Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bansky and His 31 Days in New York:

Artist Stirs Memories of Taki 183, Caine 1

Dondi and the City's Graffiti Heyday 

Graffiti emerged on the New York scene like a tsunami rushing in from the sea in the early 1970’s. Taggers with pseudonyms like Taki 183, Dondi, Cliff 159, Stayhigh 149, and Blade staged an aggressive in-your-face assault on a captive and unsuspecting audience, the million plus people who rode the subways on a daily basis.

This first wave of artists or vandals, depending on your view of art, defiance and defacement, used the subways as their personal 24/7 galleries and forum. With their energy, fervor and quite often talents graffiti entered the mainstream quickly. Their monikers became synonymous with the subway lines they tagged.

Their worked appeared everywhere: on doors, windows, seats, and ceilings throughout the system.
If you took the #4 train to Yankee Stadium you thought you rode the Mitch 77 train. If you went to Shea Stadium, where the NY Mets played, you rode The Caine Freedom Train compliments of Caine 1 and not the #7. Competition grew fierce and the graffiti exploded. Graffiti crews worked long hours in unguarded train yards creating their next eye-catching displays.

Tags evolved from simple lettering to huge block letters, large decorative illustrations and zany designs with cartoon characters like Snoopy or Dick Tracy emblazoned in vivid colors. Comparable mind-boggling works graced the exterior of cars from end-to-end, and not just a handful of cars but almost all cars.

The grime, filthy, smelly, and unsafe conditions of a deteriorating system compounded with smudged incomprehensible drawings, illegible scribbles, tags and designs copied on top of each other made it difficult to appreciate the works created some talented artists.

Bansky Unveils His Stuff

Graffiti as street art or vandalism resurfaced last October when Bansky, a British artist, painter, activist, and documentary filmmaker announced on his website a month long artist residency in New York City. Bansky received an Oscar nomination in 2010 for his film Exit Thru the Gift Shop and that same year made Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Bansky, a recluse, is well known for “bombing walls in San Francisco, Detroit, Paris, and Barcelona.
His true identity is unknown although the London Daily Mail speculates he is Robin Gunningham, who began with the tag Robin Banx. He developed his pencil sketch style in his native Bristol, England.

In 2003 he staged his breakthrough exhibit “Turf Wars” in an East London Warehouse. In 2005 his celebrity grew when he traveled to Palestine and stenciled nine images on the West Bank Wall including his iconic Masked Armed Thrower. He has had major shows in Los Angeles and Sydney.
At the Miami Street Art Auction in February his “Kissing Coppers’s sold for $575,000.

His New York exhibit called “Better Out Than In” had one Bansky work popping up at undisclosed locations all 31 days in October. Bansky hit all five boroughs. His first installation in Chinatown, “The Street Is in Play,” showed one boy standing on the back of a second boy touching a sign which read “Graffiti is a Crime,” It ended with a set of balloons spelling BANSKY! And tied to a Queens warehouse on Halloween.

In between Bansky had a real person shining the shoes of a large fiberglass Ronald McDonald statue outside a Mickey D’s in the South Bronx; in Manhattan’s meatpacking district he unveiled “The Sirens of the Lambs” a slaughterhouse delivery truck crammed with stuff animals, heads butting out from slots, while touring the meatpacking district as a recording of animals crying played; and the Two Geisha Girls with parasols in Williamsburg, where bystanders tussled with a hooded vandal as he tagged the work.

Bansky artistic exploits, product placement (most off the beaten path) and PR showmanship tweaked my interest. And I like his work. In a city where graffiti survives for years more than half of his had not. Property owners destroyed or removed some. Taggers vandalized others.

Five days after his exhibit ended, I left my house at 10 am in search of Bansky. I headed to Larry Flint’s Hustler Club, at West 51st & 11th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen’s, near my apartment, to see my favorite “Waiting in Vain.” Painted on October 24, it showed a forlorn lover dressed in a suit and a loosened tie slouched against a wall holding wilted flowers. No luck! The club, knew its value, removed it.

Next I walked to West 25th and 11th Avenue to see his second one, a text piece which read, “This is My New York Accent…Normally I Write Like This.” Strike two!
I went to 24th near 10th Avenue for his 18th installment, an outdoor exhibition, and two hanging pieces, under the High Line in Chelsea, done in collaboration with Brazilian street artists Os Geneos. Strike three!
Moving to 24th Street and 6th I found his third posting, marred with graffiti. Called “You Complete Me” it showed a dog urinating against a fire hydrant. 

I walked to four other Banksy locations with no luck: the East Village (Priest in a Concrete Confessional), Lower East Side (the Two Boys; Night Vision Horses) and Nolita (Grim Reaper Rides a Bumper Car).
I flirted with the idea of crossing the Williamsburg Bridge to continue my search in Brooklyn but called it quits. At 4pm I returned home. At least I found one.

Photo Credits: 
a. DONDI - by Andy. In memory
    of Donald Joseph White "Dondi" (April 7, 1961 - Oct.2, 1998)
b. "The Street Is in Play" (Two Boys)  - Flickr - by Tara Horner
c. "Waiting in Vain" Flickr - JC Decaux 
d. "You Complete Me" - Dog at Hydrant - Rudi Papiri
NYC Subway graffiti reference: Spar One Editor/Resource Director for Graffiti @149st