Steve (not his real name) is the founder of TrustoCorp, an anonymous New York-based guerilla art group known for its subversive signs and other pieces meant to highlight “the hilarity and hypocrisy of human behavior.”
And that’s just what he set out to do on Monday, when he installed two street signs in New York City pointing out the irony of Banksy as a world-famous multimillionaire maintaining the persona of a rebellious street artist. Each sign cited a parody sponsor by “CitiBanksy” and “Banksy of America,” and featured twists on the elusive tagger's own work.
And if Banksy’s ex-girlfriend had paid closer attention when she dismounted her bike to talk to an old friend on Monday night in the East Village, she may have noticed that he and a cohort introduced as Steve were screwing in a sign that poked fun at her former flame. It read: “Laugh Now But One Day I’ll Be So Rich That I Can Do Graffiti Wherever I Want,” and plays off Banksy’s sign-holding monkey which declares “Laugh now but someday we’ll be in charge." In Williamsburg, the other, “Bad Artists Imitate, Great Artists Get Really Really Rich,” is a spoof on “The bad artists imitate, the good artists steal,” Banksy’s appropriation of a Picasso quote.
Both legitimate-looking signs offer good-natured commentary about Banksy’s current status as a larger-than-life businessman masquerading as a guerilla-style art rebel. “The thing that’s amusing about it is, at this point, Banksy’s like the most famous graffiti artist on the planet -- he’s the richest, he has collectors like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, he’s in the upper echelon financially and socially -- yet he’s still doing street art. And the irony of a multi-millionaire doing rebellious street art is pretty funny,” Steve says. “We felt compelled to say something about it.”
Since Banksy began Better Out Than In, his month-long residency in New York, he’s been tagging spots from Brooklyn to Queens with his signature whimsical drawings and unusual stunts. The feverish hype around his work has been impossible to ignore. On Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg announced at a press conference his intent to bring Banksy to justice. Calling graffiti a sign of “loss of control,” he asserted that the vandalism “is not my definition of art” and “should not be permitted.”
But the manhunt is unlikely to stop the street artist folk hero. Maps and timelines have been made to track his progress, viewers have been charged $20 a look, and images of “the real” Banksy have filtered through the rumor mill.
In the past decade, Banksy has skyrocketed from low-profile renegade to media darling. But, his critics wonder, does having a name synonymous with street art put him at odds with the anti-establishment ethos of it? The irony that his tags have resulted in people actually disassembling walls to transfer the public works of art to auctions and galleries has to be mentioned. And his work consistently brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars or more: a 2008 collaboration with Damien Hirst sold for nearly $1.9 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
“Plenty of artists are very envious of his success as a commercial artist because at the end of the day that’s what he’s become: he’s a brand, he’s a corporation, he’s a commodity,” says music and television producer Sacha Jenkins. Jenkins is currently curating a history of graffiti called Write of Passage in New York City and says the “writing” community is unhappy with Banksy being portrayed as one of them, calling his popular depiction as a graffiti artist a misrepresentation of the art form and culture, which is strictly letters. Graffiti writers also “resent that he has the ability to do whatever he wants -- his finances afford him the ability to skip around the world and generate his art and if he gets caught he’s just going to get a slap on the wrist.”
Some are frustrated that an Englishman has waltzed into New York, considered by many the birthplace of graffiti, to wild fanfare, while true graffiti artists struggle to get by. But their main gripe is the stencil-welding spray painter is not actually part of the graffiti world. Some in the community have taken to tagging over his work, sometimes out of anger and jealousy.
“Inside the graffiti world if you have issue with someone else you ‘cross them out’ or ‘background them,'” Jenkins explains. “If he was really part of graffiti culture then him getting ‘gone over’ is part of the game.” But it’s also just an opportunistic strategy to get their tag shared on the thousands of pictures farmed out to social networks.
Steve says TrustoCorp strongly separates itself from the “violent opposition” to Banksy’s work that manifests in tags on and around the new pieces hours after they’re spotted. For them, the signs are meant as a gentle ribbing, not to start “some kind of beef.” The group isn’t jealous and doesn't hate him, as some others do -- in fact they're big fans, he says, but the jabs are much harsher without the background knowledge of their origins.
“I think he’s funny and self aware enough to get it,” Steve says. While he’s never met Banksy directly, the two run in overlapping circles and work in a similar style of anonymity. He says TrustoCorp even shared a manager with Banksy at one point. Alas, Steve will never know Banksy’s reaction upon seeing the signs – and says he doesn't expect a response. “I’d die to see the moment when someone showed [the sign] to him,” he laughs.
Banksy’s presence has shined a curious spotlight on all groups working out in public. Anyone publicly weighing in on Banksy is going to get a mention as the artist prevails as talk of the town, and as evidenced by this article, that includes TrustoCorp, even though Steve stresses he doesn’t “want to come across like we’re trying to ride on his fame.”
As Steve put up his street sign, people quickly gathered to take pictures. Just in the past few weeks, he’s estimated 50 people have yelled Banksy’s name at him while he was painting on the street, or come up to ask him whether he was the elusive artist. “It’s like a feeding frenzy,” he laughs. As of Thursday, TrustoCorp’s East Village sign had been stolen, and the Williamsburg one had been covered by fabric by someone trying to hide it, and was presumably taken later.
Steve says he respects the anonymity Banksy has maintained, even as his fame reaches an all-time peak. “There’s a whole world of glory waiting for him that he’s ignoring,” he says. And the recent stunt of selling original pieces at a Central Park stand for $60 a pop was the ultimate recognition of the art world’s great ironies that Banksy has come to represent: that the same piece can sell for millions at an auction house or be bargained down to half price on the street.
We may not find out who Banksy is for many years, if ever, but what is he? A sellout? A dangerous vandal threatening the city back into a 1980s-style decline? A fraud in the graffiti world? “We’re fans of what he does, but anyone with a few million dollars deserves to be made fun of. I’m sure he would enjoy it,” Steve says. Many appreciate that his fame has opened mainstream doors to success for other renegades hoping to get noticed with their work. Admits Steve: “If I had the means he had I’d love to be doing projects of that scale.” Maybe he’s just living the dream.