Postal Pranksters

Counterfeit stamps as art

A few years ago in Turkey, the Chicago artist Michael Thompson and a friend were arrested for venturing too close to the Armenian border. The authorities weren't sure why anyone would go so far into the Kurdish zone, let alone some Americans who kept snapping pictures of tanks, so they were a wee bit suspicious. "We were interrogated for probably 18 hours that day," Thompson reports. "They were convinced that we were CIA."

Fortunately for Thompson, the police didn't search his car. If they had, they would have discovered several sheets of counterfeit stamps, all bearing the initials PKK -- that's the Kurdish Workers Party, an underground guerrilla group -- and an image of Istanbul in flames. And Thompson might have gotten stuck in a far less scenic part of the country.

It was all Garry Trudeau's fault. A decade earlier, the cartoonist had published The 1990 Doonesbury Stamp Album, a collection of more than 140 stamps featuring his characters. They weren't legal postage, but many readers tried to mail letters with them anyway. Some succeeded.

"People had cut them out and affixed them to envelopes and put them through the mail," recalls the 52-year-old Thompson. "And the stamps got cancelled! I thought, wow, what a brilliant idea that was. I wish I had done that." He got his chance a few weeks later, when he spotted a picture of a Bugs Bunny stamp in a magazine. He cut it out, pasted it to an envelope, and mailed it to himself. A couple of days later it arrived, duly postmarked. Excited by the anarchic pleasure of putting something over on a staid state agency, he started making pseudo-postage of his own.

Like a Dan Rostenkowski stamp, in which the disgraced Illinois congressman gazes over the slogan "Buy, Sell, Trade." And a May Day stamp, displaying not a Maypole or a worker's parade but a fiery plane crash (as in, "Mayday! Mayday!"). And a picture of Abraham Lincoln in thoughtful repose, a small gun barely visible behind his head. The caption: "Ford's Theater."

Thompson soon had a colleague: fellow Chicagoan Michael Hernandez de Luna, who brought his own sensibility to the genre. The newcomer made stamps honoring everything from Catherine the Great (a nude woman with a horse) to Psycho (Janet Leigh screaming); his work was engaging enough to earn a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, which didn't seem to mind that its awardee was breaking the law. Collectors bought the stamps, sometimes for more than $2,000 -- though both artists preferred to sell their work only after it had successfully traversed the mails.

Not all the satires are aimed at Western targets. Besides the Turkish PKK stamp, Thompson has made a caning stamp for Singapore; a Chinese stamp depicting the Tiananmen Square crackdown; a South African stamp devoted to "the necklace." (Not "necklace" as in jewelry -- "necklace" as in a burning tire slung around a victim's neck.) Whenever possible, he or a confederate has attempted to mail the work from the appropriate nation. Naturally, some post offices are more easily fooled than others. "France is a really easy country," Thompson notes. "All the Western European countries are. The ones that seem to be less, uh, helpful are the ones that don't have many stamps. I've never gotten any back from Cuba." Though he tried, with a Guantanamo Bay stamp.

Of course, just because a stamp was cancelled doesn't mean the person who cancelled it thought it was legitimate. On some occasions, says the 46-year-old Hernandez de Luna, a postal worker scrawled "Fraudulent," "This is a fake," or some similar comment under his handiwork -- and then cancelled it anyway. From this he concludes that he has some fans within the U.S. Postal Service.

Institutionally, though, the USPS frowns on such behavior. Both artists have been investigated for postal fraud, and Hernandez de Luna got into deeper trouble in October 2001. The country was in a panic over biological warfare, and two mail workers had died after inhaling anthrax spores. So when a stamp bearing a skull and crossbones and the word "anthrax" arrived in the Chicago post office, the place shut down until it was clear that no actual anthrax was in or on the envelope.

For the artist, it was an act of political satire. For the USPS, it was a serious crime, one carrying the threat of up to five years in prison. The government launched an investigation, notifying Hernandez de Luna by postcard. Two years have passed since then, but according to Silvia Carrier, a spokeswoman for the Postal Inspection Service, the case isn't closed. "We have an ongoing investigation," she says. "It's been presented to the U.S. attorney's office, and it's pending prosecution." The USPS doesn't think highly of fake stamps, and it's understandably upset about anything that sets off an anthrax scare. "We can't take any chances," Carrier comments. "People were killed. It's not a joke."

If you think the stamps are clever but aren't sure whether you condone breaking the law, take heart: Hernandez de Luna is putting together an exhibit of stamps by dozens of artists, most of them satisfied to hang their creations in a gallery rather than see if they can carry mail. It opens at Chicago's Qualiatica gallery this April, then will travel to other cities.

There's also The Stamp Art and Postal History of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna (Bad Press Books, 2001). The duo has had a falling out since the book was published, and Thompson does little stamp work these days, focusing instead on etchings, "kinetic constructions" made from erector sets, and his chief source of income, decorative kites. Hernandez de Luna uses other media too -- he paints, he writes, he plays music -- but stamps remain a major part of his art. "It's fun," he says.

But there's one line even he won't cross. "When we were putting together that book, we censored ourselves," says Hernandez de Luna. "We'd both used Disney images. I had done a Love stamp with Mickey and Minnie. Mickey was giving Minnie a bouquet of flowers, and he had an erection." That, he feared, would rouse the copyright police, evidently a force more fearsome than any postal investigator.

"If we used Mickey Mouse in the book, we'd get letters from Disney," he explains. "They don't like you monkeying around."

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