While many New Yorkers are scouring the city for signs of — or signs left by — mysterious UK-based street artist Banksy, who is using the five boroughs as his canvas for the month of October, at least one New Yorker is unimpressed, and even a little irritated.
Graffiti historian Sacha Jenkins just doesn't think Banksy should be classified as a graffiti artist.
"What Banksy has in common with quote-unquote blue collar graffiti — or what people inside of the culture would call writing — is what he's doing is illegal. He's applying his sensibility or his artwork onto surfaces that don't belong to him," Jenkins said.
But, he said, "that's where the relationship dies."
Graffiti, Jenkins explained, is a language "not meant for the mainstream." Banksy, on the other hand, is "pandering to the mainstream." Banksy's use of social media is particularly telling, Jenkins said.
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"Graffiti culture does not care about the mainstream, is not interested in socializing with the mainstream," he explained.
Graffiti in the 1970s started with young people writing their names on walls and subway cars. It was a simple act, Jenkins said, so simple that the kids who were doing it didn't call themselves artists or even graffiti writers — they were just writers. [embedgallery id=231608]
Gradually, the writing became more complex; it turned into a sport, and became competitive. Graffiti as its own language was born.
Jenkins said Banksy is clearly in it for some of the same reasons writers are: the rush of maintaining a sense of mystery and anonymity, the thrill of being pursued.
But the consequences for Banksy, if he were to be caught, are not the same as those faced by "your blue collar graffiti artists in Queens who get arrested." Writers face serious jailtime these days, Jenkins said.
"Banksy can afford to get out of whatever mess he gets himself into," Jenkins insisted. "The stakes are different for him."
But Jenkins also believes there a lack of urgency to nab the mystery man. "People think it's cute, they're smitten," he said. "If he gets caught he'll probably get a slap on the wrist."
Banksy's visit happens to coincide with an exhibition and workshop that Jenkins organized and curated. He hand-picked 12 participants from local colleges and universities, including at-risk youth, for a six-week educational program he's dubbed "Write of Passage." The students will learn everything about graffiti as a subculture: its craft and history, and how to photograph, write and talk about it.
And on Oct. 19, a public exhibition will open featuring over 100 rare graffiti artifacts, including subway panels painted by legendary artists like Futura, CLAW, KRINK and others. The exhibition will be held at Red Bull Studios in Manhattan.
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat