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The Vandalism Vandal

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.