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.”