I. MEDITATIONS ON A STREET-ART SKIRMISH:
Graff beef! Fetishized commodities! Counterrevolutionary fucktards!
The first good look I got at one of the Splasher’s actual splashes was at a place called the Candy Factory, an abandoned brick wall at the south end of Soho that’s become, over a couple of generations, one of the most important nodes of illegal art in the city—a shabby outdoor Louvre of wheatpasted posters, stencils, and stickers squeezed between a construction zone and a parking lot. The view changes almost daily: Its prime spots are probably fifteen layers thick. On the day I went, at the center of the mess stood a Technicolor poster of an anthropomorphic pickle-shaped rainbow; above him, there was a portrait of a little Swiss-looking girl innocently playing a flute. And above her, in the upper right corner of the wall, was a sad, frowning candy corn, looking even sadder because someone had flung white paint over its face—a ragged spray that covered one cheek and part of his nose. Near the splash was a poster-size manifesto, partially torn, apparently declaring the candy corn’s crimes against humanity. It was titled AVANT-GARDE: ADVANCE SCOUTS FOR CAPITAL, and it read, in part:
REVOLUTIONARY CREATIVITY DOES NOT SHOCK OR ENTERTAIN THE BOURGEOISIE, IT DESTROYS THEM. OUR STRUGGLE CANNOT BE HUNG ON WALLS. DESTROY THE MUSEUMS, IN THE STREETS AND EVERYWHERE.
The manifesto ended with a warning: THE REMOVAL OF THIS DOCUMENT COULD RESULT IN INJURY, AS WE HAVE MIXED THE WHEATPASTE WITH TINY SHARDS OF GLASS.
So began my tortuous descent into the curious case of the Splasher—a scandal that had gripped the city’s underground art scene for months. It was a tricky case, with triple-crossed motives, riddles nested in mysteries, and loops of self-devouring irony linked together in a gigantic chain stretching clear across the city, from the most expensive Soho boutiques to the Williamsburg waterfront to the industrial streets of Bushwick. Everyone was a suspect: cops, ex-students, anarchists, petty vandals, corporate marketing execs, self-made kings of the underground art scene, even some of the victims themselves.
Here at the beginning, then, why don’t we just lay out the mystery, the so-called facts, as plain as we can make them. In the fall, some anonymous figure started vandalizing the city’s most celebrated vandalism—by which I mean not traditional seventies-style spray-paint graffiti but a relatively new, gentrified outgrowth of that tradition that’s come to be called “street art”: multimedia works of astonishing polish and complexity and beauty, often created by artists without a “street” bone in their bodies. Many went to art school and have grown-up jobs and lucrative gallery careers and are terrified of the cops and traditional graffiti crews. Over the past ten years, as street art has become big business—upscale art shows in London and Tokyo, advertising contracts, waves of positive media coverage, blogfuls of groupies—it’s generated exactly the kind of internal backlash you’d expect in a subculture conceived of as guerrilla warfare against consumer culture. The Splasher epitomizes this backlash. In the middle of the night, about six months ago, this vandalism vandal started hitting the scene’s most acclaimed masterpieces, works that might have gone for $10,000 or $20,000 or $30,000 in a gallery, with big sloppy splashes of housepaint—teal, white, purple, yellow, electric blue. Beneath the splash he—or she, or they, or (who knows?) us—would leave a manifesto ranting, in Marxist jargon, about commodification and fetishization and the author’s intention of “euthanizing your bourgeois fad.” From November to March, the splashes arrived in bursts, busy weeks interspersed with long fallow periods. By the end of the campaign, observers counted nearly a hundred of them.
News of the Splasher echoed furiously across the city’s hipper blogs. On discussion boards, avid street-art fans engaged in long, enthusiastic debates, while hipsters practically pulled a muscle trying to seem unimpressed. The Splasher was called, among other things, a counterrevolutionary fucktard, a dickless moron, a pretentious shitbag, asshole, goddamn conservative dimwit, self-important dickhead, asshat, and Dadaist art dick. (The artists I spoke with added, privately, “pretentiously verbose little bastard,” “small-minded attention-hungry dickwad,” “bitter, naïve, shortsighted failure,” and, in an ingenious reversal, “the Wal-Mart of street art.”) Others embraced the Splasher as a kind of folk hero: As one admirer wrote, “This shit is more ‘street’ and ‘art’ than any of this incredibly boring and masturbatory bullshit being thrown up these days.” And some were cynical to the core: “Yeesh! a six pack says that by this time next year the ‘splasher’ will be featured in gallery openings and working on a clothing line.” And even: “Maybe New York Magazine will do a cover story on them and tell us all they are genius and a bunch of dumb rich people will deconstruct the building and put them in their lofts for a million dollars. Everyone is dumb.”