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!”