by Blair Cannon
The “Reserved for Homeless” tags on the ground and on the walls mark the spots frequented by the same faces of homeless people on campus. You might have seen one, J said, because around twenty-five exist. All of them are done using cardboard pizza boxes as stencils and white spray paint he buys from the Blick Art Supplies near campus.
The pieces are made even more poignant and effective by the fact that the homeless actually continue to sit right on top of their designated spots. What began as one student’s efforts at social commentary have become an expression of reality to the homeless and their community.
There is now a Banksy-in-training among us at NYU. And he’s had a few indirect encounters with the real one. J’s first work that started it all was a simple black skull with pink flowers painted on it, placed deliberately next to one of the pieces Banksy did during his one-month stay in the city. There were four gigantic concrete blocks by Cooper Union, and Banksy had chosen one to paint a red and black portrait of the Pope touching his head in despair.
J selected a different block and painted a skull on the outside of it, using a two layer cut-out paper stencil.
Later, he returned to the scene to find a crane and a team of construction workers hauling the blocks away. One of the construction workers told him that an anonymous buyer had just bought the “set” for close to two million dollars.
“You can imagine the shock,” he said.
As it turns out, only the concrete block with the Banksy piece on it was sold, and the other three, including the block with his skull on it, were returned within days. But the idea that his work could have so easily been mistaken as a Banksy was tickling.
After a few more works, it was the homeless that became the inspiration for J’s art. The reality of a homeless person’s everyday life, he explained to me, is how easily a passerby could think of him or her as “an object,” or “human architecture.”
“I think my strongest tag by far is the ‘Reserved for Homeless’ one because it has social critique, it’s poignant, it’s strong, too, it’s making a point,” said J. “And it’s super easy to do, I mean, it takes five seconds.”
There’s a routine now, too. He cuts out his stencils goes out to tag on Monday nights because its a bit safer than weekends.
“It’s hard to get moments where there’s no one, in New York City, because, no matter what time you go out, there’s people walking around.”
But, he said, as long as he keeps to himself and blends into the scene, people do not question him. A kid dressed in normal street clothes and carrying a pizza box draws no attention at all.
It’s an “invisibility factor.” And important too. Penalties for graffitti and destruction of property can lead to fines of up to $500.
But the secrecy he maintains with his friends and peers is more about character and integrity than about getting away with it. He tells very few people about his art because he doesn’t crave the spotlight.
“That’s just not me,” said J. “I’m the kind of guy that buys clothes, and sharpies off the tags and the brand names.”
Being invisible also makes spying on public reaction to his works all the more precious.
“The moment where I feel the most invisible is when I visit pieces that I’ve done, and there’s people looking at it and they have no idea who I am,” he said. People are always gathering in crowds around Banksy’s work. “Banksy could absolutely be in the group of people, and no one would know.”
In the end, I asked if he thought his work was special. There’s only one Banksy, and there’s only one him.
“Anyone can do this!” he exclaims. “It only takes the right mix of courage and stupidity.”
The next step, he said, is rooftops. He is going to wait the winter out, come up with some new stencils and plans, and then execute in the spring.
I asked if he was afraid of getting caught.
“No,” he said.