums' of the art world. In March, Imon Boy launched his first solo show in a Spanish museum, at the CAC Malaga (Contemporary Art Centre).
His works feature in the catalogues of the Yusto/Giner galleries in Marbella and Madrid, Aishonanzuka Gallery Hong Kong, Moosey Gallery in London and La Causa Galería in Madrid. In the last 18 months alone, he has opened solo shows in galleries in Dubai, Shanghai, London and Los Angeles. But his work has formed part of collective shows in South Korea, Mexico and Paris, among other locations.
Imon Boy feels that his career is at a turning point. Galleries from the USA and Asia have made him interesting offers in recent months. "And I have to decide." On his plate currently, in addition to the exhibitions already planned, he has a project with Avant Art to launch a second series of prints (very high quality prints of some of his original paintings) and another with AllRightsReserved to create a series of sculptures.
Then there are those approaches to which he is forced to say 'No', and there are far more of them than he would like. "It can make your head spin a bit not knowing if you've done the right thing in refusing something," he admits.
Following what were "more hectic" creative periods, Imon Boy has now chosen to reduce output to focus on projects. "Because my painting has also evolved and needs more time". What does not change is the process: everything starts in a sketchbook. On the table in the room are several notebooks, always to hand for when inspiration strikes. The first thing is to capture the idea in a drawing, sometimes in different vignettes that make up a series of sketches or just as a quick drawing. "I am lucky in that I have plenty of ideas." That first outpouring in pencil is what gives him "the style" of what he is looking for. The second step is to take it to the canvas with its extensive palette of vivid colours and those fun characters that define his work.
For a young man from a middle-class family who started selling his drawings for two euros to his classmates, seeing how zeros are added to his work continues to amaze him. "I feel quite grateful, more than for the sales and prices, to be able to make a living from what I do," he says humbly. He continues, smiling: "Let's be clear, I'm in a rented apartment, I'm not a footballer." But he is his own boss and he dedicates himself to what he wants to do, a utopia for most of the colleagues with whom he trained at the Faculty of Fine Arts in the University of Malaga. From that time he recalls that he never introduced graffiti into his projects as a student, but the reverse happened: "In the graffiti I did introduce new concepts that I was soaking up at Uni."
Imon Boy clearly remembers the day he sold his first work of art. A boy from northern Europe who followed him online offered him 100 euros for a drawing that he had done sitting at the back of the class while ignoring what the teacher was saying. "That's when you say 'yes you can take advantage of this'." At first, his buyers were people linked to the world of graffiti. "Now they are totally different people".
On the online art sales platform Artsy, limited edition Imon Boy prints can be purchased for between $500 and $1,200, depending on size. The cheapest original work is a 26×17cm acrylic painting on paper for $1,950. For canvases, it's Price Upon Request directly to the gallery in question.
"I continue to do things that are illegal, and as time goes by, I think the easiest thing is to continue like this," he says of his secret identity, protected with a hoodie for the photo. He wants to be known only for his art, not his face. "Having a good work of art, it doesn't matter who you are," he argues. That explains why he doesn't go to large events or presentations and he's not a partygoer.
He has some very good artist friends, like Julio Anaya, with whom he often went out to do urban art during his student days, but he surrounds himself with a circle of people outside the art scene, "because in the end they treat you like a human being". "I have friends who come to see me at my home and they don't even look at my paintings. Others stay looking for a while, but they don't know how much they go for, or the exhibitions I have. And it's better that way," he says as his cat, Pompom, draws near, demanding strokes and capturing the attention of the photographer. This is not his only house companion. Hiding in another room is his cat Benito. "But he's more incognito, like me."
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