Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Birth of SAMO

SAMO© Graffiti: BOOSH-WAH or CIA?
December 11, 1978

Big city graffiti peaked in the early ’70s, somewhere between the NYC Transit Au­thority’s decision to sic killer dogs on the vandals and visigoths, and the media hoopla that greeted the first graffiti artists show in SoHo.

We had pretty much stopped looking at the walls until this fall, when we noticed something new. The best graffiti suddenly had more to say than just a nickname and number. To be sure, the Communist Cadre had been stenciling slogans like YIPPIES JE­SUS FREAKS AND MOONIES ARE GOVERNMENT for years. But who was writing ONE WOMAN IS RAPED EVERY IO MINUTES — CASTRATE RA­PISTS? Or drawing chalk outlines of fallen bodies with bright red bloodstains? And who the hell was this guy Samo©?

For those of you who haven’t waded through lower Manhattan lately, Samo© is the logo of the most ambitious — and senten­tious — of the new wave of Magic Marker Jeremiahs. Accompanied by the inevitable copyright and usually punctuated with an ex­hortation to THINK!, there are hundreds of pithy SAMO© aphorisms splashed on choice spots in Soho, Noho, and the Village, East and West. A random sampling will give you the idea:


I met the perpetrators of SAMO© outside an East Village bar the other night and they agreed — provided no last names were used — ­to give me a tour of their handiwork and tell me something of its genesis.

[related_posts post_id_1=”418800″ /]

Aided and abetted by a tight circle of friends, the bulk of Samo©’s sayings are the work of two sharp, personable teenagers named Jean (17) and Al (19) who share re­markably similar handwriting and an un­spoken agreement about where SAMO© is coming from.

Growing up in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, respectively, both knocked about quite a bit. Jean dropped out — or was kicked out — of five or six schools. Al eventually found his way to Art and Design, where he was comfortable for a couple of years. Even­tually he dropped out too — it seems he spent most of his time decorating subway cars.

“Oh man, graffiti? Forget it. I was right in there with Snake 1, Phase Too, and all those cats. ’Cause that was my life at that point. Bomb 1, that was me. I must have gone through a hundred different markers before I was 16. Then after that I hung it up.

“But when SAMO© came along it was like whoa! a rush, you know? A reason to start writing again. The stuff you see on the sub­ways now is inane. Scribbled. SAMO© was like a refresher course because there’s some kind of statement being made. It’s not just ego graffiti.”

SAMO© was hatched this spring in the alter­native high school in Brooklyn Heights where Jean and Al ended up. “We were smoking some grass one night and I said something about it’s being the same old shit,” Jean recalls. “SAMO©, right? ‘Imagine this, selling packs of SAMO©!’ It started like that — as a private joke — and then it grew.”

Next, they drew a series of cartoons for their school paper showing people’s faces be­fore and after using SAMO©: “I used to be a lamo before I started SAMO©. Now I get some poontang everyday.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”587111″ /]

The etymology of SAMO© took a meta­physical leap in its next manifestation, a short story by Jean featuring a man searching for religion and a store called Religomat, where a salesman with a TV smile explains the pros and cons of the popular brands: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. Then the salesman pulls out SAMO©, a guilt-free re­ligion. It works like this: You do whatever you want here on earth, then when confront­ed with your deeds at the Pearly Gates you simply tell God: “I didn’t know.”

This May, Jean and Al took SAMO© to the streets. The first, at the corner of Church and Franklin: SAMO© IS NOW! A little way up the block: SAMO© IS COMING! On a church on West Broadway: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD. And in the men’s room of their high school: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO AL­TERNATIVE EDUCATION.

Does SAMO© in fact provide an alternative? “No way,” Jean and Al agree. “SAMO© is just a means of bringing it out,” Jean continues. “A tool for mocking bogusness.”

“Right, exactly,” Al agrees. “It makes people think ‘hey, maybe there’s another way.’ But it’s not like we can defend it. We’re really in a vulnerable spot to even talk about it with people from media.”

Talking to people from media was the last thing on their minds this summer as they fu­riously scrawled their message to the city. Jean estimates that he executed some 30 SA­MO©s on a good day, concentrating at first on the subways. “The D train, man, I covered it, ads and everything. And in broad day­light. Half of it, you know, is the arrogance involved.”

“We slowed down a little in June and July,” recalls Al. “But once you run it for that long it starts just coming up.” They became more and more selective, picking their targets. SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GREEK CHEESBURGER EMPORIUMS on a Greek cheesburger emporium. SAMO© AS AN END TO VINYL PUNKERY outside the Trash and Vaudeville boutique. SAMO© AS AN ALTER­NATIVE TO BOOSH-WAH YOUTH IMPERSONAT­ING ’60s PROTOTYPES on Stuyvesant High. Al grins: “Those guys hate us down there.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”210332″ /]

Soon, feedback started appearing on the walls. Some of it was friendly — SAMO© CALL HOME AT ONCE! MOTHER NEEDS YOU — and some of it less so: SAMO© AS SHEER TEDIUM on St. Marks Place; SAMO© IS CIA on the Washington Square arch; and, on the Grand Union at Bleecker and La Guardia, a major political graffiti — DEATH TO SOMOZA — edited to read DEATH TO SAMO©.

“They’re doing exactly what we thought they’d do,” says Jean, his voice rising. “We tried to make it sound profound and they think it actually is! That’s like a heavy com­pliment, man.”

Al picks up the thread: “People are so bored that when something seems mysterious and it keeps coming up it’s like ‘Oh wow! What’s going on? We better know about this!’ So they conclude this thing that we’re CIA.… I can’t begin to explain where they got that.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716694″ /]

Their epithet, BOOSH-WAH, seems to pro­voke the most hostile reactions. The word was Jean’s contribution: “This city is crawl­ing with uptight, middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have. Sta­tus symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritu­ally, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming at people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.”

Is no surface sacred? They do stay clear of most private property, but government prop­erty and corporations are fair game, especial­ly subways, elevators, and public toilets. What about the millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent each year cleaning up? Jean has a ready reply: “That’s a drop in the bucket compared to how people are getting shafted in big ways.”

Jean is more troubled by his questions. Is it a cop-out to give SAMO©’s story to the pa­pers? Is it anti-cool to take credit for street art? And what of their ambition to some day work in art-related jobs, isn’t that BOOSH­-WAH?

And it should be reported that in the proc­ess of helping me with this story Jean and Al came under some rather pointed criticism from their friends, who worried that a taste of fame would go to their heads.

The strain of these last few weeks is reflect­ed, appropriately enough, in their art. One of their latest, and increasingly rare, creations reads: LIFE IS CONFUSING AT THIS POINT…SAMO©.

[related_posts post_id_1=”356651″ /]


The Banksy Diaries: Relive All 31 Days of His New York Takeover

Over the course of 31 days in the autumn of 2013, the enigmatic British street artist Banksy made New York City his canvas, and the Village Voice was there to document his urban takeover each and every day. “New York calls to graffiti writers like a dirty old lighthouse. We all want to prove ourselves here,” Banksy told the Voice’s Keegan Hamilton, in an exclusive interview. “I chose it for the high foot traffic and the amount of hiding places. Maybe I should be somewhere more relevant, like Beijing or Moscow, but the pizza isn’t as good.”

Here, we relive those heady days when New Yorkers didn’t know what masterpiece might await them on their morning walk to work.

[related_posts post_id_1=”652925″ /]

About two weeks ago, the elusive graffiti artist Banksy got the Internet whirring when he tore down his multipage website and left just a single black-and-white image of a previously unseen stenciled work and an apparent announcement of an upcoming, um, show titled “Better Out Than In.”

Predictably, speculation spouted forth: Where will Banksy — who has never been positively identified and has given few interviews, hardly ever in person, over the course of his street-art-world career — turn up? Almost as quickly, the consensus homed in on Los Angeles, though the location of the piece remained shrouded in mystery, and no one could offer any tangible evidence that it was painted in L.A.

This afternoon, though, Twitter sent forth words and images of a new Banksy sighting in Chinatown.

That’d be Chinatown, New York City.

And moments ago, the early birds’ tweets were confirmed…

…by Banksy himself, on his site.

In lieu of the static placeholder image of the past two weeks, there’s now an interactive message that begins:


an Artists residency

on the streets of New York

followed by photos of the new Chinatown piece and an announcement that “for the next month Banksy will be attempting to host an entire show on the streets of New York.”

View this post on Instagram

: The street is in play Manhattan 2013 #banksyny

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Evidently, each new work will be accompanied by a stenciled toll-free number that people can call.

“To enhance your enjoyment of the exhibits an audio guide is provided via cell phone. Simply call the number next to the painting and select the appropriate option on the keypad.”

The first number: 1-800-656-4271 #1.

Not satisfied to take the Internet’s word for anything, Runnin’ Scared immediately sallied forth from our 100 percent graffiti-free Maiden Lane headquarters in search of Banksy’s in situ debut.

More as we we learn it.

UPDATE: We found it! It’s at 18 Allen Street, near Canal, on the Lower East Side.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”356048″ /]

DAY 2: Here’s the Location of Banksy’s Second New York Artwork Discovered in the Last Two Days

View this post on Instagram

: Westside

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

This morning, Banksy’s second piece in his month-long show went live on his site, just a few hours after his first piece, The Street Is in Play, was tagged, defaced, rebuilt, then finally buffed. The second piece has no title and is located in the impossibly vague “Westside.” Luckily, Runnin’ Scared has tracked it down. Hint: It’s on the West Side.

The Banksy hotline (800-656-4271) was no help at all. No extension has been posted for this new piece yet. We went out on a limb and guessed #2, but were thwarted by the deliciously weird voice on the phone, who told us to listen to some waiting music apropos of nothing.

Gothamist reports that they’ve located the second piece, this time in Chelsea: The second Banksy is on West 25th Street between 10th and 11th avenues.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”356193″ /]

DAY 3: Banksy’s Third Artwork in Three Days Appears, This Time in Midtown

Better settle in for this one, folks. At this rate, we might have daily Banksy updates during the month. At around 9 this morning, Banksy posted his third stencil to his Instagram and website in as many days. Keeping the good humor coming, this latest piece shows the silhouette of a dog taking a leak on a fire hydrant with the thought bubble: “You complete me…” We’re assuming the title of the piece is All I Ever Wanted Was A Shoulder To Crayon, which made us laugh harder than we probably should have. No specifics on the exact location yet. All we know is that it’s somewhere in Midtown, and we’re going to do our best to find it.

UPDATE: We found it. At the very least, the information hotline is live (1-800-656-4271, #2). For someone who has totally convulsed New York City with what’s probably the biggest scavenger hunt in history, Banksy has somehow managed to stay self-deprecating about his work.

The narrator on the hotline opens his description of the latest piece with: “Are you’re looking at one of the great artworks of the 21st century? If so, you’re in the wrong place. You should be looking at a stencil of a dog peeing on a hydrant.”

The rest of the narration satirizes the nonsensical jargon that often accompanies pieces of art in galleries; the point here is not some grand statement about the “juxtaposition of form and substance,” as the sly voice says, but about getting thousands of people to run around Manhattan searching for the image of a dog peeing on a hydrant that’s in love with it. And isn’t that more fun?

Runnin’ Scared will post the location as soon as we find it. Let’s hope no one destroys or buffs it before we get there.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 4: Banksy Posts Three New Artworks in One Day

View this post on Instagram

: Bushwick

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Wowza! New York woke up this morning to not one but three new Banksy works in one day, scattered across the Lower East Side, Bushwick, and Williamsburg. The new set is called Random Graffiti Given A Broadway Makeover (An ongoing series), and they’re the best ones yet.

With his other works, Banksy’s humor was more winking that out-and-out funny. With these new ones, basically high-brow mad libs, he is obviously going for the big laughs. And considering that neither Occupy! The Musical nor Dirty Underwear The Musical aren’t outside the realm of possibility, he might be going for sobs, too.

The three pieces aren’t accompanied by a hotline number, but we’ll wait to see if his page is updated with one.

We haven’t pinpointed the locations of all three yet, or even which stencil is in which neighborhood — Banksy’s Instagram says Occupy! The Musical is in Bushwick, so it stands to reason that Playground Mob and Dirty Underwear are in or near Delancey and Williamsburg, respectively. As always, Runnin’ Scared’s tip lines are open, so if you have any idea where they might be, get in touch!

UPDATE: This morning Runnin’ Scared set out in search of all three of today’s Banksy pieces. After trawling the streets of Williamsburg to no avail, we returned to the Village Voice offices in defeat. Turns out, there was nothing to find: Occupy! The Musical, to be found at Broadway and Hewes Street, had already been buffed. But we did nail down the location of the Lower East Side piece, Playground Mob The Musical. And the world was bright again.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”356345″ /]

DAY 5: Banksy’s Latest Piece Is a Moving Truck of Paradise

Earlier today, Banksy’s website was updated with his latest creation: a 1992 GMC delivery truck hauling around paradise in the back. No use in pinpointing an exact location for this one — the truck will move to a new location somewhere in the city every night at dusk. There was an earlier false alarm, so as of right now there have been no confirmed sightings. Banksy’s website states that it will be somewhere in the East Village tonight. After that, who knows?

The hotline extension for the truck is #3. Calling it up, the man on the other side explains that the souped-up truck “boast[s] a number of features unique in its class,” including “a digitally remastered sunset that never sets, a waterfall pumping over 22 gallons of water a minute, and some plastic butterflies duct-taped over a fan that move around a bit.”

In case you forget the joke halfway through the telling, Hawaiian steel guitar is playing in the background.

Then the voice recording does something that the rest of hotline extensions did not: It is serious for a second. Reading a passage from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the narrator compares Banksy’s graffiti to the “sowing of seeds illicitly” during the Great Depression when large corporations took exclusive control of farmland for industrial production. (Sound familiar?)

From the Steinbeck:

And a homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at the fallow fields which might produce food but not profit, and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children.

Now and then the man tried; crept on the land and cleared a piece, trying like a thief to steal a little richness from the earth. Secret gardens hidden in the weeds. A package of carrot seeds and a few turnips. He planted potato skins, crept out in the evening secretly to hoe in the stolen earth.

If you see the truck anywhere, let Runnin’ Scared know. We’ll be out there to check it out.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”356364″ /]

DAY 6: Rebels Bazooka Dumbo the Elephant From the Sky

No update on new tags today. Banksy explains on his website, “I’m not posting any pictures today. Not after this shocking footage has emerged…,” posting doctored footage of Islamist rebels lighting up Dumbo the Flying Elephant with rocket launchers. Click through for video of Al-Jazeera’s latest coverage of the War on Cartoon Animals.

It’s unclear what this is supposed to mean (is the next piece in DUMBO? Does the neighborhood suck so hard we should subject it to mortar fire?); until we get an answer, at least we have the sight of rebel fighters dancing on the dead body of a childhood favorite to tide us over.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 7: The New Banksy Is Somewhere in Brooklyn, a Paean to the Heart-Shaped Helium Balloon

View this post on Instagram

: Brooklyn

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

After the excitement of this weekend’s magical truck of paradise, this morning’s newest Banksy piece is a little less ambitious: It’s a heart-shaped balloon, somewhere on a gray wall in Brooklyn, covered in bandages (or “plasters,” as those wacky Queen’s-English-speakers call them).

And then, because this is Banksy, the accompanying audio guide shoots it all to hell. Over a syrupy piano background, a saccharine voice proclaims: “The helium balloon. An object of such poetry. Its lightness, its fragility, its way of wandering on the breeze. This piece is obviously an iconic representation of the battle to survive a broken heart. It’s an uplifting visual poem to that most fragile of human emotions, that seem to move within us as if on a soft breeze.”

Record scratch. Sucking sound. Helium voice. “Hey check this out. Yeah, yeah, hey, this doesn’t hurt your throat, does it? I sound like Mickey Mouse…” Someone’s best attempt at a Brooklyn accent: “Minnie, I got something fa yew…yeah, come on Minnie…”

And here we are, feeling a little creeped out by a helium balloon. Thanks, Banksy. Thanks a bunch. We’ll keep you updated with the location once we find it.

UPDATE: The newest Banksy is in Red Hook, at the corner of Van Brunt and King streets. Maybe wait more than five minutes to destroy this one, kids.

— Anna Merlan

DAY 8: Find This Fake Plato Quote Somewhere In Greenpoint

View this post on Instagram

: Greenpoint

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Banksy had us worried there for a second. When we hadn’t seen an update on his site by noon, we figured his possible outing this weekend to reporters had scared our favorite street artist off. But at 12:30 p.m. Banksy updated his Instagram with the latest entry in his city-wide exhibition: simple text scrawled on a blue (gray?) wall somewhere in Greenpoint. Though not that pretty and more annoying than funny, we’re at least relieved Banksy hasn’t hightailed it back to the U.K.

Adding to his emerging body of gotcha! graffiti, Banksy put the piece up somewhere in Greenpoint, according to his Instagram. His homepage hasn’t been updated yet with either a photo or a extension on the exhibition hotline. Runnin’ Scared will update as soon as he does.

The tag itself reads:



Despite our aversion to all things meta, we’ll be hunting for this tag just like the rest of ’em. If you have any idea where this might be, don’t hesitate to drop us a line.

UPDATE: We found it! 255 Freeman Street, on a metal door between Provost and McGuinness streets.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 9: Crazy Horses Riding Through the Lower East Side to a WikiLeaks Soundtrack

The Lower East Side is host to Banksy’s latest piece: a crowd of stampeding horses in night-vision goggles, classical figures of men prostrating themselves before the wild stallions as they ride gallantly into battle. Or something. Anyway, we’ve got the location of the piece, thanks to a helpful commenter on Instagram.

A distinguishing feature of this new piece is that no part of it is on a wall: It’s rendered on the sides of two vehicles, adding impressive visual depth.

But the real heft of this piece is in the accompanying audio. No tongue-in-cheek barbs aimed at the art world. No smarm about the nature of graffiti in the modern era.

No, just the racket of gun turrets and radio communications between soldiers killing civilians.

The cut comes from the infamous Collateral Murder video released to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning in 2010. The 17-minute horror show depicts the killing of children and civilians by U.S. soldiers in Iraq trying to rescue wounded Iraqi combatants. The sound taken for the Banksy piece starts comes around the 12-minute mark.

It ends with: “They shouldn’t have brought a kid to a gun battle.”

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”356827″ /]

DAY 10: There’s a Little Graffiti Beaver Out in East New York

View this post on Instagram

East New York

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Well this is refreshing: a Banksy piece in the reaches of New York’s outer rim. Today’s Banksy lands in East New York. Don’t worry, folks, it’s just a quick ride on the J train from the comfort of your South Williamsburg co-working space. That said, we’re guessing this one is going to take a little bit longer to find, so stick with us as we track it down.

There’s virtually nothing to this piece: no audio, no text, just a lonely beaver seesawing* on a rusted “NO PARKING ANYTIME” sign. Cute though, ain’t he?

So tipsters: you know what to do. If you know where this Banksy piece is, let us know.

UPDATE 1: We found it! 274 Bradford Street near Pitkin Avenue, East New York, Brooklyn.

UPDATE 2: Someone hired contractors to chisel the beaver out of the wall. How’s that for a sentence?

*Correction! He’s not seesawing! He knocked it over! dawwwwwww.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”356869″ /]

DAY 11: A Truck Full of Very Loud Stuffed Animals In the Meatpacking District

As many suspected yesterday, Banksy’s artwork for Day 11 of “Better Out Than In” is indeed a military-style cargo vehicle hauling screaming stuffed animals (Because, who else?). “Sirens of the Lambs” will be touring the meatpacking district and then the rest of the city for the next two weeks.

We don’t know if the truck will be curbed during its two-week tour, or if it will be rolling around continuously. We hope it’s the latter: Behold the video below, in which a moving vehicle filled with shrieking toy animals induces the fight-or-flight response in innocent onlookers. Thank you for the belly laugh, Banksy.

OK, so it’s a truck full of fake farm animals. It’s in the meatpacking district. The animals are screaming. What could Banksy be telling us?

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 12: Banksy Comes Back to Manhattan With Concrete Confessional

View this post on Instagram

:manhattan. Concrete confessional

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Banksy is going for a more, uh, general approach with his location hints. Earlier this morning he posted Day 12’s artwork, Concrete Confessional, a slouching priest framed by, well, concrete. A little more understated than screaming stuffed animals, don’t you think? No audio comes with this one. We don’t know where it is, but seeing as how Manhattan is over 20 square miles in size, Runnin’ Scared would love your help in seeking it out.

UPDATE: Found it! Banksy’s newest is in the East Village on East 7th Street, right by Cooper Union.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”356940″ /]

DAY 13: Banksy Was Selling Art in Central Park on Saturday

Banksy set up a stand selling some of his stencils right beside Central Park on Saturday. He sold seven. An old man was posted at the stand. At one point, he methodically eats a sandwich. Riveting stuff.

According to a video posted to Banksy’s website, the stand didn’t make its first sale till 3:30 p.m., and three buyers were responsible for the day’s total take of just $420 (each piece went for $60 a pop.)

As if the point were to make money. What joke are we being bludgeoned with today? A comment on Banksy’s celebrity? Making fun of tourists? An answer to our favorite East New York businessmen?

Before you cinch on your Banksy-hunting utility belt, a warning: His website points out that the stand was a one-off and would not appear there again today.

See the results of yesterday’s pop-up stand in the video below. If you happened to have passed by the stand yesterday, drop Runnin’ Scared a line.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”375305″ /]

DAY 14: Latest Banksy Discovered in Queens, and It’s a Quote From Gladiator?

View this post on Instagram

: Queens

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

After making three unsuspecting passersby potentially very rich on Saturday, Banksy started off week three of “Better Out Than In” with a stencil in Queens. It’s a simple design of a man erasing a movie quote written in hot pink scrawl.

UPDATE: Tipster George Burles got in touch with some photos of the latest Banksy piece. “There were just a few people there and the paint was still wet around 10 a.m.,” says Burles. Still wet! Banksy cut this one real close.

Gothamist scored a major scoop this morning when they reported the location of the Banksy piece well in advance of Banksy himself announcing it. Tipster Heidi Trenholm told Gothamist’s Jen Chung that she was pretty sure that the piece was Banksy’s.

“I’m pretty sure I saw him leaving and it still smells like fresh paint,” she explained.

Wait, what? You saw Banksy? Apparently a middle-aged white guy with glasses acknowledged Trenholm and then drove away in a rental truck.

OK, weird. But It gets weirder:

The line, “What we do in life echoes in eternity,” is taken from the 2000 film Gladiator, a movie ostensibly about Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix fighting over a fur coat.

Russell Crowe’s General Maximus delivers the line in a speech to soldiers on the brink of battle with a barbarian horde. Inspirational to warriors and commuters boarding the 7 train alike.

If you think that’s too lowbrow, Banksy says the hate nourishes him.

“Some people criticize me for using sources that are a bit low brow (this quote is from ‘Gladiator’) but you know what? ‘I’m just going to use that hostility to make me stronger, not weaker’ as Kelly Rowland said on the X Factor,” reads his website.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”357134″ /]

DAY 15: Is This Today’s Banksy in Morningside Heights?

Is this the New Banksy?

A tipster let us know that they might have spotted the new Banksy up in Morningside Heights. We haven’t confirmed it to be today’s Banksy, but from the looks of it, Runnin’ Scared thinks we have a winner.

UPDATE 1: We have the location, but it’s still unclear if it’s a Banksy or not.

UPDATE 2: False alarm, folks. The stencil looks to be the work of Icy and Sot. That would be the second time Icy and Sot have tripped us up this month. We don’t know whether to be mad or to tip our hats.

Tipster Taylor Carman tweeted at us this morning with the image of the stencil showing a child wearing an “I <3 NY” T-shirt.

A tip from a commenter and some Googling revealed that this is a stencil that Icy and Sot have done before in the Bronx.

Here’s our question: Was that stencil there before or after the start of “Better Out Than In”? Our cynical selves are telling us no. Hitching their work to the insane Banksy publicity apparatus is a pretty dastardly — and effective — way to showcase their work. So as raw as we are at being duped (which is partly our fault, anyway), we gotta show some respect to Icy and Sot and their equally engaging street art.

— Raillan Brooks

UPDATE 3: Here’s the actual Day 15 piece:

[related_posts post_id_1=”357155″ /]

DAY 16: Banksy’s Latest Is a Fiberglass Ronald McDonald in the South Bronx

View this post on Instagram

All City – McDonalds

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Inaugurating the back half of Banksy’s month-long residency in New York is an all-city exhibition of a grotesque Ronald McDonald sculpture. Yes, really.

The fiberglass statue will travel the city for a week, stopping at a different McDonald’s restaurant every day at lunchtime. According to Banksy’s website, the piece will also be accompanied by a boy shining the statue’s shoes.

This is Banksy’s first bit in the Bronx. It’s also the first to be explicitly interactive, or at least contain some element of performance.

The momentary departure from graffiti squares with Banksy’s interview in the Village Voice last week, in which he announced he has taken up sculpture since the 2010 release of his award-winning documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.

Might this piece have something to do with McDonald’s’ recent implication in the debate over living wages for fast food workers? Maybe?

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 17: Bed-Stuy’s Williamsburg’s Very Own Geisha on a Bridge

View this post on Instagram

Bed Stuy

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Day 17 of “Better Out Than In” takes us to Bed-Stuy south Williamsburg. The scene is silhouettes of women in kimono greeting each other atop a bridge, complete with parasols and a cherry blossom. Despite the wee stumble into stereotype, it’s a pretty inventive use of the streetscape, Runnin’ Scared has to admit.

Today’s polemic targets the media obsession with the residency (which we write without a trace of self-awareness). On his website, Banksy posted this morning’s outrageous New York Post cover story “GET BANKSY!,” which claims “police are going ALL OUT to find him.” True to form, Banksy brushes it off with “I don’t read what i [sic] believe in papers.”

UPDATE: Thanks to closer inspection of a map and some grumpy e-mails, we should clarify that the piece’s location is better described as south Williamsburg. This is the second time Banksy has confused Williamsburg for another Brooklyn neighborhood.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 18: Banksy’s Village Voice Covers With Os Gêmeos Go Up as Paintings in Chelsea

Banksy’s collaborations with Brazilian street artists Os Gêmeos went up in Chelsea today as paintings. The two images, mashups of each graffiti outfits’ iconic styles, were featured as cover art for the Village Voices exclusive interview with Banksy earlier this month.

Two images are inversions of one another. One depicts Os Gêmeos’ characteristic yellow man amid the ranks of Banksy’s riot police. The other shows Banksy’s riot policeman in a crowd of Os Gêmeos’ yellow people.

The space where the paintings are displayed are supposed to mimic an art gallery setting. The lot comes complete with a security guard, a bench, and a cooler full of “non-alcoholic wine” — an abomination, if you ask us.

These are the genuine article, folks. This morning’s bogus Aladdin “Wanted” signs must be the work of a clever Banksy copycat/Arabic calligrapher.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”356894″ /]

DAY 19: Banksy Goes to Staten Island With a Vaginal Anthill

This morning Banksy posted video of an anthill, saying that it’s in Staten Island, marking his first work on the borough during his monthlong New York “residency.” The hunt has been on for the piece since this morning. You’re not crazy, it looks like a vagina, and it’s not the first time Banksy has mimicked, ahem, anatomy with his work.

We will update when we have the precise location. In the meantime, uh, enjoy?

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 20: Banksy’s on the Upper West Side With a Sledgehammer-Wielding Child

View this post on Instagram

Upper West Side

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Good morning/nearly afternoon! While you (we) were sleeping off that fifth rum and coke, our good friend and creeping British menace Banksy struck again. After his vaginal foray into the wilds of Staten Island yesterday, he hit the brunch-mobbed Upper West Side with this adorable child intent on destroying a sprinkler system.

It’s probably a commentary on the corrosive nature of class distinction, or a sly dig at how arts education is vanishing in this country, leaving behind hordes of angry, disaffected, budding-arsonist children with no healthy emotional outlet. Or it’s just a kid about to break something. Dunno.

Word is that it’s on 79th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. Just follow the mobs of people taking photos and elbowing each other out of the way.

UPDATE: Guys. We know it’s a reference to one of those “Test Your Strength” deals at a fair. We know. We were being funny, or trying. Thank you nonetheless for all the helpful (and very prompt!) e-mails, tweets and Facebook comments. Art criticism lives!

— Anna Merlan

DAY 21: Banksy Tags the South Bronx: “Ghetto 4 Life”

View this post on Instagram

South Bronx

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Banksy can’t, and won’t, stop. The latest piece in the artist’s monthlong residency on the streets of New York is located in South Bronx.

We think it’s an homage to Little Lord Fauntleroy. Do you disagree? Argue about it in the comments section!

We’ll update with a location as soon as one is confirmed. Have you spotted it? Send us a tip.

UPDATE: Found! Animal New York reports the piece is located at 465 East 153rd Street.

Tessa Stuart

[related_posts post_id_1=”358444″ /]

DAY 22: Today’s Banksy Is a Sphinx Made of Rocks in Queens

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

You guys! Banksy made a graffiti! This one’s made of cinderblocks. The harbinger of the encroaching forces of English darkness turned up in Queens today.

“Everything but the kitchen Sphinx,” he puns on his website, horribly. “A 1/36 scale replica of the great Sphinx of Giza made from smashed cinderblocks.You’re advised not to drink the replica Arab spring water.”

Sure, today it’s a tiny sphinx. Tomorrow we’ll all be drinking tea and wearing large, sinister hats. That’s how they get you, the English.

No word yet on just where the piece is, besides Queens, which is a rather large area (and Banksy’s grasp on New York geography is demonstrably not the best. It may be in the Bronx, for all we know.) We’ll let you know when we find it, though.

Share your thoughts on today’s piece in the comments. Or, as some of you have recently begun doing, cordially invite us to “Suck my dick on all this Banksy bullshit.” That’s cool, too. (Though we’ll have to pass.)

UPDATE: Gothamist has kept us entertained all afternoon with the shitshow surrounding Tiny Mr. Sphinx. In short, people are, once again, behaving horrendously, with some dude claiming he “owns” the piece because he saw it first, some other dude getting all up in that dude’s face, and the whole thing ending with First Dude calling a moving truck to cart the sphinx away.

Goodbye, Tiny Mr. Sphinx. You were really great before you came into contact with humanity. Street Art News tracked the piece down to Willets Point. It’s at 35th Avenue and 127th Street, which looks to be a parking area behind Citi Field. Scenic!

— Anna Merlan

DAY 23: Banksy Doesn’t Update Today Because of “Police Activity”

So this is a first: Banksy announced on his Instagram that there will be no stencil today. In simple black font on a white background, Banksy puts simply: “Today’s art has been cancelled due to police activity.”

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”357155″ /]

DAY 24: Banksy Stencils the Door Shutters of Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club

View this post on Instagram

Hell's Kitchen

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Today’s Banksy is in Hell’s Kitchen, slapped on the door shutters of a strip club.

The text on Banksy’s website reads. “Waiting in vain … at the door of the club.”

Far be it from us to interpolate meaning in a Banksy piece, because we know how much it steams your rice, dear readers, but if we may: This is a stencil of a guy with a bouquet of flowers waiting for a stripper to leave the club.

The new piece was incredibly easy to locate just from the visual cues in the photographs. Just read the signs in the images and follow the scent of Larry Flynt’s iniquity to the Hustler Club.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 25: Banksy’s New Piece Is a Bumper-Car-Riding Reaper on the Bowery

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Looks like the Graffiti Marauder is participating in the holiday spirit. Banksy updated his Instagram at 6 p.m. (at some point during the day he pushed back the time by an hour), showing what seems to be a witch sitting on a Delorean? A frocked goat riding a bumper car? Somewhere in between? Spooooooky, etc.

UPDATE 1:Okay, so we were a little off: It’s actually a not-so-Grim Reaper riding a bumper car to the sweet sounds of Blue Öyster Cult’s 1976 hit “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” and it’s located at Houston and Elizabeth streets.

The sculpture will be on display from dusk until midnight, every night until Sunday. Here’s the video Banksy posted earlier this evening:

Reaper from BetterOut on Vimeo.

And some context, courtesy of the audio guide:

Good evening. You’re at Houston Street on the Bowery.

Welcome to the fair — which life isn’t.

Please be aware no flash photography is permitted.

You know, just keep it nice and simple.

This is the dance of death, in which the harvester of souls has been reproduced as accurately as accounts, and the artist’s talents, will allow.

This sculpture perfectly represents death in that it’s a bit…random.

The artist had said that he wanted to make a piece of art that would last forever, about the importance of living in the moment.

Let us pause for a minute and step back. [Car honks] Not that far! Jesus.

Consider, if you will, the fragility of existence, the thin slice of life afforded to each of us to contribute something to the story of human life on Earth.

Why are we here? What are we doing? Why the accordion music?

Did you know that statistically, one of you present will die tonight?

Oh wait — that’s, “Statistically, one of your phones will die tonight.”

Still pretty tragic, though.

It is often said that the role of art is to remind us of our mortality.

Brainsky’s take on that seems to be mounting an art show that goes on for so long, we all wish we were dead already.

Let us pause to consider these words from the great poet Wikipedia, who once said,

“Beyond this place of wrath and tears,
looms but the horror of the shade,
and yet the menace of the years finds,
and shall find me, unafraid.
It matter not how straight the gate,
how charged with punishment this world.
I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.”

Okay, enough with the accordion music!

Who does this guy think he is, Arcade Fire?

The quote, by the way, is from William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus.” (Thanks Wikipedia!)

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 26: This Morning’s Banksy Asks Who the Asshole Is Here, Really

Good morning. Banksy’s still here, and we’re pretty sure he thinks you’re an asshole. The British scourge struck horrifyingly earlier this morning, while your humble bloggers were still caffeinating and thinking up more unkind jokes about the English.

The newest piece is on the back of a truck in Sunset Park. “The grumpier you are, the more assholes you meet,” it proclaims. On his website, Banksy suggests this as an “alternative New York bumper slogan.” Aww. Is someone not getting a warm-enough New York welcome?

No word yet on just where in Sunset Park this grouchy Zen koan of a truck is parked, although Instagram detectives suggest somewhere on Second Avenue. We’ll be looking. In the meantime, someone give Banksy a hug, and maybe get that dude a bagel. He seems to be feeling a little under-appreciated.

UPDATE: The truck is parked in a place! Animal New York reports the truck has been found at 131 47th Street between First and Second avenues. This one appears to be more of a stationary exhibit, unlike that one with the roving screaming animals or the movable jungle.

So head over to Sunset Park and watch a bunch of people with cameras arguing in front of an old truck! In an alley-ish street, no less!

— Anna Merlan

DAY 27: Banksy’s Newest Piece in Greenpoint Is a Response to Rejected Times Column

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

Good morning, New York. Banksy would like to once again give you a piece of his mind. Today’s entry in the ongoing “Better Out Than In” residency is a simple stencil reading, “This site contains blocked messages,” a response to the censorship the artist feels he has suffered at the hands of one venerable New York publication. And which publication might that be?

According to Banksy, today’s piece was supposed to be a column for the New York Times about One World Trade Center. Specifically, the artist hoped to use the pages of the Grey Lady to let us know exactly how he feels about the nearly completed structure: He hates it, and we should be ashamed we — meaning all New Yorkers — let it get built.

The attacks of September 11th were an attack on all of us and we will live out our lives in their shadow. But it’s also how we react to adversity that defines us. And the response?

104 floors of compromise?

Though the piece could have used some light fact-checking (there were 19 9/11 hijackers, not 10 as he writes) and sometimes veers into slack cliché (“It looks like something they would build in Canada”), it’s not terrible. We have to wonder, was it the polemic Banksy was offering that forced Times editors to leave the piece on the cutting room floor?

See the full text below.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 28: Banksy’s Latest Is a Graffiti Robot on Coney Island

View this post on Instagram

Coney Island

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

It’s the dog days of “Better Out Than In,” and Banksy has decided to step away from his comfort zone in the Lower East Side and inner Brooklyn for his latest work. Today’s piece is out on Coney Island: a robot standing next to a barcode.

The barcode number reads 13274125. We don’t know if it means anything. We’ll update if we find out.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 29: Banksy’s Nazi Officer Taking in the View in Gramercy

View this post on Instagram

23rd Street

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

We’re really not sure what to make of Banksy’s latest installment in “Better Out Than In.” His website describes it as “The banality of the banality of evil, Oil on oil on canvas, 2013″ and “a thrift store painting vandalized then re-donated to the thrift store.” What we see is a beautiful pastoral landscape, except there’s an SS officer on a bench in the foreground.

What exactly is he getting at with “the banality of the banality of evil”? Doing loop-de-loops around Hannah Arendt’s theoretical reckoning of the Nazis’ rise to power isn’t really how we want to spend our afternoon, but we’re guessing it has something to do with Banksy not really caring much about what he’s actually saying.

The piece is hanging in the window display of Housing Works, a thrift shop, bookstore, and HIV/AIDS and homelessness advocacy organization with multiple locations across the city. Judging by the clue on Banksy’s site, the piece is at Housing Works’ Gramercy location.

Housing Works director of public relations Rebecca Edmondson tells Runnin’ Scared that the piece was donated anonymously to the store, but that it has been authenticated as Banksy’s. For all of you who missed out on getting an original Banksy on Central Park earlier this month, Housing Works will open bidding on the piece shortly.

“One hundred percent of the proceeds from the auction will go to Homeless New Yorkers living with and effected by HIV/AIDS,” says Edmondson.

UPDATE 1: The auction for Banksy’s October 29 “Better Out Than In” Nazi installment closes tonight at 8 p.m. The bidding, which opened at $74,000, is up to $310,400. The auction is taking place at the charity website and proceeds will benefit the Brooklyn-based HIV/AIDS nonprofit Housing Works.

UPDATE 2: The piece will go up for auction tonight at an unspecified time on Bidding For Good, says Housing Works. This ain’t no penny-ante affair, folks: Bids are to open at a whopping $74,000. Up-to-the-minute updates on the auction will be available at Housing Works’ Twitter, @Hwthrifts.

UPDATE 3: The auction is now live and runs until October 31 at 8 p.m. The current bid stands at $85,200.

— Raillan Brooks

[related_posts post_id_1=”359324″ /]

DAY 30: Banksy’s Graffiti Leopard at Yankee Stadium

View this post on Instagram

Yankee Stadium

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

It was well worth spending the day compulsively refreshing Banksy’s Instagram. The artist’s penultimate showing in “Better Out Than In” is a gorgeous leopard stencil at Yankee Stadium. We don’t know the precise location of the piece, titled Bronx Zoo, but it’s clear that the stencil is on the wall of the stadium.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 31: Banksy Finishes His NYC Residency With Bubble Letter Balloons in Long Island City (And a Plea to Save 5Pointz)

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Banksy (@banksy) on

And it’s all over, folks. Banksy sends us off with one last tag, a bubble-caps collection of balloons somewhere in Queens.

Listening to the audio on Banksy’s homepage, it’s hard not feel just a little bit sad. The narrator assesses the impact of “Better Out Than In,” musing on art as a public good and throwing one last barb at the art world establishment.

Banksy asserts that outside is where art should live, amongst us. And rather than street art being a fad, maybe its the last thousand years of art history that are the blip, when art came inside in service of the church and institutions.

Art’s rightful place on the cave walls of our communities, where it can act as a public serivce, provoke debate, voice concerns, forge identities.

The world we live in today, visually at least, is run by traffic signs, billboards, and planning committees. Is that it? Don’t we want to live in a world made of art, not just decorated by it?

Oh, and one more thing, from his website:

“And that’s it. Thanks for your patience. It’s been fun. Save 5pointz. Bye.”

— Raillan Brooks


From Iran to Harlem: Fighting Discrimination With Street Art

On a recent summer day in East Harlem, Alexander Keto stood on a ladder above a group of sixth graders playing basketball, aerosol can in hand.

Keto is spray-painting turquoise blue paint on P.S. 7’s brick exterior. The wall turns into an image of a West African woman up to her waist in water, her three children playing beside her. It’s a striking visual that stands over two stories tall next to the busy intersection of Lexington Avenue and 120th Street.

The inspiration behind the piece is Keto’s desire to forge a connection between Brazilians and their African heritage, as he saw the racial divides growing up in Sao Paolo. Most of his work is rooted in his Afro-Brazilian culture, and he wanted to show that education goes beyond the classroom.

“I wanted to show that before we talk about equality among people, we have to talk about making a connection with Mother Nature,” says Keto, 28. “Without water, there is no life. Without mother, there is no life. When we’re talking about education, we’re talking about life first.”

Alexandre Keto begins the process of painting his piece alongside a wall near P.S. 7 in Harlem.

Keto’s mural is part of one of the largest single-issue mural projects the city has ever seen. Fifteen of them are being created across Harlem this summer to raise awareness for journalist Maziar Bahari’s Not A Crime campaign for educational access and press freedom around the world.

Bahari partnered with Street Art Anarchy, a New York-based art production group, to assemble a prominent collective of international artists, including Ricky Lee Gordon (South Africa), Keto (Brazil) and Harlem native, Franco the Great.

A central focus of the project is on the thousands of Baha’is, a religious minority in Iran, banned from school by authorities in the country simply because of their faith.

Keto's completed mural on Lexington Avenue and 120th Street

Bahari has experienced the Iranian government’s denial of the rights of its own citizens firsthand: He was featured in the film “Rosewater” directed by Jon Stewart, which documented his four-month imprisonment in Iran while working as a reporter for Newsweek. Now Bahari is focused on human rights.

“I’m not a Baha’i myself, but I was really moved by the peaceful resistance of Baha’is against the regime that is trying it’s best to get rid of the community by any means possible—through harassment, propaganda, torture, solitary confinement, you name it,” Bahari tells the Voice. “This is not something many people know about so it needed something different in terms of approach and permanence in order to gather public attention and spark conversation, and what is more permanent and public than street art?”

The discrimination against the Baha’is began following the Iranian revolution in 1979. While Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are generally unopposed in Iran, those of the monotheistic Baha’i faith have seen their businesses and places of worship shuttered, and have been banned from access to higher education, says Bahari.

A portrait of a Baha’i woman in Harlem, by Australian street artist Rone

Though the mural project began last year, the new additions this summer are geared toward the right to education. Saleem Vaillancourt, a Baha’i and the campaign coordinator for Not A Crime, says the artists have free reign to implement their visions.

Franco "The Great" of Harlem poses next to his masterpiece on Frederick Douglass and 123rd Street.

“The artists have a great degree of latitude in what they paint so each mural doesn’t directly have to be about the denial of education, but they respond to the issue as they want,” says Vaillancourt. “Some are directly about the denial of education, and some of them are a lot more indirect.”

Another mural painted by prominent Australian artist Rone shows an Iranian Baha’i student, Nasim Biglari, reading a book. Biglari was banned from an Iranian university because of her beliefs. Her black and white portrait sits next to Storefront Academy, a tuition-free private in Harlem.

Current events shaped the content of South African artist Ricky Lee Gordon’s mural on the side of the legendary Faison Firehouse Theater on Hancock Place—one of the first murals unveiled in this year’s campaign.

“See the dove? The purple colors? Prince had died while the mural was being painted,” says George Faison, Tony Award-winner and founder of the theater. “It’s cemented in time on this wall, along with the message for peace, inclusion, and compassion. And the feedback I’ve heard about the mural has been overwhelming.” 

Artist Ricky Lee Gordon's mural on the wall of the legendary Faison Firehouse Theater in Harlem

Faison added, “It’s about identifying with each other’s shared struggles, hope for equality, and years of historical oppression—and there’s no better place to do this than in Harlem.”


In a Former Nightclub Space, Vandal Celebrates Global Art and Street Fare

Bill Hader’s Stefon no longer works SNL‘s “Weekend Update” desk, but if the nightlife reporter were to visit Vandal (199 Bowery, 212-400-0199), he’d be sure to report back that “this place has everything!” A hidden entrance tucked away behind a flower shop. A breakdancing bunny rabbit. Positively eye-popping décor.

A private dining room at Vandal

Fictional correspondents aside, Vandal’s very real celebration of global street art would feel at home at any of New York’s modern art museums — it was devising the menu to match that was the hard part. The approach that chef-owner Chris Santos and executive chef Jonathan Kavourakis took was simple: First, spend nine weeks traveling the world in search of popular street fare. Second, take a large selection of those dishes (44, to be exact) and use the best ingredients possible to reimagine them. What does that mean? Well, for starters, that a New York street-style pretzel is reimagined with Kobe beef and smoked aioli, the familiar charcoal essence here elevated by the luxe fixings.

Peruvian-style ceviche

“To be able to cook this kind of food was a dream for me. It’s not really ‘street food’ — it’s inspired by street food,” Kavourakis explains. He and Santos were invested in sourcing the highest-quality ingredients in order to refine the casual culinary experiences they’d had on their travels. “Typically, when you eat street food, you’re not getting the highest quality of product. You’re getting chicken thighs, or if you order the meat, it’s the scrapped meat that’s been stewed,” Kavourakis says.

At Vandal, grilled Chilean sea bass nests neatly inside tortillas; shawarma isn’t served sliced off a spit, but placed atop a salad alongside falafel croutons. There’s also a selection of pizza and large plates, including a two-pound whole lobster prepared fra diavolo–style.

Red snapper tostadas

“That’s the challenge,” Kavourakis says. “How do I take a taco that they’re selling for sixty cents that is delicious in Mexico, and how do I make it for New York?” The menu options span the globe, from the Midwest — Juicy Lucy burgers topped with American cheese — to Rome (cacio e pepe arancini).

The space itself, erstwhile home to the Finale nightclub, is equally expansive: 11,900 square feet, to be precise, accommodating 487 seats. Before diving into the menu, guests feel the watchful eyes of Andre the Giant thanks to a Shepard Fairey mural on the wall of the “secret garden” room. The work of British street artist Hush is also a focal point, along with pieces by Will Barras, Tristan Eaton, and Vhils, all of which, Kavourakis says, contribute to “a sensitive experience.” Somewhere, one imagines, Stefon smiles at that one.


“Amaze”: Rikers Juvenile Inmates Get New Art From British Street Artist Ben Eine

Rikers Island is a dismal and dangerous place. Spread across 415 acres of repurposed landfill in the the East River between the Bronx and Queens, the island is home to more than 12,000 inmates in 10 separate jail facilities. There were 73 stabbings and slashings committed by inmates in 2013, and the general reputation for brutality, rape, and abuse earned Rikers a ranking among America’s 10 worst prisons last year. It’s basically the last place on Earth that a street artist like Ben Eine wants to find himself.

Eine was arrested multiple times for vandalism during his days as a graffiti writer, and he has pulled off some impressive stunts (including painting the West Bank barrier in Palestine with Bansky), but his recent daylong stint in Rikers was completely legal and voluntary. In fact, a warden actually invited Eine to paint a wall inside the jail, part of a new program aimed at inspiring young inmates with art. I profiled Eine and his new gallery work last week for Village Voice, and he invited me along to document what promised to be a surreal experience inside New York’s notorious lockup.

Street artist Ben Eine painting inside a jail facility on Rikers Island
Street artist Ben Eine painting inside a jail facility on Rikers Island

I met Eine and his accomplices Ben, Julio, and Lorenzo at a painfully early hour on a frigid Thursday morning last week. We nursed coffees, and stopped to gather the essential supplies — spray paint and cigarettes — before heading to Rikers. The island’s only connection to land is a narrow bridge on the northern tip of Queens with guardhouses at either end. Although a prison official had invited Eine to the jail, the artist has the word “GUILTY” tattooed on his neck and generally looks the part of an erstwhile graffiti writer. The awkwardness was palpable when we arrived at the first guardhouse.

Eine’s partner Ben rolled down the window and announced, “We’re here to paint a wall,” sounding as cheerful as possible with his British accent.

The guard surveyed the bleary-eyed and bearded artists. He looked confused. “You’re here to post bail?”

Eine at work at the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers Island
Eine at work at the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers Island

After a few minutes of convincing, we were ordered to park, unload all the paint and gear, and wait for another guard to come ferry us across the bridge. Eine lit the first of many Marlboro Lights, and we stood shuffling our feet and rubbing our hands. The forecast called for a high of 25 degrees, and the wind on the exposed parts of the island is bitterly cold. After 30 minutes, our ride arrived: a beat-up Department of Corrections inmate transport van with a riot gear helmet rolling around in the back.

The driver was a friendly Puerto Rican guard who introduced himself as Q. As we crossed the bridge onto the island, Q patiently answered our questions about the jail (yes, somebody managed to escape once; no, conjugal visits are not permitted) and guided us through the remaining security checkpoints. As we arrived at our destination, the Robert N. Davoren Complex, or RNDC, a call came over the radio in the van saying a suicidal inmate was threatening to jump from the fourth floor somewhere above us.

“You believe this friggin’ guy?” Q said. “Welcome to the RNDC.”

We were escorted into the office of warden Antonio Cuin, which was filled with stacks of paperwork, drawings, framed photographs, souvenirs, and boxes of spray paint. Cuin was absent, but Q assured us he would stop by later in the afternoon to check on the progress of Eine’s painting. The warden, we later learned, grew up in the Bronx with old-school graffiti writers, and has maintained an affinity for the craft.

The graffiti wall inside the yard of the RNDC on Rikers Island
The graffiti wall inside the yard of the RNDC on Rikers Island

Several prominent graffiti and street artists preceded Eine inside the RNDC at Cuin’s invitation. Their art now decorates the main yard inside the facility, including a massive work by French artist JR of an eyeball that covers the entire exterior of one building. The famed artist REVOLT also painted his name on a wall inside the jail, but the word apparently sent the wrong message to prisoners and was promptly whitewashed.

Q confiscated our cell phones and ordered us not to smoke or take pictures around the inmates or staff. He led us through the corridors of the jail, which were decorated with several small murals, including a cheesy beach scene that only served as a reminder of the glacial temperatures awaiting us outdoors. We passed through a musty gymnasium, and exited into a large grassy area surrounded by 18-foot fences topped with razor wire. It felt empty and deserted.

An enormous guard who seemed in charge of the area surrounding the gym was wearing a fur-lined trooper hat and designer sunglasses, which made him look like a taller version of Rick Ross. When he learned the artists would be working outside all day, he unleashed a booming peal of laughter.

“It’s man against God,” the guard howled. “You’re not just fighting against the canvas today but the elements and God almighty. Who will win? My money is on the artists.”

Eine has a laugh with an equipment operator at the RNDC
Eine has a laugh with an equipment operator at the RNDC

Eine quickly got down to business, sketching the word “AMAZE” across the exterior of the gymnasium in letters about 15 feet high and 5 feet wide. The artists had a hydraulic lift at their disposal, and its operator asked Eine, “Are you that anonymous British artist who paints the side of a building and suddenly it’s worth millions?”

“Nope,” Eine said. “That’s the other one.”

It was a bizarre spectacle seeing the artists paint immediately below a row of surveillance cameras and coils of barbed wire, but the vibrant red and blue piece quickly began to take shape. The artists wore latex gloves, which kept paint off their hands but also caused their fingers to go numb from the cold. Unable to feel the cap on his spray can, Julio accidentally shot a puff of bright blue paint onto his bearded chin.

“Shit,” he cursed. “I look like I just went down on a Smurf.”

The Rick Ross guard returned with a pot of hot coffee — “that prison coffee, it’ll keep you up for three days” — and entertained the artists with stories during their break. The guard reported that there are more than 200 gangs active inside the jail, including “a gang that’s not a gang” called NFL, or Neutral For Life. The RNDC is “by far the most volatile” facility on Rikers, he explained, because it is filled with teenagers.

“They come in not knowing shit about shit,” the guard said. “They just know they don’t want to be nobody’s bitch, so they fight.”

A basketball stuck in razor wire near Eine's painting on Rikers
A basketball stuck in razor wire near Eine’s painting on Rikers

Other guards joined the conversation and began discussing inmate habits. We learned that Jerry Springer is by far the most popular TV show. (“You try to change the channel when Springer is on, your ass ’bout to go toe-up.”) We were also told that a popular makeshift meal prepared by inmates consists of canned tuna mixed with crumbled Doritos and ketchup.

“There’s always vacancy here,” one of the guards said, making a sales pitch like a real estate broker. “It’s a gated community, you’ve got 24-hour security, beachfront property, catered meals …”

But as we ate lunch (a perfectly appetizing menu of roast chicken, French fries, and cheeseburgers with wheat bread slices for buns), the artists agreed they’d rather not return to Rikers as inmates. Throughout the afternoon, we would periodically hear people screaming and wailing at the top of their lungs in nearby cellblocks. It sounded like someone was being beaten to a pulp.

Eine and fellow artists painting at Rikers. Inmates could occasionally be heard screaming from nearby cellblocks.
Eine and fellow artists painting at Rikers. Inmates could occasionally be heard screaming from nearby cellblocks.

To his credit, the warden seems committed to cleaning up the place. When he came to survey Eine’s painting, Cuin talked about using art as a tool for rehabilitation.

“I take it upon myself to beautify the facility,” Cuin said. “These kids come here, they look at it, they wonder how it’s done, they want to learn. It’s very creative. Instead of sitting a cell thinking about doing crime, they’re drawing. I have 500 young inmates here that are 16 to 18 years old. Why not try to change them? What better way?”

Cuin also acknowledged that he’s taking a risk by allowing graffiti artists inside the jail.

“This is the only prison that has graffiti in it,” the warden said. “This is, like, unheard of. This is career-ending — if something goes wrong, if the wrong message goes out, it could end my career. I could be done, boom, gone.”

A guard taking a photo of Eine and his completed painting
A guard taking a photo of Eine and his completed painting

Eine was friendly with the warden, but he clearly had mixed feelings about painting inside a facility that has housed countless graffiti artists busted by the vandal squad over the years. Instead of his own signature, he left the names of some previously incarcerated friends atop the wall. The painting is big enough that it should be visible from flights departing from La Guardia, but only inmates, guards, and prison staff will get to see the tribute up close.

“People always ask in interviews, ‘What’s the strangest place you’ve ever painted?'” Eine said, breathing a sigh of relief after leaving the island. “Going forward, I will definitely say it was this.”

In addition the piece Rikers, Eine also painted this wall at 325 West Broadway in Manhattan:

Eine's 'THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT-ISH' painting on a DDG building at 325 West Broadway
Eine’s ‘THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT-ISH’ painting on a DDG building at 325 West Broadway



Shepard Fairey Must Do 300 Hours of Community Service for Obama ‘Hope’ Poster

You might know Shepard Fairey. If you don’t, you probably do or at least haven’t realized yet. The Los Angeles man behind Obey and one of the stars in street artist Banksy’s mockumentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” has risen to fame in the contemporary art world, partly because he created one of the most recognizable pieces of political art in the 21st century: the Obama “Hope” poster – a work that the Obama campaign adopted in 2008 as their Mona Lisa.

The piece, which reflects red, white and blue flares onto the then-Senator’s face, is already encased in history, hanging in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. However, there’s a bit of a problem with Faireys’ ‘Hope’: the picture of Obama was taken from the Associated Press; photographer Mannie Garcia’s shot from the National Press Club, in particular.

And the AP was not so happy with the commercial success of Fairey’s creation, thus leading to a copyright lawsuit in 2009. To counter that, the artist sued the AP for any inclination that he stole the picture and the resulting defamation that would come with that. In the end, Fairey ended up paying $1.6 million, mostly out of his own wallet, in damages to the AP.

But the conflict between the two took another turn when Fairey was accused of destroying and falsifying documents that proved he had intentionally taken the picture from the AP. In Downtown Manhattan on Friday, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge based on that accusation, saying it was the worst thing he ever did in his life, and was handed three hundred hours of community service, two and a half years of probation and a $2,500 fine.
Looks like ‘Hope’ comes with a hefty price.
When the debate began a few years back, the trial immediately became a heated battle between what are the technical boundaries of ‘art’ and how much can one copy from another’s work. Fairey argued that his ‘Hope’ poster was an adaptation of the AP’s photograph and that most works of art are copied from another. Obviously, the AP didn’t see eye to eye with Fairey.
But the sentencing yesterday was a gesture of sympathy from Manhattan Federal Court Magistrate Judge Frank Maas. According to Maas, the famous street artist’s donations to charitable organizations and his status as a diabetic landed him the get-out-of-jail-free card. Despite the artist’s constant apologies (he said he was “deeply ashamed and remorseful of his acts” in the courtroom), the prosecutors demanded he received at least six months of jail time.
Now that the creative controversy is at bay, the more important question is, “Is twelve and a half days worth of community service worse than six months in prison?”