The Elusive Artist Who Turned Epstein's Little Black Book Into Art
Chris Habib's work has been quietly capturing the zeitgeist for over a decade.
Jeffrey Epstein’s unredacted black book, 190 pages, hand-sewn signatures, handmade velvet covers with gold foil monogram.
I once spent a week with one of the people named in Jeffrey Epstein's little black book. I was sent to profile Nathan Myhrvold, a child prodigy turned prolific research scientist who has seemingly everything but someone to tell him what he can't accomplish or possess. He also makes books too. They cost hundreds of dollars, are packaged in slipcases that are feats of engineering. Over time, he found the easiest solution was to take ownership of the process. Besides being his own best photographer, technician, and researcher, he established a publishing house.
He would find himself a kindred spirit in the reclusive designer-fabricator Chris Habib, were Myhrvold not immortalized in the artist’s latest work, a hand-sewn pocket-sized reproduction of Epstein's address book, debossed in gold with the same tarnished monogram found on the exterior of the late billionaire's East 71st Street mansion.
The first edition of 50 books is priced at $50 (and has since sold out), and is both a Smythson-style memento mori, and a shame-chic indictment of the names within, a new model for memorializing class tragedy in the 21st Century. In a time when suspected perpetrators are shielded from justice, and exposure among the public and one's peers is the only alternative recourse, it is also in its own way poetic justice.
Over the summer, Habib began his project. First, a public display. On August 10th, hours after Epstein's death was reported, he tweeted, "bought a bucket of chalk and we're headed to epstein's," where he and his girlfriend scrawled XOXO HILLARY + BILL on the doorstep. Their unsigned work immediately achieved instant tabloid fame in the New York Post and Daily Mail, and thus accomplished its goal—a lingering stain, one anyone can cheaply reapply with less time and effort than it takes to remove.
Focused on the little black book for the past month, Habib's created a distinct object of desire, a participation trophy for a violent act that's as soft and fragile as an adolescent girl, and just as likely to raise uncomfortable questions for those who engage with one. And yet, many of those people are the same individuals who have DM-ed Habib to purchase a copy, as if the book can somehow provide an aesthetically acceptable way to deal with their guilt by association.
It is not just morbid curiosity inspiring the work, Epstein’s immorality occurred in the artist’s backyard. Habib is a native Upper East Sider, who's often looked to his neighborhood for inspiration. For a 2010 zine, M.D., F.A.C.S, Habib documented botoxed faces spotted on the M79, sketched and summarized in haiku: “Stone. Featureless Youth / Manufactured Marble Joy / Laughter Creaks Like Strain,” describes a face not out of place in The Cut’s gallery of Zitomer regulars. On the street, Habib outfits himself in a pink trucker jacket embroidered with homemade Oxycontin logos and decommissioned museum badges that draw attention to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s troubled relationship with the Sackler family. A QR code on the admission sticker dominating the jacket’s back panel sends readers to the homepage of the Fortnight Institute, a downtown gallery that this time last year was selling machine embroidered museum labels under Habib’s publishing imprint Visitor Design. He calls them “embroidered tombstones.”
Those patches were released at the end of a six-month stitch that included costumes commissioned for Zac Efron’s character in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum. (Korine and Habib have worked together going as far back as Korine’s video for Sonic Youth’s "Sunday," which resulted in two behind the scenes documentaries. Korine published The Bad Son, a catalogue of heavily-Xeroxed images of Macaulay Culkin and his then-wife Rachel Miner as sailor boy and ballerina. Habib shot an experimental film, Always Seems To Move So Slow, that demonstrates he could have whatever commercial success he desires.)
This wasn’t the first time Habib's clothing designs resulted in viral attention. In 2009, he produced a one-off tee shirt for a Sonic Youth appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, a cartoon drawing of a naked man in scatological repose atop his partner. Immediately, requests for purchases started coming in. In response, Habib issued a press statement expressing his frustration at people’s need to buy something in order to appreciate it. (It’s an anomaly, speaking to Habib’s avoidance of publicity, that an alternative design etched on a pair of Vans, a possible sample for a style that was never produced, exists, and is available on Grailed, for cheap.)
Habib has long preferred to give away his works, challenging an audience of consumers to think of themselves as more than that, and even engage in protest with him. At a Trump inauguration protest in New York, “Trump Moving” company hats were handed out to anyone who carried a box labeled with what they’d wish the first family would pack for Washington; a 2010 edition of Yoko Ono tee shirts were swapped for good ideas, mocking her Fluxus ether.)
Knowing this, it's obvious why Habib couldn’t ask for more than a crisp $50 bill from prospective buyers also named in the Epstein book. To ask for more would provide an opportunity for redemption—and that’s more than they deserve.