Tuesday, December 6, 2016

banksy chase

as submitted to the NY Times Lifestyle section
The Queens Banksy Chase

On the morning of Oct 15th, 2013 my wife Genevieve sent me a text, letting me know that Banksy was in the midst of doing a residency in New York city and that I should check it out. I googled and found out that Banksy was half way through a 31 day long self-imposed residency in NYC for the month of October. Every day of October Banksy was putting up a new piece somewhere in one of the five Boroughs. It was a project epic in scope, even for Banksy.

The day before Genevieve tipped me off, Banksy had made international news for the 14th piece of the residency, a prank he pulled off in Central Park. He set up a stand, among all the other stands, selling his prints for cheap, which were subsequently ignored by droves of tourists. Nobody knew they were originals, worth tens of thousands of dollars each. It was wryly funny and critical of the capitalistic culture of value, two qualities I'd come to expect from Banksy.

I was curious about where the 15th piece was going to be that day, so I began to google deeper. I found out that one had been done just that morning at 68th Street and 38th Avenue in Jackson Heights. It was within walking distance! I sprang into action immediately. I did the hundred and one things needed to get the girls ready to go out the door, got them both in the double stroller and rolled.

The girls are Lucia and Sofia, then ages 3 and 4. Little did they care about going to see a fresh Banksy, but they were always happy to go for a ride. I pushed the stroller up 39th Avenue to Roosevelt, then up Roosevelt to 68th. Roosevelt is directly under the 7 Train for approximately 75 blocks, which creates a very long tunnel effect. My neighbor Stephen Nickson calls Roosevelt Avenue a tunnel of diversity, as hundreds of businesses of all different cultural backgrounds line the blocks under the tracks.  This was the avenue we walked down for 18 blocks that morning in order to witness a a brand new Banksy piece.

We were still new to these environs. We had just moved from Boulder Colorado to Queens NY. After ten years in Boulder, NYC is quite a change, almost like living in another country. The skies are bigger in Colorado, and so are the vistas. The smells, sights and sounds are radically different. The people are much less ethnically diverse in Colorado, and they also operate on a much lower vibrational level, baritone, even bass. In New York most people are working tenor or soprano levels. New Yorkers walk about twice as fast as people from Colorado. It's exhilarating, but exhausting. But you build up the stamina, just like in Colorado you build your lungs to acclimate to the altitude.

The downside is no joke though. A NYC dentist told us that teeth grinding is common problem here. Stress is a killer. You have to learn to manage it. Time goes by quicker here, so you have to find ways to slow it down. Otherwise you will age much faster.

On the other hand, contrary to expectations, we found the people in New York to be more neighborly than those in Colorado. We knew more neighbors in the first two weeks of moving into our apartment in Queens than we did after ten years of living in Boulder. The density of people here creates countless small communities, entirely based upon proximity and need.

I quickly began to appreciate what Queens and NYC had to offer. Just prior to the Banksy residency I had been reading Jonathem Lethem's fresh-off-the-press novel, "Dissident Gardens," about Sunnyside Queens in the 1940s through to the 1970s, from back when it was a communist cell through to the folk, beatnik and hippy years. I was also taking walks and bike rides everyday, exploring even the graveyards. You could say I was steeping myself in Queens.

Three days prior to Genevieve's Banksy tip, on October 12th, I had gone with several of the gardeners I had met from the Sunny Gardens Community Garden, located behind our communal Sunnyside Gardens Park, to see Lethem read from "Dissident Gardens" at the Sunnyside Community Center. (That's a lot of community in once sentence.) After the reading I told the gardeners that they were the real Dissident Gardens, which got a good laugh. But it was true. Lethem was using Sunnyside Gardens in his novel as a kind of metaphor of defeat; the open backyards of the ideal planned community were now fenced in, the dream was long gone. But that's fiction for you. The truth is more complicated; far from gone, the socialist dream is still alive and growing in Sunnyside Gardens and the amazing park to which it was attached.

So now here we were, walking up Roosevelt with a stroller, as if dropped in a Lethem novel set in real time, about to see this fresh masterpiece from Banksy, in the middle of his already legendary month long residency in NYC. There was a palpable sense of history to the whole thing.

I pushed the stroller off of Roosevelt and up 68th. There was a little bodega on the corner of 38th Avenue and 68th and we could see some people crowded around the back, staring at the rear wall. Bingo! There it was, still fresh, still unmarred. It immediately shone with that mysterious aura of great art.

An hour later this art would be tagged by local hooligans. This was a recurring problem for fans of Banksy, because in the local tagger's eyes Banksy was stepping on territory. The local taggers were defending their so-called turf, which seemed petty to me, in light of Banksy's gift, but, on the other hand, it added an exciting element to the sport of the hunt, because it made it that much sweeter to get try to see the piece and get a good shot of it before it could be trashed.

We just made it in time, this time, but it was a close one. An hour later and this piece would be tagged by Topic, then Team Robbo and finally Problem Child. Problem Child! The local punk taggers add something indelible to a Banksy piece in the process of destroying it.
Over the next 2 weeks of the residency we would witness more fresh pieces just in the nick of time before they were destroyed, and three of those times we arrived even as they were being destroyed. It was a race between my stroller/subway skills with my toddlers in tow and the punk taggers. And victories were sweet.

The text of that first piece we saw on October 15 in Queens reads, “What we do in life echoes in Eternity." Next to the words there was the life size stencil of a man who is scrubbing the graffiti off the wall, erasing the word "Eternity."

The quote is from Russel Crowe's Maximus in the movie Gladiator, and it is a variation from the original by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher, which is commonly translated as, “What we do now echoes in eternity.” For Banksy, to take a pop culture quote from a cheesy Hollywood movie (one that happens to be both terrible and great) which is in turn a quote, an echo, from hardcore western world Roman history, is a mark of his style. In that way he is in the tradition of the pop artist, marrying the highbrow to the low, and consequently, the elite to the common, the rich to the poor.

At first the piece struck me as a simultaneous celebration of both the work of the artist, which somehow pushes out into eternity, and a critique of the critics who deface art. But as with most Banksy pieces the meaning of the work was even more layered and resonant than it first appeared.

This was a temporary piece of street art that was paradoxically about longevity, and that's why I loved the picture I was able to take of the girls standing in front of it, caught in that fleeting eternal moment. Somehow the girls looked as if they belonged in that scene too. The colors of their clothes even matched. I had extemporaneously captured a moment of their youth that spoke to eternity. It struck me that just by being alive the girls were erasing the foreverness of eternity, that our lives themselves, by being finite, were, paradoxically, small erasures of timelessness.

But it also occurred to me just then that, not unlike figurative art, the girls are a literal embodiment of something that I have done in life that will echo toward eternity, i.e. having children. I liked being able to frame this thought in such a perfect way. Later we framed the shot of the girls and gave it to my father as a gift. My girls are, after all, also an eternal echo of something he did in his life, echoes of an echo.

But there was another surprise twist to this artwork that unveiled itself only recently. A few weeks ago some Australian friends were staying with us. They saw the picture of the girls in front of the tag and recognized the font in which Banksy had chosen to write "Eternity."

They told us the story behind it. It turns out that Arthur Malcolm Stace, otherwise known as Mr. Eternity, was an Australian eccentric and soldier, a reformed alcoholic and thief who converted to Christianity and spread his message by writing the word "Eternity" in copperplate font with chalk on footpaths in and around Sydney for about 35 years, from 1932 to 1967. (The first tagger?) Later on Wikipedia I found out that in an interview Stace said, "Eternity went ringing through my brain and suddenly I began crying and felt a powerful call from the Lord to write Eternity." Stace was illiterate and could hardly write his own name legibly, but, he said, "the word 'Eternity' came out smoothly, in a beautiful copperplate script. I couldn't understand it, and I still can't."

He was breaking Sydney's laws, of course, and he narrowly avoided arrest about twenty-four times. Each time he was caught, he responded with, "But I had permission from a higher source."

It is estimated that Stace wrote the word around 500,000 times. Only one survives, found years later, poetically, in a bell tower above Sydney's Post Office. One out of half a million! But now there was another one, in Queens, as if from beyond the grave, an exact copy of the divinely inspired original script. Banksy is literally echoing Eternity.

Echoes are everywhere. Banksy's work echoes Stace's, i.e. "Permission from a higher source." The story of Mr. Eternity provides a rich allegory to this piece, but is so subtly presented as to be nearly hidden. It's for Banksy himself, first, an homage to his forebearer, Mr. Eternity, but it's for the rest of us too, an Easter Egg to be discovered later.

This quality of Banksy's work can also be seen in the way his overnight graffiti art stick-ups around the five boroughs that month became like hidden treasures to be stumbled upon and discovered by the the residents of the city. Whole neighborhoods were caught up in the fun. And on that morning a Jackson Heights bodega owner found himself in possession of a piece of art that was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if he could only find a way to remove it from the building and sell it.

I turned the stroller around and pushed the girls back home. I remember that the fall breeze was brisk, but the sun was bright and lit up a thousand interesting faces on Roosevelt Ave. (Queens' faces are some of the most interesting faces on earth. Da Vinci would have a field day here.) It was an auspicious first day of the Chase. And the moment is still echoing now, will be for a long time, maybe even on into my children's children. Every day, for the rest of October, there awaited a new adventure from Banksy, which would take us on an incredible treasure hunt throughout the other 4 boroughs of NYC.

The last piece of the month, on October 31st, was also in Queens, and also within walking distance. We got there just in time to spy it across highway 495. It was Banksy's signature on the side of a building. At first it looked just like it was done in an old school Queens-style bubble letter tag, super simple and understated. But as you looked a little closer you could see that the letters were 3-D. They were balloons made in the shape of a bubble font, as if the bubble font had bubbled out, popped out into the shape it originally mimicked. It was a reverse tromp-leoil. This was Banksy both paying homage to the locals and one-upping them at the same time. It was also a clever way to sign the entire month long "residency," his love letter to the city.

I took a shot of the girls sitting on the overpass guard rail, the bubble-letter Banksy signature hovering between them in the distance, and then we looked for a way to cross the highway to get a closer look. By the time we made it across the highway and found the building the piece was already gone! In that short 5 minutes some kids had put up a ladder and pulled it down. Meanwhile the NYPD had arrived on the scene and caught up to the kids before they could take off with the partially deflated letters. There were several bystanders watching the show, mostly fellow Banksy chasers, some of which I had come to know in the last few weeks. The cops let the kids go, but they put the bubble-letter Banksy in the back of a police van. Presumably they still have it now. It's worth a fortune.

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