Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

That stamp may be one of Michael Hernandez de Luna and Michael Thompson’s famous forgeries.

By Cara Jepsen

Three years ago Michael Thompson was in his China-town studio waiting for some city building inspectors to arrive for their annual appraisal of the space. So when an official-looking pair knocked on the door, he let them in. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said.

Only he hadn’t. The young man and woman were U.S. postal inspectors from the Chicago field office. They’d been dispatched by postal service brass in Washington at the behest of the Norwegian postal authorities, who were disturbed by a stamp on a letter Thompson had asked a friend to mail him from Oslo. It was a reproduction of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting The Origin of the World and featured, says Thompson, “a frank depiction of the female genitalia.”

The stamp was one of some 500 fakes Thompson and his friend and coconspirator Michael Hernandez de Luna have created and sent through the mail over the last several years. They range from Thompson’s early ready-made pieces–including his first “stamp,” a Bugs Bunny sticker–to sheets of stamps commemorating everything from Viagra, Whitewater, and John Wayne Gacy (Hernandez de Luna) to Dan Rostenkowski, the Spanish Inquisition, and disgruntled postal employees (Thompson).

“It was sort of a parlor game,” says Thompson, who got started in 1990. “At that point it wasn’t even a matter of choosing a subject but of seeing something and thinking it’d be funny and gluing it on. I relied more on finding things than pursuing an idea.”

In 1994 he hooked up with Hernandez de Luna, with whom he’d attended the School of the Art Institute in the early 1980s. Hernandez de Luna had just returned from a six-year stay in Germany, where he’d been painting, playing in a Hank Williams cover band, and making signs for the civilian services branch of the army. He suggested they start producing sheets of stamps using a color printer and a stamp perforator Thompson had found in his building. “After we started making sheets, I started to grasp the potential of this thing,” says Thompson.

“You didn’t have to go very far to find an image,” says Hernandez de Luna. “If you read a magazine, it was always there. You’d look at these images and say, ‘Wow, that’d make a cool stamp,’ and appropriate it. You’d turn things into this Duchampian re-creation of someone else’s image.”

Initially they sent out dozens of letters addressed to themselves, receiving between 25 and 50 percent of them back. Sometimes Hernandez de Luna would trade a stamped envelope for beer. But by 1995 they’d amassed enough canceled stamps for a show at the Oskar Friedl gallery. They displayed the postmarked envelopes next to the sheets of originals, and sold the sets for upwards of $600.

“Our friends got a kick out of it, but we didn’t realize there was an audience for this,” says Thompson. Hernandez de Luna agrees: “I guess we were totally blown away by the scale of it. People were interested and entertained by it. But it started out as kind of a prank.”

The Tribune carried a story about the exhibit, and, says Hernandez de Luna, “That’s when all stampage broke loose. After that it was pure fun.”

First Hernandez de Luna got a couple of cease-and-desist letters, which they blew up, framed, and included in an exhibit. They’re not for sale–yet.

Then came those visitors to Thompson’s studio. “They asked to see the work,” he writes in the pair’s new self-published book, The Stamp Art & Postal History of Michael Thompson & Michael Hernandez de Luna. “As they looked through the books I keep the stamps in, they mentioned how they had versions of this or that stamp, chuckled at another and tossed a question at me concerning [Hernandez de Luna].”

They stayed two hours. “My initial fear was that they were going to arrest me that very day,” says Thompson. “Once I established they were not there to arrest me, I was kind of curious about how the post office viewed it and how much they knew about it.

“It turns out they have quite a collection of the pieces. They said, ‘We’re on to you guys. We’ve been to all your shows.’ They basically said, the next time you see us we’re going to arrest you and confiscate your stuff.”

They left Thompson with a “statement of voluntary discontinuance,” which he was to sign, notarize, and return via an enclosed SASE.

He didn’t do it. But the visit had an effect. Instead of mailing letters to themselves the pair began to focus on mailing letters to and from other parties.

“When people go to visit places,” says Thompson, “I try to do pieces they can mail.” The pair has had their stamps canceled in China, Turkey, India, and Japan, among other countries; currently Thompson is trying to decide what to put on a stamp destined for Latvia, where he has a pen pal. But, he says, “when you’re doing foreign ones it’s hard to know the denomination so you just make up a number and put a ton of stamps on it.”

His most drawn-out project–getting The Necklace, a stamp featuring a burning tire, mailed from South Africa–took two years from conception to cancellation. “I did it because a girl said her mother said she’d do it for me. But she sent them back because she found the image so disturbing. I had to wait for someone else to go to South Africa.”

Hernandez de Luna’s personal favorite bears the words “Property of Monica Lewinsky” and an image of the infamous blue dress, but his biggest coup so far has been successfully mailing a stamp from Cuba–an image of JFK smoking a cigar. He’s been less successful getting a stamp sent out of Jamaica. Out of 30 attempts, not one has made it. “Misprints are collectible, and we both do misprints on purpose,” he says. “In Jamaica’s case, I wrote it ‘Jamica.'”

Both artists have received grants from the Illinois Arts Council for “the project,” as they call it, and a couple of years ago Thompson was vindicated–in a way–when the post office issued a Bugs Bunny stamp (which he thought looked fake). Both say the postal service’s work has gotten better since they started theirs.

As they make fewer pieces, the price of their work is increasing. Pieces that once sold for $600–or were traded for a beer–now go for more than $2,000.

Thompson and Hernandez de Luna both say they’ve been too busy with the book and other projects to bother much with stamps lately. Thompson has been creating collage kites that sell for thousands of dollars, while Hernandez de Luna has been curating shows, such as the provocative “Sextablos: Works on Metal” exhibit that ran at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1999. That same year he covered a Cow on Parade with 10,000 government-issue stamps. This weekend he’s opening an as yet unnamed gallery in Pilsen, where the pair will show their work and host the book launch party. (Call 312-563-0554 or see www. badpressbooks.com for more info.)

“We’re on hiatus, I’m afraid,” says Thompson, who owns an etching press and is thinking about engraving a set of stamps. “I’m not sure what it’ll take to get back in the saddle.”

“Stamps are challenging and they’re a lot of fun, but things that are a lot of fun get boring after a while, and you’ve got to change,” says Hernandez de Luna.

They still look forward to getting their mail. “Sometimes there’s an envelope you’ve forgotten about and it just shows up one day,” says Hernandez de Luna, who’s a fan of the plastic “body bags” that the post office uses for damaged mail. His favorite “corpse” is a postcard he sent to Mexico that bore a stamp depicting Jesus and Mary in an amorous clinch. “It was returned to me with a letter from a postal clerk, saying that this letter is inappropriate for the country of destination.”

Thompson is partial to a used airmail stamp of a plane going down in flames. “I got the envelope and it had been sort of ripped open somehow in the machines, and they had to seal it back up,” he says. “They had stamped over it that it had been damaged in transit. It seemed like such an appropriate thing to happen to an envelope with a stamp about plane crashes. That sort of fortuitous happenstance is one of the interesting side effects of this. But it doesn’t happen that often.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.