Evolution of a Banksy: the subversion of vandalism UPDATED

We are now halfway through street artist Banksy's self-proclaimed "artists residency on the streets of New York," a so-far successful attempt to create a work on each day of October, in disparate locations of the city. More of a stencil artist than a graffitist, Banksy is still what used to be called a vandal. Property owners, the city of New York, and the MTA have spent countless millions* of dollars erasing, buffing or painting over the likes of him. His (or her) continued anonymity is astonishing given his fame. The one fuels the other, but by insisting on keeping hidden, Banksy is also insisting that his art remains of the street, outside, unsanctioned. For an artist who commands hundreds of thousands of dollars for works translated into a gallery context, this is rather the point of this month-long onslaught: I will come to your city, I will surprise and baffle on every night of the month, I will make art for the people and it will be free and I will not get caught.

The witty and accessible stencils that earned Banksy his notoriety tend, despite some pointed political commentary, to be one-liners: the stenciled girl  floating over the West Bank Barrier on a bouquet of balloons; a maid, sweeping the world's problems behind a trompe l'oeil white curtain; two bobbies, smooching; the bandanaed anarchist hurling a fistful of flowers instead of a molotov cocktail. 

In New York, Banksy has once-again put spraycan to some of his familiar stencils, but more importantly he is continuing the broader critique of commodification and art-as-business so deftly elaborated in his documentary film Exit Through the Gift Shop. What has been happening to the New York works within hours of their completion turns the economics and motivation of graffiti-removal, in the city that pioneered the cleansing of subway trains, entirely on its head. It is safe to say that property owners around the city are wishing and hoping that Banksy would strike their wall, instantly bestowing a valuable windfall upon them.

A phenomenon like Banksy's October show is precisely the kind of blog-fodder we at antarcticiana would normally avoid like the plague, but given that the home turf of Red Hook, Brooklyn was last week the happy recipient of Banksy attention, we're making an exception. The piece he did here is a perfect example of the multiple, interactive layers of baggage that pile up at the feet of almost every Banksy work, just as fast as it goes up on the wall or out onto the street.

Sometime in the middle evening of October 7th, the Banksy crew rolled up on this unassuming single-story cinderblock nothing of a building at the north-west corner of King and Van Brunt. Second-hand reports were that a white tent-like structure was quickly assembled to shield a portion of the wall from the view of any passersby. Presumably this is to protect the anonymity of the artist(s), but in and of itself I found this description hilarious; I had seen just a few weeks ago, at the Clinton Global Initiative, a similar tent set up in the middle of 53rd St. to enable President Obama to safely and invisibly exit his limousine and enter the Sheraton Hotel out of the prying eyes of midtown snipers.

Note in this pre-Banksy Google Street View the varied tonal grays where the property owner has rather lazily painted over previous graffiti. I'm certain it is no accident that Banksy chose such a wall. He made a similar choice a few days earlier.

The resulting artwork was a simple stencil of a pink, heart-shaped balloon, heavily patchworked with band-aids, floating up the wall. The balloon is a favorite in the Banksy iconographic toolbox. It represents liberation from constraint, imagination, taking flight. According to the gently fatuous faux-museum "audio guide" posted with photos at Banksy's NYC website, this heart represents the "battle to survive a broken heart." Of course to Red Hookers, it can only represent resiliency and the uplifting of our neighborhood, now all-but-fully recovered and soaring once again, one year after hurricane Sandy.

(Not my image: boosted from Banksyny.com, linked above)

According to these photos, the piece seems to have survived the rest of the night and seen the light of day. Quickly, however, layers began to pile up. As soon as the location of Banksy's October 7th stencil was made known, it was scrawled over by graffitist "OMAR," who apparently makes what little career he can out of defacing Banksies. Such behavior is of course in the time-honored New York tradition of graffiti greats claiming territory, or over-painting perceived peons, except that Omar is by no stretch a graffiti great, nor can jumping in a car and rushing to the scene of the latest Banksy be described as marking territory. What's interesting is that public sentiment is clearly against Mr. Omar, who is seen as no better than some maniac rushing into a museum and dumping a bucket of paint onto a Monet. In bloglandia, Omar is a vandal, destroying the art of Banksy. This is perhaps because Banksy is far more famous, far more successful, and far more creative than "Omar," but it surely also has to do with the very real notion that Omar is destroying cash value where Banksy has just added it. 

Soon thereafter, perhaps because his temporary New York HQ is said to be right here in Red Hook, Banksy seems to have revisited the scene of the crime to get in the next word, appending "is a jealous little girl" to Omar's self-aggrandizing tag, in dainty typescript. Someone else, with distinctly un-streets penmanship, then wandered by with some purple spraypaint.

(Not my image: boosted from NBC news)

Meanwhile, we can imagine the owner of this modest building bitching about the quickly evolving mess on his wall as he heads to the utility closet for his trusty can of off-gray paint. As he emerges with bucket and brush he finds a crowd of art-lovers gathered on the sidewalk. No, they inform him, you haven't been vandalized, it's actually more as if you had won the lottery! Don't you know that gallery Banksies have sold to celebrities for hundreds of thousands? Don't you know that a street Banksy was cut out of a wall in London and auctioned off for 1.1 million

(Not my image: boosted from theverge.com, linked below)

Away went the gray paint. When I first saw this piece, after returning from a jaunt to West Virginia, it was covered with an enormous square of plexiglas, PL'd, and then duct-taped to the wall. When I next saw it, the following day, the plexi had been entirely painted over, and visitors had attempted to pry it from the wall. The owner of the building, out of a deep and selfless desire to maintain access to public art, or perhaps some other reason, then hired a night-watchman to guard the wall. This local worthy sat out on the sidewalk for at least an entire night in a deck chair, just as the weather was getting nippy. But the long-term economic deficit implied by this strategy, or possibly the ever-present threat of napping, soon became apparent. The owner decided, one imagines, that selflessness might be alright for some, but there comes a moment when one must stop messing about. It was at about this time that workmen covered over the already mutliply-defaced Banksy with a shallow box made from cold-rolled iron angle and welded one-quarter-inch steel plate, bolting it right into his precious cinderblock wall. 

This double-parked would-be Banksy viewer found only sheet steel, itself tagged with the note below, reading "SELFISH! Art is for Everyone!" 

Similar insanity has greeted most of Banksy's October output. My favorite response to his work so far were the East New York entrepreneurs who covered their neighborhood Banksy with squares of cardboard and then charged slumming hipsters $20 to get a look at it (this is $5 less than MoMA charges for admission). Some headlines have suggested that Banksy just can't get a break in New York, but unless he is far dumber than his work suggests I think he must be laughing uproariously at every twist and turn and value-enhancing antic.

Somewhat late to the party, and demonstrating a startling lack of business acumen, Michael Bloomberg "told reporters Wednesday that graffiti ruins property 'and is a sign of decay and loss of control.'" Mr. Mayor, Banksy is no vandal, he's wealth creation.

*According to Craig Castleman in Getting Up: Subway Graffiti in New York (1984, MIT Press, Cambridge. Pg. 149), the MTA spent $300,000 on graffiti eradication in 1970, a figure that spiraled upward by orders of magnitude in the subsequent decades.

Update #1: My friend Amy Helfand send the image, below, of the handwritten sign currently posted on top of the sheet steel box. The one calling the box-makers meanies and art-concealers has apparently been removed:

This suggests they cut out the wall and that the steel plate is just covering a big hole, but I suspect that is a red herring.

Update #2: The property owner has finally gotten it together to remove the wall. Walking past, this evening (Sunday, October 27th) I found him observing two laborers who were drilling out a kind of postage-stamp perforation all the way around the outside of the piece. The building appears to be made of brick, not block, to judge by the brick dust, below.

Dude: "Don't take pictures."
Me: "I'm on a public sidewalk, I can take as many pictures as I like."
Dude: "Good answer. But if you write something, you have to tell us, and if it is something bad, you are responsible. We are preserving it. If it was your wall, would you spend $3,000 to preserve this artwork?"
Me: "I have no idea what I would do. The whole thing has been a comedy since the beginning."


phuzz said...

It's an interesting contrast with how things have gone here in Bristol, Banksy's old home town.
Back when he was active here, the city would do it's best to crackdown on any graffiti, and would arrest any artists/vandals they could.
Now it's practically encouraged, whole streets are put aside to be painted and there's even articles written in the Washington bloody post!
Personally I like the way my surroundings change every few weeks. It turns a normal walk down a familiar route into a little exploration.

They say it's a cold world said...

@phuzz Thanks for the link! Sounds like Bristol is a place to visit. Sadly the authorities here are not so visionary. Big collections of graffiti and street art only exist in tiny corners of the city, like little five in Queens. Which, I gather, is to be torn down.

xian said...

if you write something you have to tell us?