For a more than a decade, generosity has been Matthew Hoffman’s artistic medium of choice. Most notably, his “You Are Beautiful” message has been spread throughout Chicago and across the globe. A gigantic “You Are Beautiful” wood mural spanned Block 37 at State Street for years while it was under construction, and the same panels are currently on display in the ten-year “You Are Beautiful” retrospective exhibition at the Green Exchange.
The most prolific component of the message, though, is Hoffman’s global sticker campaign. Anyone can receive five free stickers that read “Your Are Beautiful” if they send Hoffman money for return postage—and they have, en masse. Hoffman estimates he’s sent out 540,000 stickers since 2002. A mail pile resembling letters to Santa Claus is stacked high in the exhibition, with scrawled pleas and drawings, a testament to the demand. And, like a single parent playing Santa Claus, he has worked hard to fulfill the demand, but not without some struggle.
For many years Hoffman remained anonymous. He wasn’t interested in making money from his YAB projects. One pseudonym he kept was Sighn, and each new project seemed to have a new fictionalized master puppeteer. But Hoffman wants to transition to being a full-time artist and that means making income from projects like these. So recently, as the YAB closes in on the ten-year mark, he stepped into the light.
About five years ago, he decided to charge for the stickers, just $5 for a 20-pack, with free shipping, and the requests have not died down. (He continues to send stickers for free, as well.) While he still supplements his income with graphic design gigs, he lights up when talking about his art projects.
Within the current exhibition, Hoffman’s dedication to spreading the free message is dominantly clear. There are free takeaways such as designer postcards, bookmarks, posters, and lotto scratchers created by Hoffman and his peers.
Many of Hoffman’s projects operate like open-source software. He’ll distribute a blank sketchbook and ask others to fill in the pages and pass it around. Or, he’ll tap Camp Firebelly to repurpose the “You Are Beautiful” for new works of art. (Both of these projects are on view in the show.)
Supporters of “You Are Beautiful” have been generous to Hoffman. His recent Kickstarter campaign to create a retrospective book was fulfilled $5,000 beyond his need. For now, though, the only retrospective available is on display for just a few more weeks.
As You Are: A Decade of You Are Beautiful shows at the Green Exchange, 2545 W Diversey, through March 7.
Jason Foumberg is Chicago magazine’s contributing art critic.
Photograph: Matthew Hoffman