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The Vandalism Vandal

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.”