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.”
Several major theories emerged as to the identity and the motivations of the mysterious vigilante. Some people thought the Splasher was an old-school graffiti artist envious of the new generation’s mainstream success. Others thought he was a frustrated and possibly insane cop from the Vandal squad, the city’s special anti-graffiti force. It became clear pretty quickly that you could concoct a plausible conspiracy theory implicating just about everyone. As the artist Gore.B told me, it was like a big game of Clue: Mrs. Peacock in the ballroom with a can of orange paint. One artist speculated, jokingly, that it was Roberta Smith, an art critic for the New York Times.
People also hypothesized about the Splasher’s methods. Most assumed he used a bucket. Others thought it was a plastic ketchup bottle or a Super Soaker squirt gun. The blog Gothamist called in an anonymous “expert” who postulated that it was a small cup dipped into a bucket. Some thought it was one person. Others thought it was a team of two or three. Still others thought it was a single act of spite that inspired an endlessly proliferating network of copycat squads.
But most of all, everyone was looking for him.
“He’s probably gonna be caught doing it,” said iO Tillet Wright, publisher of the street-art magazine Overspray. “New York is a small town. It’s gonna come out. And at that point, all eyes are going to be on him to say something important. If he just spouts a bunch of Marxist crap—well, he’s gonna go down in history as a huge idiot.”
II. THE PETER PARKER OF THE AFFAIR:
On tour with the Splasher’s documentarian.
I met Jake Dobkin at the Candy Factory on a gray, windy day in late March. It was still the off-season for street art—packed snow on the sidewalks, lakes of slush at the corners—but some new work had gone up since I’d been there a few days earlier: There was a big-cheeked smiling heart, and the rainbow pickle had been enthusiastically tagged (he would soon be pasted over by an intricate buffalo head, which would then be covered with posters by the artists Bäst and Billi Kid). Jake was standing across the street, hands in his pockets, assessing the wall like a geologist surveying a freshly dynamited mountainside. He was 30, white, middle class, with glasses so fashionably studious they suggested an advanced degree and an apartment in Soho and a high-powered job in media or finance. Jake is known in street-art circles as the proprietor of the popular Website Streetsy, which posts daily pictures of the city’s ever-changing art. He walks around with a small camera in his pocket at all times—he claims, with professorial detachment, to have posted the largest set of Splasher pictures on the Internet. During the day, he works as the publisher of Gothamist, on which, he told me, he named the Splasher. (“There was something very ejaculatory about what he was doing,” he said.) He agreed to give me a tour of what he called “the Splasher’s extant works downtown.”
We walked east through Soho to Nolita and the Lower East Side, stopping every block or so to peek into pockets and alleyways stuffed with work by an all-star cast of the current scene: one of Lepos’s signature robots (splashed), a Faro mummy and a Bäst (both splashed), an unfinished Haculla, a Marco octopus with cartoon eyes in his giant forehead, a big green-headed Judith Supine (splashed), Stickman, Elbow-Toe, WK Interact, Lister from Australia, Jace from an island near Madagascar, Borf from D.C., and the Skewville twins’ yellow BLAH BLAH BLAH running up and down a doorway. We passed a sticker that said PENIS ENVY VAGINA FRIENDLY. We saw a portrait by the artist Swoon that was surprisingly unsplashed—she was one of the Splasher’s first and favorite targets. On a normal day, I would have walked by all of this without stopping—for me, as for most New Yorkers, street art has roughly the visibility of pigeons: It’s omnipresent and therefore invisible. With Jake, it was a tangle of backstories, rivalries, alliances, glory, and shame: an 8,000-page graphic novel written on the side of the city.
Jake takes an enlightened view of the Splasher phenomenon. “You can’t just see it as some jerk spraying paint,” he said. “Because it’s not—it’s something bigger than that. It represents something. I’ve heard a lot of people voice the opinion that this isn’t street art, it’s just destruction, it’s just mindless, immature, infantile. That doesn’t seem right to me. Let’s just say this: People wouldn’t be so pissed off if there wasn’t at least some small grain of legitimate critique there. Clearly, it’s a critique of the sort of gentrifying, overly intellectualized, bourgeois sort of aspects of street art. It kind of strikes right at the heart of what it is these artists do.”
Beef has always been part of graffiti—disputes over territory, drugs, respect. But street art has traditionally been friendlier and “kind of art school-y,” Jake told me. “This is the first time that blatant graffiti hostility has really manifested itself. There’s no way around it: Somebody’s just destroying your piece. That’s what’s making people so upset.” Ultimately, Jake believes that the Splasher’s assault will have an “evolutionary” effect: It will weed out the weak artists and toughen up the strong. But it’s not a serious threat. “Street art is a manifestation of the life of a vibrant city,” he told me. “As the seasons pass, more graff will come, new street artists will come and put up work—and you can’t fight that. Even if you had an army of Splashers. That would be like trying to fight the ocean.”
Outside a Chinese grocery, we saw a big Shepard Fairey poster of an idealized fifties couple ecstatically cradling a bomb; it had been hit with a zigzag line of dripping orange paint, which Jake saw as proof of the Super Soaker theory. “There’s no way to throw a bucket of paint like that,” he said. “But with a Super Soaker you could imagine, like, psssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” And he did an expert pantomime of Rambo mowing down a column of enemy soldiers.
We stopped at a building on Spring Street that had been painted up even more thoroughly than the Candy Factory. Back in December, its owners had given street artists permission to go to town on it, inside and out. Now it’s being converted into luxury condos. “This is where the splashing really started in earnest,” Jake told me. “I think this really drew the ire of the Splasher. This is just the most egregious example of street art in New York. The wall has just been so bombed out. It’s like so gross and embarrassing—it makes me really want to just go and, you know.”
“Splash it yourself?” I asked sharply.
As a Splasher suspect, Jake made almost too much sense. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the scene and an excuse to wander the nooks and crannies of the major art neighborhoods daily. Sometimes he even went out with artists when they put up work. He was an intellectual, certainly capable of writing about “fetishization” and “alienation.” And when a splash went up, he always seemed to get the first picture—a fact that had given both of his blogs immeasurable underground clout. He was the Peter Parker of the affair.
He pretended not to hear me.
“Oh, look at all this stuff going on inside now,” he said, turning away to look through the building’s half-open door.
A little while later he left me at Houston Street.
“That would be a major coup if you could track him down,” he said. “Of course, it might also lead to him getting killed.”
It was possible that I heard a slight tremor in his voice.
III. NOTES ON THE FAME GAME:
The propagandist mind, or how to get digitized into a video game.
Whatever its merits, the Splasher’s campaign was crippled by a few blinding ironies. First, no matter how artful the best street art inarguably is, it’s still illegal—so the Splasher was only vandalizing vandalism. Second, insofar as the Splasher was fighting paint with paint, he was destroying street art by creating new street art. He seems to have intended the splash as a gesture of pure, violent action, devoid of any art—zero-degree painting. But as everyone knows from art-history class, this is called “action painting,” or Abstract Expressionism. And it’s pretty artsy. A Jackson Pollock recently sold for $140 million, making it the most expensive painting in the history of the world. Fetishized commodity, indeed.
But the most damning irony of the Splasher is that, in critiquing the bourgeois fad of modern street art, he harnessed the same machinery of self-promotion used by the most mercenary artists—anonymity as a buzz-bomb exploding through the blogs and the mainstream media—and in doing so, he became more famous than most of his targets as well as the ultimate guerrilla-marketing campaign for street art’s spring 2007 season. His critique of branding, in other words, achieved admirable market penetration. His critique of commodification has itself become a commodity.
Even in the eyes of some of its most dedicated fans, street art was ripe for splashing. Whereas graffiti tends to bloom in a city’s poorest neighborhoods and spread outward, street art breeds in pockets of gentrification—Soho, Nolita, the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Dumbo. If, as Jake Dobkin suggested, street art tends to be “art school-y,” this is because many of the artists have been to art school. It’s graffiti with an M.F.A. To some—e.g., the Splasher—this looks like yet another example of racial plagiarism, the classic Elvis move: The privileged classes co-opt an art form developed by the urban black poor, “improve” it by bleaching out the danger and incivility, then import it into white culture, where it suddenly becomes lucrative. It’s rich kids’ getting a contact high from poverty. In the cynic’s view, street art has reduced graffiti—the once-forbidden language of the repressed—to a minor-league system for galleries and museums. Subversive street art is an oxymoron: Modern graffiti is just an infinitely clever guerrilla-marketing campaign for artists’ brands, one that’s even more insidiously effective than a corporate campaign, because it hijacks the cultural credibility of the street (rebellion, authenticity, freedom) without paying any of the economic price (poverty, prison, repression)—and it expertly hides the fact that it does so. So street artists who pimp themselves out to Mountain Dew or Vans or Sony or Hummer are actually more honest than those who make a show of their artistic “purity” while selling out to wealthy collectors and museums. They’re just making explicit the nature of the game.
For many, the whole point of street art is to try to reclaim the city’s public spaces from corporate advertisers—to replace the coercive visual assault of McDonald’s and Starbucks and Verizon with something honest, inspiring, human, and free. But street art and advertising, it turns out, share a large portion of their DNA: Both are about overpowering and out-clevering your opponents in order to get noticed among the clutter. As Tillet Wright told me, both require “the propagandist mind.” They steal endlessly from each other. The street-art scene is full of professional advertisers: Marc Schiller, founder of the influential Website Wooster Collective and probably New York street art’s loudest public voice, is the CEO of a marketing agency that has done work for corporate behemoths such as Microsoft, Warner Brothers, CNN. This parallel makes the whole vexed question of “selling out” and “staying pure” almost impossible to settle. Where do you draw the line between corporate and artistic branding? The artist Vinnie Ray, famous for his messages on BQE overpasses, also makes Prada sweaters. Banksy designed an album cover for Blur. Sony, Nike, IBM, Time magazine, and Hummer have all run high-profile street-art campaigns recently. Earlier this year, the artist Neck Face did a much-debated campaign for the shoe company Vans. Its billboard, just off Houston Street, got splashed in March.
One of the Splasher’s favorite targets has been Shepard Fairey, a giant in the scene who shot to fame fifteen years ago on the strength of a conceptual-art experiment in branding: He carpet-bombed the world’s major cities with stylized images of Andre the Giant accompanied by the word obey. It was intended as an object lesson in the absurdity of consumer culture, and—depending on how you look at it—it totally worked. The anti-advertising campaign has morphed into an actual advertising campaign for Fairey’s now-lucrative design empire, which extends into clothing, skateboards, movie posters, Scotch ads, and cell-phone wallpaper. He was recently digitized by Atari as a hero in a street-art video game.
The Splasher isn’t the first to accuse Fairey of playing a little too close to the consumerist fire. I asked him, by phone, if he felt threatened by the critique.
“People put things in really black-and-white terms,” he said. “They go, ‘Oh, if there’s a commercial aspect to what you’re doing, somehow the integrity of your art’s been compromised,’ or you’ve sold your soul, or whatever. And it’s just totally retarded. What I think is stupid is not accepting reality and not adapting. I recognize that the forces of capitalism and supply and demand are at work, and there is no stopping that. You can whine all you want and do all the street art you want and try to blow up the World Trade Center or the Federal Reserve Bank or whatever—you’re not gonna stop it. It’s just a fact of life. I’ve accepted capitalism. And I’m doing things on my own terms within every arena within it.”
Fairey said he’d be putting up more work in New York this summer. “This person’s not stopping me,” he said. “It took him over two months to get all the stuff that I basically did over the course of three nights back in December. I’m just gonna go higher. Even if I did stuff at street level and it took him two months to get all of it again, I get two months of exposure in New York City. That’s massive.”
IV. THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE SPLASHER’S SPLASHER:
Plus two men named Patrick who think the Splasher sucks.
It was only a matter of time, of course, before someone splashed the Splasher. Even a vandalism vandal needs a vandal. This finally happened in the first week of March, in Williamsburg, where someone splashed blue paint onto a few of the manifestos—then superimposed, at the bottom, an advertisement for the hipster clothing chain American Apparel. This touched off a new wave of controversy and speculation. Bloggers hypothesized that the Splasher reign of terror had been a guerrilla-marketing campaign for American Apparel from the start. Things reached such a fever pitch that the company was forced to officially deny its involvement to the Washington Post.
Through secret back channels, I managed to arrange an anonymous call with the Splasher Splasher.
The phone rang at the appointed time. I answered.
It was the Splasher Splasher’s liaison.
“The Splasher Splasher has decided they’d prefer to communicate by e-mail,” she said. “They’re worried about legal action, since this involves a large company.”
I e-mailed the Splasher Splasher. Weeks passed. Just when I began to suspect that someone had gotten to her, I received a very long anonymous message in which the Splasher Splasher railed against both the original Splasher (“misguided, totalitarian garbage”) and American Apparel (“I hope to see them exposed for the shitheads they are”). The intended message of the poster, the e-mail said, was that a true anti-capitalist would be out splashing horrible corporate advertisements, not street art. But the Splasher Splasher exulted in the public misunderstanding: “Suddenly everyone thought that this splasher jerk was actually hired by a company as shitty as him. His worst nightmare!”
My next stop was Williamsburg, the site of one of the Splasher’s first and most notorious desecrations. The street artist Banksy—the famously anonymous British “art terrorist” who’s been bombing the world’s major cities with anti- Establishment stunts for almost twenty years—had graced the Williamsburg waterfront last summer with a big, colorful mural: a little girl jumping rope with a line of green paint, which ran out of her hand, down the sidewalk, and up to an electrical box, which a little painted boy was about to switch on. Banksy’s auction prices have been so high lately that, from a real-estate agent’s perspective, the painting might have been worth $1 million. In Bristol, the working-class city in which he grew up vandalizing train cars, one lucky couple whose house he had hit decided to sell the property through an art dealer rather than a broker—it went on the market as a $400,000 painting with a house incidentally attached. Banksy’s Williamsburg mural might have shifted the waterfront’s already racing gentrification into overdrive.
But in December, the Splasher hit it with yellow paint.
This splash earned the Splasher his most determined adversaries: the world-famous art collective Faile, which has a studio in the neighborhood. Faile has two members, both of whom are named Patrick. (They also have an assistant named Patrick, whom they call Rockwell.) They’ve been friends since high school and tend to talk over one another like a married couple. When I visited them at their studio, five months after the splash, they were still pissed.
“That piece was a gift,” one of them said. “People loved it. We’d sit out there, and people would stop and take photos of that shit all day long. They loved it. There’s 8 trillion other fucking things you could throw paint at in the city. How many people walk down the street and take pictures of AT&T ads?”
When the Banksy was splashed, the Patricks told me, they immediately covered the entire wall with gray paint—the splash, the Banksy, and the manifesto—and put their own stencil over it. (Few people had really seen a splash before; they weren’t sure what it meant and more than anything just wanted to get rid of it.) The Splasher came back and hit that too. They stenciled over it. He hit them again. They wheatpasted a poster over it. He hit that too. They responded with some themed art, just for the Splasher: a pair of boxers in mid-blow, surrounded by a cluster of red ribbons reading WITH LOVE AND KISSES: NOTHING LASTS FOREVER and a portrait of the Hindu god Ganesh. (“Ganesh is the bearer of all good things,” one of them told me. “The one that breaks down all obstacles.”)
On one level, they told me, they appreciated the Splasher. They liked that he was challenging the preciousness of street art, that he was ruining explicitly commercial work (he’d recently hit a Shepard Fairey ad for Dewar’s in the neighborhood), and that he’d given them a supervillain to battle.
“It’s kind of lit the fire again,” they said.
And they seemed to be onboard, to some extent, with his anti-commercial message. They told me, for instance, that they stopped doing corporate design work the moment they could make a living strictly from art.
“I don’t want to see our stuff on T-shirts, I don’t want to see it on skateboards, I don’t want to see it selling any products,” said one Patrick.
“We’ve gotten used enough by companies,” said the other Patrick.
“Faile is just art, that’s it. That’s all we sell is art.”
But they weren’t totally onboard.
“The manifesto ruined it,” said Patrick. “I think if he just went out and splashed, and was ‘the Splasher’—that shit would’ve been great.”
“The manifesto seems like something you’d write in high school,” the other added.
“Our first impression of it was like, ‘This is such bullshit.’ These artists didn’t start with success, they spent years building it. Are people supposed to stay poor and be like homeless bums that do street art and be like this idealistic punk kind of outside the thing? Sooner or later, people grow up and you’ve got rent and bills to pay and you graduate college or whatever and you got things you need to take care of.”
“For us, it’s kind of silly to be so idealistic,” said the Patrick who is not the other Patrick.
“I kind of compare it to the Taliban in the beginning,” said the one who is the other Patrick. “When they went and blew up the Buddhas, you know what I mean? It was just kind of like some idealistic, Fascist, crazy shit.”
V. PORTRAIT OF THE VANDAL AS A YOUNG ANARCHIST:
The unrequited- love theory.
By April, evidence of the Splasher had been reabsorbed into the walls’ ecology, the same way an old shopping cart tossed off a pier gets appropriated by crabs and seaweed. People had posted over his posters, painted over his paint. It was impossible to say if he would strike again, now that spring was about to hit and the walls were starting to fill with fresh targets, or if he’d just been a colorful nightmare in the city’s otherwise drab winter dreams.
After a month of searching, I was still no closer to finding him. My paranoia was taking on a life of its own. I accused the artist Celso, who said that if he was the Splasher, he’d never tell me. I accused Banksy, via e-mail, of splashing his own work as a clever form of self-promotion; he didn’t dignify that with a response. I accused Swoon, who was one of the most intriguing figures on the scene and, remember, one of the Splasher’s first targets. “I’m just a lot more simpleminded than that,” she said. “I’m not that fancy.” I accused a father of twins at an Easter-egg hunt 60 miles north of the city. And then the artist Elbow-Toe brought the conspiracy theories to a whole new level: Before I even had a chance, he accused himself. He told me he’d gone out late one night to put up new work in Williamsburg, only to discover the next morning, online, that an older piece in the same neighborhood had been splashed purple. He figures he must have missed the Splasher by an hour or two, maybe less.
“And I started to wonder,” he told me. “Did I just do that to myself? Is there like a dark side that I’m unaware of?”
I was beginning to run out of suspects.
And then, finally, I met Gore.B. People had been telling me for weeks, in tones you might use to talk about a griffin or a chimera, that I had to meet him—a former math prodigy who’d been corrupted in his teen years by something called “hobo freight art,” then spiraled into a life of nomadic polymath street-art savanthood and touched down, for a few years, in New York. He was maybe the most talented painter on the scene but had no interest in a gallery career. You could find his name all over the city—on the small wood board portraits he’d bolted to street signs, or the couple of thousand stickers he’d been slapping for months onto every flat surface he passed. (“It’s an OCD thing,” he joked.) When I finally got him on the phone, he mentioned, very casually, that he thought he’d figured out the identity of the Splasher.
I met Gore.B for lunch (he called it breakfast) at a vegetarian restaurant on the Lower East Side. He was tall and thin, with an unconvincing wisp of beard, a rattail, a large tattoo winding up his left forearm, and giant headphones straddling his neck. He had a baby-faced roughness that made him look simultaneously 16 and 53. (He’s 29.) He was a powerful talker: He’d hold a bite on his fork for ten minutes while he unleashed an unpunctuated river of stories and opinions and schemes for saving the world—an inspired patter that covered everything from the life of his great-grandfather (a mildly famous Impressionist who won a prestigious award by tying a paintbrush to the tail of a donkey) to the utopian promises of eco-capitalism to the social inutility of art to how he’d recently broken his elbow for the second time in a month when he was riding drunk down the wrong side of the street with his headphones on and a little Orthodox Jewish boy darted out to catch a school bus and accidentally tackled him and he had to lie there on his back on the pavement suffering the terrible anguish of a re-broken elbow while a busload of schoolchildren mocked him in Hebrew.
Then, all of a sudden, Gore.B went silent. He ruminated gravely over his tofu scramble. When he started to speak again it was slowly, carefully, with long, thoughtful pauses between every phrase, like someone giving a deposition about back taxes. The Splasher, he told me, is a white middle-class male in his mid-twenties, a former street artist with a deep knowledge of New York’s major art neighborhoods and a proficiency in wheatpasting—an anarchist and radical environmentalist who’d been swimming for a few years in the scene’s hard-core activist circles. But this, he acknowledged, was obvious from the manifestos themselves. What was really interesting was more personal. And suddenly the story of the Splasher turned from an ideological skirmish between anarcho-Marxists into a pure and glossy stream of good old-fashioned American gossip, as universal as the saga of Britney and K-Fed. To get to the end of the Splasher story, he told me, I needed to look to the beginning. I needed to go back and talk to Swoon again.
If you had to choose, from the entire universe of street art, the least likely target of a malicious vandalism campaign, you’d pretty much have to go with Swoon. Her work is unusually quiet, thoughtful, serious, and beautiful: realistic life-size portraits of kids with skateboards and men pushing shopping carts and women sitting and sewing. She spends weeks carving templates in wood or linoleum. She’s a devoted activist, donating her art to raise money for such causes as freeing imprisoned radicals and increasing public awareness of the Mexican government’s repression of the people of Oaxaca. She’s one of the few successful women in the current scene. Over the past few years she’s been profiled in the Times, had a solo show at the influential Deitch Project gallery, and sold her work to the Brooklyn Museum and MoMA. Yet she never clamors for attention; her success seems to have grown organically over the eight years she’s worked on the street. (Like nearly every other street artist, she refuses to be photographed.)
Last summer, when the splashes were still just a glimmer in the mystery vandal’s eye, someone started systematically targeting Swoon’s portraits all over the city, crossing out their eyes with thick lines of paint and stenciling sold to moma next to them. She wasn’t angry when she first saw this, she wrote to me in an e-mail; she’d been “extremely ambivalent” about selling her work in the first place, so she understood the urge. But then it became widespread: “I started to get the feeling that the time and attention required to systematically seek out my work all over the city and ‘vandalize’ it with this prepared stencil constituted some tertiary form of stalking,” she wrote. “It creeped me out.”
In November, the splashing started, and Swoon’s works were some of the first to be hit. Around this time, she got a major clue about who might have been targeting her. During the Q&A session of a panel discussion she participated in at the Brooklyn Museum, a hooded protester threw a burst of flyers from the balcony down onto the crowd—flyers that read, according to Swoon, like longer versions of the Splasher’s manifestos: “A couple of nice Situationist poetic moments lost in craziness.” When the protester turned to escape, there was a moment of comic anticlimax: He found that the door he’d come in through had been locked. He panicked, looked around for a few seconds, then scrambled in circles until he found an open door. In the meantime everyone, including Swoon, looked up at him. On a recording of the event, you can hear her say, in the midst of the hubbub, “That guy looks like somebody I might know, actually.”
She recognized him as a fellow activist named Zac, a fervent young anti-capitalist who’d fallen in with the political wing of New York’s street-art community a few years before. When they met, Swoon must have struck Zac as a perfect embodiment of the successful revolutionary artist giving the finger to the corporate institutions who wanted to shrink-wrap her rebellion. Just over a year before the flyer drop, he’d interviewed her for an underground magazine, rhapsodizing about the day they met, when he’d watched her in the subway “ripping out corporate advertisements and replacing them with her own furious art,” and asking her questions like, “How do you navigate safely between the graffiti writers who hate you for your style and the corporate scum that want to capitalize off your look?” Zac, in other words, was smitten. A friend of Swoon’s told me he developed a “huge crush” on her, which Swoon didn’t reciprocate. When Swoon sold her work to MoMA, Zac must have seen it as the ultimate betrayal.
That afternoon at the panel discussion, all the recent targeted malice started to make sense to Swoon. This, it seemed, was a personal gripe dressed up as radical politics—a crush that had fermented into a grudge. She confronted Zac and asked him to stop vandalizing her work. He denied doing it, but was eager to discuss the campaign “theoretically.” They argued. Some people speculate that the confrontation—the young vandal’s final break from the object of his affections—catalyzed everything that followed, turning him from simply a Swoon protester into the supervillain of the entire scene.
Not long after the botched flyer drop, the Splasher expanded his campaign from Swoon and a few others to much of the street-art world. In December, as the splashes were beginning to pick up, a figure calling himself “Glas” published a rant on the Website Indymedia about the corporate corruption of street art. It ran alongside two pictures of Swoon’s work hit with sold to moma stencils, and its language was highly reminiscent of the Splasher’s manifestos: angry and quasi-Marxist, sprinkled with clumsy aphorisms (“You will be paid with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap”). Activists and street artists responded to the piece angrily, and an exasperated combatant accused Zac of being both “Glas” and the Splasher—at which point a handful of writers, among them “the devil” and “glass slinger,” responded hysterically that Zac was not the Splasher, this issue was bigger than any single person, “there are more of us than you think,” and “this is only the beginning.”
I contacted Zac to see if I could get to the bottom of things, but he refused an interview. “This conversation,” he responded, “is commerce.” He did, however, propose a bizarre, Splasherly meeting: If, he wrote, I’d like to come out one night and, in his words, try my hand at “devesting an image of some of its symbolic capital,” he’d be happy to videotape me in action, then answer any questions I had about how it felt for him to watch. This struck me as a strange little game of cat and mouse. I tried to guess at its purpose: Was it some kind of test I had to pass before he’d talk to me about splashing? Was it a ploy to allow him to discuss the art of vandalizing vandalism in purely hypothetical terms? Was he planning to post the video on YouTube and frame me as the Splasher? Unfortunately, I’ll never know. When I called him in the middle of the designated night, he told me he hadn’t slept in a day and a half, and that we’d have to reschedule. Despite several attempts to contact him, I never heard from him again.
The theory of Zac is still only a theory, of course. There’s no smoking gun, or dripping paint can. It’s impossible to say if this young radical is in fact the mastermind of the Splasher campaign or if he’s only a bit player, the victim of idle subcultural gossip. He’s consistently denied his involvement to people in the scene, and even Swoon says she’s not sure it’s him. But it would be a fitting ending to the story, one more layer of irony to slather on top of the pile: a Marxist street-art revolution that turns out to be a story of unrequited love, the most bourgeois and commodified narrative in the history of storytelling. Someday soon, you’ll watch the movie version on Valentine’s Day with your sweetheart, starring Natalie Portman as a famous street artist and Jake Gyllenhaal as the kooky young radical who loves her, and there’ll be long slow-motion tracking shots of the Candy Factory wall and stunning helicopter panoramas of Williamsburg and a soundtrack featuring all the hippest Brooklyn indie bands and a marketing campaign featuring your very own Super Soaker full of paint.
Untitled Series, The Splasher, 2006–2007
Lower East Side
*All dates approximate; Banksy photo taken pre-splash.
SEE ALSO: Untitled Series, The Splasher, 2006–2007