Winston Tseng & the Viral Subway Takeover
Last year, Instagram and Twitter were aflutter over Winston Tseng’s “Your Train is Delayed” posters, which brought joy and a lot of harsh truths to otherwise-frustrated commuters throughout Manhattan. In the subsequent months, Tseng produced a half dozen other designs, each more controversial and provocative than the last. Read on for his story.
Poster House: I know that professionally you’re a graphic designer and an art director, and that you’ve worked with big brands like Urban Outfitters and Adidas to create prints and apparel – so, with all that success, what made you decide to suddenly bring your art to the subway in the form of posters?
Winston Tseng: Well, when working with clients you’re creating something that ultimately needs to represent their brand and convey their messaging. To simplify it even more, I’d say that the message always has to reflect positively on them. It’s the nature of the industry I work in, but I’ve always thought it would be fun to subvert that convention. Realistically no company is going to hire me to do this kind of work, so I decided to just do it myself.
PH: Your first major poster moment was the fake MTA ad, right? Was that your first “viral” moment or had your work been picked up by a lot of people online before? What was the weirdest thing to come out of that first poster?
WT: It’s actually my second “viral moment,” which I know sounds really strange! Before the 2016 election, I released these Trump alphabet cards with Subliminal Projects, and the video I made to go along with them went viral. But yeh, this was my first poster in this style, and I’m still surprised at how much attention it got. The whole experience was very weird, but the weirdest part was probably either waking up to a notification that I was trending on Twitter, or the super awkward morning news coverage.
PH: Since the MTA image, your poster designs have taken a more risqué tone, commenting on everything from the whole Catholic church pedophilia coverup to the current tension between the NFL and Colin Kaepernick. What drove you to make your posters more politically and socially charged?
WT: Actually, the Christian Mingle poster was meant to be a more general take on the irony and hypocrisy of certain anti-gay religious beliefs. I have a whole other series I’m working on to address the Catholic church stuff! But to answer your question, I think the tone and content of these latest posters is actually representative of the more recent work I was doing before and want to continue doing. I wasn’t a political person before 2016, but I’ve always liked to reflect what I consider to be current societal issues. These days that includes politics more than ever.
PH: A few weeks ago, I saw that the art critic Jerry Saltz re-grammed your Hannity poster that he or someone else found in the subway. He got a lot of pushback on the image, with some people claiming that it was, at its core, homophobic. How do you handle it when some audiences just don’t get your humor or seemingly miss the point?
WT: Yeah, I felt really bad that he received that kind of outrage, he told me he was almost fired for it! Although him sharing it was a highlight for me, and I think helped validate what I’m doing. It was definitely not my intention to convey any homophobic ideas. The goal was just to portray what many see as a really inappropriate relationship between the subjects, including Fox News, in a single distilled image that will hopefully stand out and quickly grab your attention. I understand how some people interpreted it that way and they’re entitled to do so, so the only thing I can do is accept it. I don’t think it does any good to try to make your case and convince them otherwise, especially through social media commenting.
PH: And finally, should we expect to continue to see your signature style at a subway stop near us in the future?
WT: Yes! It’ll continue to be out there in public spaces. But remember I already got a cease and desist, so if you see a poster in the subway that looks like it’s done in my style, for the record it definitely wasn’t me…
Poster House holds a currently-complete collection of Winston Tseng’s posters, and looks forward to continuing to add to them as he produces new, challenging work.