Sometime in the autumn of 2006, an anonymous figure began a campaign in the pre-dawn streets of New York. Armed with paint cans and propaganda, he set out to cast a blight upon once sacred images. With furious, brightly colored bursts, wall after wall of celebrated street art was systematically obliterated. Revolutionary creativity does not shock or entertain the bourgeoisie, read communiqués posted at the scene, it destroys them. Deriding street artists as “advance scouts for capital,” the Splasher, as he came to be known, was issuing a proclamation.
The first evidence of a rising discontent came in the summer. It began with the artist known as Swoon. In a world filled with violent color and provocative imagery, her work stood apart - restrained and serene. Her ethereal figures quietly populated the city’s bridge embankments and back alleys bringing a haunting, humanistic quality to otherwise drab urban areas. Then someone started crossing out their eyes. In large black letters, the words SOLD TO MoMA were stenciled next to the newly blind.
It’s a cycle that has become all too familiar. Anything subversive, anything meant to disrupt the status quo and challenge traditional models of thought and behavior is eventually adopted into the mainstream it is swimming against. Once caught in the currents of convention, it becomes powerless. Just another commodity to be traded in the system. Swoon had long been regarded as a holdout, not to be counted among artists growing increasingly more inclined to traffic with the consumer culture they were meant to be undermining. But then she sold. Whether an out should be affixed remains a matter of opinion. One thing is clear – the sale of her work signaled to someone that she had lost sight of the mission.
The splashing began last November. And though Swoon was among the first to be hit, she was no longer alone. What was originally conceived as the antipode to a gallery culture that focused too much attention on the individual was now producing megawatt stars of its own. The brighter an artist’s work shone on the street, the more likely it was to draw the ire of the Splasher. This fact gave rise to an obvious and widely propagated theory: the Splasher resented success. Perhaps he was a jealous artist unable to garner the same attention paid to the darlings of the scene. Or maybe a misguided revolutionary clinging naïvely to the idealistic notion that true artists must remain uncorrupted by the forces of capitalism. Either way, his criticisms were dismissed as bullshit.
After all, he did hit a Banksy.
In the soaring pantheon of street art, none sits on high quite like the mythic Briton. When he descended upon Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood teetering on the precipice of gentrification, the piece he bestowed there was widely heralded as a gift. Stenciled on the face of an otherwise unremarkable building, a small girl skips rope blissfully unaware that the cord she grips in her small hands originates from a nearby electrical box. A young boy raised on painted toes stands poised to flip the switch. The work was a pristine example of the graceful commentary the world has come to expect from the enigmatic artist. When the Splasher defaced it, he committed the ultimate act of blasphemy. In wounded awe, we mouthed a collective why?
From the Splasher’s communiqué: A Dadaist once smashed a clock, dipped the pieces in ink, pressed the ink-soaked pieces against a sheet of paper and had it framed. His purpose was to criticize the modernist idealization of efficiency. Rather than inspiring the widespread smashing of clocks and the re-evaluation of time in society, the piece of paper itself has become a sought-after commodity.
Banksy’s work is largely found on walls. It can be found on the working-class walls of Bristol, the wall erected to further define the separation between Israel and the occupied territories and on walls in the Los Angeles home of actor Brad Pitt. Last year, the sale of his work broke records at Sotheby’s.
The underground art scene whipped itself into a frenzy trying to uncover the Splasher’s identity. Having suffered the desecration of Banksy, there was a universal thirst for blood. The blogosphere was set ablaze in rumor and online tribunals formed in which suspects were named, tried and convicted by a jury of their virtual peers. It all became very simple. The Splasher was a villain and the artists were his victims. The artists, it was decided, must be protected.
But it wasn’t them he was after – it was us.
All art is subject to the same evolutionary cycle. It is created, absorbed into collective consciousness and then coveted. It’s not enough that it exists, it must be owned. Street art grew out of a resistance to this fact. It was a fuck you to the fastidious little gallery owner and his 50 percent cut. A rejection of the exploitative nature of the collector. It was democratic rebellion. Art for everyone. But then we started buying it. And now we, as a culture who demand ownership and insist that art be hung on gleaming white walls, are the ones being splashed.
_Sarah Nardi is a Chicago-based freelance writer.