Just over three years ago, the notorious and critically acclaimed street artist, Banksy, took to the streets of New York City, leaving his indelible mark on the Big Apple forever. For 31 days, starting October 1, 2013, the elusive artist made New York his canvas, posting one unique piece per day in a nondescript, unannounced location, causing one of the biggest commotions the city had ever seen.
For an entire month, the artist used social media as a medium for a scavenger hunt to help his “fans” determine the clandestine location of his next masterpiece. The “Banksy Hunters” as they came to be known, equal parts fans and haters, tuned in to decipher clues and make their way to the next location before the work had vanished or had been vandalized (often the case).
He provided clues that would force people to rediscover the city they called home. Everywhere from the Bronx, to Brooklyn, the Lower East Side and everywhere in between, Banksy wanted people to get reacquainted with their city and realize that art is a universal language and can be viewed anywhere. “He made a treasure hunt where you needed to go and find something in a part of the city you’ve never been in before,” notes Steve P. Harrington, founder of the Brooklyn Street Art Museum.
Banksy first hit up the corner of Allen and Canal Street, with the “Street is in Play” piece. This masterpiece displayed one boy climbing on another’s back to graffiti a street sign that read “Graffiti is a Crime”. With that work, Banksy displayed a phone number which provided the clue to the next pop up piece. Within the first 24 hours after his stencil went up in Chinatown, someone stole the “Graffiti Is a Crime” sign and tagged “GMON” next to it. Moments after, another graffiti group known as “Street Crew” replaced the sign with a similar one that read “Street Art Is a Crime” including their symbol.
After just day one, the fans were already in a frenzy. “Either you were there or you missed it” described one scene-goer. But that was exactly his purpose. He wanted it to be evasive, he wanted those lucky enough to capture it to enjoy the chase of it all, the secret appeal. He was so smooth, that in the 31 days, not one person unmasked him. Some people speculated, but he managed to create wall art, mobile murals, and other interesting displays of art without anyone ever seeing him. As another “Banksy Hunter” describes it in the documentary Banksy Does New York, “it was epic street theatre. It was a chance for anyone to experience it and enjoy it together”.
And since Banksy knew it would cause commotion, much of the art lied not so much in the actual piece itself, but in the response to it, the craze, the frenzy of it all. But police weren’t having it. When mass amounts of people were showing up to the artists latest location, trying to saw down a wall to remove the art, the police realized the problem was bigger than the brushstroke. In a press conference directly addressing Banksy, then Mayor, Michael Bloomberg said “You, running up to public property and defacing it, is not my definition of art”, and so the witch hunt ensued…unsuccessfully, of course.
Banksy had a different plan. At one point his website observed, “The outside is where art should live, amongst us, where it can act as a public service, promote debate, voice concerns and forge identities. Don’t we want to live in a world made of art, not just decorated by it?”
As the artists “residency” went on, the crowds and the suspense only grew larger. People took time off of work, hailed extra cabs than they normally would’ve, and went to the borders of the boroughs in search of Banksy’s bold statements. Some guys in Brooklyn even went so far as “posting up” in front of the piece and charging for a view. They got their money, let’s just say.
Day in day out, it was one work of art after another. But on one particular day, he decided to have a man sell canvases with his work on them at a metal-grated booth on the perimeters of Central Park. The man was selling them for $60 a piece. And while some stopped, looked, haggled and made a purchase, there were only a select few who, let’s just say, were at the right place at the right time! Like most passersby, many thought the mini versions were just that, “versions”, of what Banksy had done. Little did they know, the works of art were originals and worth an estimated $225,000 combined.
Whether you were a fan or not, whether you participated or not, Banksy got you buzzing about something. His works were social commentary. They were creative ways to get people thinking and talking about things like the inhumane meat industry, food wages, war and other such controversial issues. It worked.
And some people ask why – Why would Banksy, a world renowned artist, create something for free? Well, he has an answer for that as well.
“There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all,” he told the Voice. “I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There’s no gallery show or book or film. It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.”
Until today, it all remains a mystery. No one has revealed themselves as Banksy, nor has anyone identified the mysterious art maker. But, he left a piece of history behind for all of us to admire for years to come, even if we weren’t able to experience it first hand.
And while I wasn’t living in New York City at the time of this madness, I’ve been fortunate enough to witness one of the last remaining pieces of his “residency”. It is located on 79th street and Broadway, on the Upper West Side. It is positioned on the side of a building and now guarded by plexiglass. I recognized it as I was walking by after having seen a similar situation in an alley in Park City, Utah. Again, behind plexiglass.
The greatest thing about it all, is the way it brought people together. People of all walks of life were coming together, for one purpose – Banksy!
For a full list of Banksy’s New York City masterpieces, visit http://www.complex.com/style/2013/11/banksy-new-york-residency_760389/crazy-horse.