Banksy’s Great Disappearing Act

The graffiti artist’s greatest feat maybe his ability to remain anonymous. Banksy

He has been arrested. He has decamped for Los Angeles. He has tired of his project, is done with New York, with prudish America, wants nothing to do with the rancid art scene. He is messing with us, has been all along. It’s a hoax, except not really.

These were among the many rumors on the Internet on October 23, when the British graffiti artist Banksy interrupted his month-long residency in New York with an ominous message on his website: “Today’s art has been cancelled due to police activity.” The image was a sort of work of art itself, a typed statement bound within a thin black frame, posted on the website that has chronicled Banksy’s ongoing New York project, called “Better Out Than In.” There were troubling overtones here, too: How can a work of art be cancelled? And what drove Banksy into hiding?

The cancellation lasted only a day. This morning, a Banksy work appeared on the roll-down gate of Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club on the West Side of Manhattan. It shows a lovelorn man leaning against the wall, the petals of his flowers falling to the ground. “Waiting in vain at the door of the club,” Banksy’s caption on the website says.

The artist could himself be feeling a bit dejected, as this has surely been his most difficult week in New York. On October 21, he unveiled the image of a boy spray-painting the words “Ghetto 4 Life” in the South Bronx. This may have been ironic social commentary, but it irked some of the locals, whose neighborhood has long been a byword for guns and drugs and urban hopelessness. Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz, Jr., - who had earlier celebrated Banksy – said that many of his constituents were “upset” by Banksy’s statement.

His next work was in Willetts Point, an essentially forgotten Queens neighborhood of chop shops that is sometimes called the “Iron Triangle.” From the grim landscape rose “a 1/36 scale replica of the great Sphinx of Giza made from smashed cinderblocks.” Banksy knows his art is often commodified; he often toys with that commodification and also rails against it, having asserted that “graffiti art has a hard enough life as it is, before you add hedge-fund managers wanting to chop it out and hang it over the fireplace.”

What followed next must have been especially dispiriting, with individual bricks from the mini-Sphinx sold for $100 before the owners of the nearby auto shop spirited the piece away. According to The New York Post, they are looking to sell the piece, even though “We don’t know anything about art,” according to one of the sellers. But they may know, however vaguely, that, across the East River, the financier Leon Black allegedly spent $120 million on Edvard Munch’s Scream, and that a Banksy mural fetched $1.1 million at a London auction. Playing with our assumptions about the value of art, Banksy has watched us turn into vultures.

Then came Banksy’s alleged encounter with the New York Police Department, and the rumors about his capture/demise/departure, including one that he had been arrested in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. (He wasn’t, said the cops.) This morning, the Hustler Club loner materialized. There will supposedly be seven more pieces during Banksy’s sojourn in New York. After that, nobody knows.

And that’s the most captivating facet of his stay in New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s varnished metropolis. The cops want to find Banksy, calling him a vandal. Art lovers chase him on Twitter, Instagram and, sometimes, real life. Even ordinary New Yorkers who might otherwise consider graffiti a scourge know that – like the two enterprising gentlemen in Willets Points – they could come into the possession of a work worth a fortune, the intentions of its creator be damned.

Yet for all our looking, we can’t seem to actually capture Banksy - a task that seems to have superseded any appreciation for the art itself. Maybe the most famous, certainly the most sought-after man in New York is off the grid, and has remained so for almost an entire month. Or, rather, he is on the grid’s edge, since he updates his website and Instagram account, and has responded, by e-mail, to questions from The Village Voice.

This at a time when the Police Department keeps its vigilant – intrusive, some say – eyes on the city through its Domain Awareness System. Perhaps unwittingly, Banksy has turned himself into a commentary on being seen by the authorities. And, as it were, unseen.

As the cops have accelerated their search for Banksy, it’s become harder to miss the implications of his project for the modern surveillance state. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, tells Newsweek that she is dismayed by what she calls a “manhunt for an artist.” She explains that not only are surveillance cameras prevalent, they don’t appear to be very good. “The NYPD has sold us a bill of goods,” she argues, with its paradoxical promise of unobtrusive omniscience. As for Banksy’s evasion of the authorities? “I have to say ‘hooray,’” Lieberman says.

Not all of Banksy’s detractors come from officialdom. Sacha Jenkins, a graffiti artist who has organized the educational exhibition “Write of Passage” at Red Bull Studious in Chelsea, dismisses the “hysteria” over Banksy as a product of the “white, elite, art-world establishment.” He adds that “people see money in the man,” which is the only reason they pursue his work. Others in the street art community are somewhat less critical in their appraisal of Banksy. Bio, an artist with the legendary Bronx-based graffiti outfit TATS CRU, said he had mixed feelings about the South Bronx “ghetto” piece, which he at first found “offensive.” But Bio forgives Banksy, whom he calls “a clever dude. He’s got everybody going crazy.”

Somehow, Banksy flits through and past and between our manifold lenses undetected, unknown - a corporeal ghost in a digital world. His finest work, his crowning achievement, is his anonymity, his resistance to being caught, whether by cops or collectors or fans. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, with Bloomberg – the most powerful, wealthiest man in New York – railing against yet struggling to find a Brit who likes to stencil on walls. That the latter is winning is thrilling.

Banksy’s “Manhattan Project” is ultimately a rebuke to the widespread, largely unquestioned confidence in our abilities to collect and quantify, identify and capture, to map everything and everyone. Earlier this month, the cover of The New York Post shouted, “Get Banksy!” I’m starting to, finally.