In the past few years, a new breed of street artists have painted Manhattan’s boroughs red. One of the most prominent to arise from this underground movement is an anonymous illustrator known as “Hanksy.” With his brush soaked in pop culture sentiment, one that echoes pop art pioneers like Duchamp, Lichtenstein, and Warhol, the street art satirist kicked off 2014 by putting on a guerilla-style exhibition with the help of 30 of his most talented friends including Ski & 2esae, Icy & Sot, Bishop 203, ELLE, Gilf!, Nicolas Holiber, Alice Mizrachi, FoxxFace, Royce Bannon, Col Wallnuts, ASVP, Tony Depew, Dick Mama, Russell King, CB23, Cosbe, Mata Ruda, Wizard Skull, and more.
Over the period of three days an abandoned and soon to be knocked down building was transformed into an Alphabet City funhouse of emerging talent, curated by the controversial street art star. A month earlier, the building hosted a not-so-typical party, which acted as the catalyst for Hanksy’s group show concept.
Awkwardly leaning against the building’s second floor kitchen counter, in a room completely covered in broken glass, I’m holding out my microphone and trying not to move as Hanksy tells me the story about how he got the idea for the evening’s show. But I can’t keep my feet in one place, with every wiggle of my toes, a piece of ceramic plate or shard of glass cracks beneath me. Hanksy is laughing and asks if I am okay before continuing his tale. “So a month ago I attended a party here, and it was sort of billed as a ‘house destruction party’ and they bashed the shit out of it. I was thinking about it over Christmas break back home in the midwest . . . and I was thinking, ‘Man that would be really cool to decorate the place.’ It kind of heralds back to like 20 years ago in lower Manhattan when there was 50 of these burned out buildings just abandoned, and graf writers and taggers would go up there and do everything and I was like ‘Oh man it’s 2014! Let’s do that!’”
“I emailed a bunch of people, gave some paint dates, like, let’s really get in there, like let’s freakin’ cover this thing from head to toe as much as we can in one week and see where it goes. Everyone really pulled their weight and out-did themselves. I put up a couple pieces, and they’re not even special, I mean everyone else killed it, so I’m stoked.”
We are walking through a staircase lined hallway with most of the banister missing, passing through room after room, as fragments of a previous life litter every inch of the ground. Empty cans of spray paint, illustrations, globs of acrylic, and three dimensional sculptures fill the various bedrooms, bathrooms and halls of the four story walk up. I start to experience this surreal moment. Larger than life Cubism-style portraits drawn on windows and the backs of doors face illustrations of colorful, puffy-faced creatures sandwiched in between sketches of curvy female figures wearing nothing but thigh high tube socks with the words “Yummy Pussy,” scribbled next to them. And yet, there is a connectedness to the exhibit. This feeling of being a part of something special.
Hanksy introduces me to one of the participating artist’s by the name of “Wretched Beast.” Before I can trip over my own words, he beats me to it, anxiously expressing his excitement around Hanksy’s concept. “It’s one of those things you think happens, it’s like one of those movies about New York; there’s a party or a rave or some shit, or you hear about it happening in the ’80s and you’re like, ‘I wish I was around for that,’ and then here it actually is.”
I ask Hanksy about a reoccurring theme I notice on his Instagram and now throughout the building, this phrase, “Surplus Candy.” Like his work, Hanksy is armed with a clever and humorous response, “I mean the joke is, first of all, there are a bunch of artists, and candy’s so sweet, and I fucking love it [Laughs] and I always eat it, and before I know it, it’s gone. Just like this, it’s transitory. One night, and one night only, you’re either in the know, or you’re not. And that’s it.”
Hanksy gets pulled away by a friend for a moment, so I continue to wander. I am fixated on the only sculpture work in the show by 2013 New York Academy of Art fellow Nicholas Holiber. A guy is standing next to me, also fixated. Hanksy appears next to us. He stays just long enough to introduce the guy next to me as “Alex from Vice,” then disappears again. Alex volunteers he’s there “just kind of supporting the art movement going back to the Lower East Side.” I think he thinks I’m going to ask him for a job, so I quickly turn the conversation back to the subject we both are there for, Hanksy.
I ask Alex what he thinks of Hanksy and his work. “I mean, it makes me laugh every time. It’s so funny. I love the uproar that he causes, I love the hate that he gets. I love the hate that he gets almost as much as he loves the hate that he gets.” That makes me laugh and want to ask Alex a million more questions, so I follow him back down the terrifyingly unsafe staircase to the second floor.
We spot Hanksy. He’s in the center of the same room where our interview began, talking with, well more nodding and grinning awkwardly with a tall, fast-talking guy with his backpack slung over one arm, who looks vaguely familiar. The man is Bucky Turco. A writer of compelling pieces for Complex, Village Voice, Gawker, and more, and editor of New York based cultural digest, Animal. He’s apologizing to Hanksy, I think. His words are just shy of a yell, then again maybe he’s just really excited to be there? I walk up next to them and introduce myself.
I ask him what his thoughts on Hanksy are. “Well, like I was telling Hanksy, we’ve [Animal] kind of been mean about, kind of like this whole crop of like the Patrick Waldo’s of the world, ya know, the Hanksy’s, we always thought it was kind of corny. Of course, when you meet the person, and you kind of see what they’re about, I think it sometimes changes your perception, and I don’t know how comfortable I feel with that, because, right, you get a lot of that, ‘Oh, he might not be a great artist, but he’s a really nice guy.’ Um, but it is fucking humorous. He knows how to get press and he plays off of in the moment things. And I think he did a really good job curating this exhibit, you don’t get to walk through an abandoned building all the time and see art.”
And he’s right, to an extent. But Hanksy is different. He gets it. Bucky is still talking to me, but all I can think about is my favorite Warhol quote:
“The pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second — comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, Coke bottles. All the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried not to notice at all.”
Except in the social media obsessed world of 2014, pretending not to notice is no longer an option.