POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 16, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 03:36 a.m. HST, Feb 16, 2014
NEW YORK » This is a story about art in the age of social media - about anonymity and self-promotion, about feral cats and viral cat videos.
In April 2011, a law school dropout in Brooklyn, newly arrived from the Midwest, had an idea that he thought might make a splash. He admired the street artist Banksy; he grew up on the movies of Tom Hanks. Why not mash up the two? Using simple computer software, he downloaded a Banksy painting of a rat holding a paint roller, then added an image of Hanks' face. The whole thing took 10 or 15 minutes to create. He printed a cutout and pasted it on a wall at Mulberry and Kenmare streets in Little Italy, signing it Hanksy. It was a stupid pun, he knew, but he was a sucker for stupid puns. Isn't everybody?
He photographed the wall for his Instagram and Twitter accounts, and emailed it to the Wooster Collective, a popular street art website. Then he went to sleep.
"And then it just went viral," Hanksy said the other day, speaking in a Lower East Side coffee shop near the restaurant in which he is a partner. "I remember counting at the time that it had been tweeted to 4 or 5 million accounts."
Two and a half years later, he counted the fruits of that first inspiration.
"Three solo shows, two of which sold out, the third one in LA almost sold out," he said.
At his first show, in January 2012, he sold about 150 pieces, all mashing up Banksy and Tom Hanks, at prices ranging from $50 to $2,000, according to Benjamin Krause, director of the Krause Gallery, which represents him. A second show that November sold out 30 pieces, at $1,000 to $4,000 per picture, Krause said.
Over strong coffee and loud indie rock, Hanksy, 30, spoke on the condition that he be identified by his artist name. (New York magazine wrote that he was "rumored" to be Adam Himebauch.) The son of a retired FBI agent, he wore a baseball cap over his longish blonde hair and spoke in a self-deprecating voice full of Delavan, Wis.
"It's lowbrow, silly, trivial humor," he said. "I never thought, when I put up my first image, that I would be where I am today. It just blows my mind."
Then he turned the conversation in another direction.
"I was created for the Internet," he said. "It's memes in real life. I know how to use social media. I know what copy and what articles work, what is going to get clicks. Of course, America loves Tom Hanks, and America loves Banksy. I don't want to lie and say I didn't know what I was doing by putting the two on the street. I knew that if it eventually got leaked somewhere, or if I sent it to a website, it would get picked up and get hits."
As street artists have produced increasingly sophisticated work, including the recently whitewashed 5Pointz murals in Queens, there is a sense in which Hanksy's puns, which include Lil Waynedeer, Meth Rogan and Ferrell cats (feline creatures with the face of the comedian Will Ferrell), are the equivalent of cute pet videos: shareable and infectious, but ultimately cheap fixes.
RJ Rushmore, who runs the street art blog Vandalog, said he was among many who initially dismissed Hanksy as an opportunist.
"I thought it was not art, not brilliant, just taking the stupidest ideas and presenting them in ways that were very friendly for Tumblr and Instagram," Rushmore said. "It's not art in the sense of a graffiti writer who spent 15 years developing his style."
Rushmore has since warmed to Hanksy, for comic relief in a scene that sometimes gets too serious.
"He makes the best cat videos," he said. "That's still something to be applauded for."
Ellen Lupton, senior curator of contemporary design at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, said more was at stake in Hanksy's visual gags.
"It's more than a pun," she said. "Banksy's work is hypermasculine and serious about its underground, tough, outlaw image. And Tom Hanks is just not that guy. So the humor is putting that identity on this hyper-butch material. It's the revenge of the nerd. It has a vibe of bringing the discourse down a notch, calling out the seriousness of it."
If his art is simplistic, his promoting has been clever - fitting for a man who moved to New York to work in digital marketing. For his first gallery show, he created signed Tom Hanks masks for the first 200 visitors (signed by Hanksy, not Tom Hanks), and he served Whitman's chocolates and Dr Pepper, references to "Forrest Gump."
"It wasn't just art on the walls," Krause, the gallery director, said. "He thinks, 'What more can I do?' He absolutely is market-savvy." To pique interest in his website, Hanksy holds occasional treasure hunts, posting clues to where people might get free copies of his work.
Last month, Hanksy took a step outside the easy pun dome. After getting keys to a newly abandoned rowhouse on East Fourth Street, he invited several dozen street artists and graffiti writers to paint the vacant apartments. The collaboration, which he called Surplus Candy, was illegal and somewhat secret - exactly the combination that would produce page views. On Friday, Jan. 10, he opened the building for a very limited two-hour walk-through.
"You throw in a couple of keywords - East Village, illegal, street art - people will run with that," he said.
The street artist Gilf! was the first to start painting, and she said it was a rare chance to work undisturbed, without having to rush before the police arrived. Like Hanksy, she declined to give her real name.
"There was a point where he was like, 'We can't do this, we have to pull the plug, the landlord is going to be a problem,'" she said. "I was like, 'This is what our community does, we should just do it.' Street artists - we're constantly going into abandoned spots. Doing things illegally is the name of the game. There was too much of an opportunity to let it go."
Cosbe, a graffiti writer who created a politically charged work called "Slumlord," likened the project to the art scene of the '70s and '80s, when graffiti writers flocked to the East Village because so many buildings were abandoned. Only now, the surrounding buildings were seven-figure co-ops or condos, he said.
"I worry about him," he said of Hanksy. "It's got to be stressful having a lot of attention like that. And in that world, it's not necessarily a good thing. You don't want to be that street artist that people are talking about. It puts you under the microscope."
For the next year, Hanksy said, he plans to visit nine cities, to collaborate with local street artists and bring in others from out of town, documenting the whole enterprise as an Internet video series.
"When it comes to the talent pool, I'm definitely in the shallow end," he said. "There's artists who are doing some crazy stuff, and I would just like to give them some light, you know?"
Through it all he hoped to maintain his anonymity, in part for the romance entailed. In a scene that documents its every move, secrets are still compelling.
"There's a little more allure or excitement when that veil of anonymity is in the air," he said. "Let's just stay anonymous and have fun with it. Like, people know who Banksy is, or people know who Daft Punk is, but they don't want to because it ruins the fun. They'd rather not know or not believe they know."
Not long ago, he said, he met a woman who didn't know his identity.
"She said: 'Hanksy's fun and all, but he's not a game changer. He's not pushing the limits.'"
She found out a few months later.
"We're still friends," he said.
And he walked out into the Lower East Side slush, another anonymous, vulnerable soul in the big city.