A prestigious institution paid for my trip to New York City, including accommodation and an overpriced dinner at Le Bernardine.
It was in October, around the same time a British graffiti artist with the pseudonymous name of Banksy was on a mission to create a different project every day for a month somewhere in the city.
Chasing the elusive artist’s works became my routine during my stay in NYC. In between meetings and seminars, I checked his website, eagerly clicking the latest update. If I was lucky enough to find one, I immediately checked the news and graffiti website to get the exact location, since Banksy never gave the slightest hint about the location of his latest project.
If I was luckier, the next Banksy’s drawing would be located near my next meeting, or there was still enough light for me to take a good picture of it, or it was still in intact and had not been vandalized.
Many times, though, the projects were far away (a one-hour subway ride during the daytime) or were already defaced by angry, territorial local graffiti artists . It might also be located in a rough neighborhood where the murder rate is higher than the US Army casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Sometimes, the project might involve a moving truck!
The first day of the hunt was done with a friend, a fellow avid Banksy fan. We started early at 7 a.m., when the New Yorkers were still in bed or having their daily dose of bagel and decaf coffee. We hit Chinatown to see project number 9. Nobody was there and the piece was intact—possibly because it was behind chained fences. There were no CCTVs nearby, so maybe even the NSA doesn’t have any clue about the identity of the pseudonymous British artist.
Number 9 is a satire on the 2007 Iraqi war, a mural that covers the wall and a car parked in front of it. On the wall, rampaging horses wear night goggles, running over a helpless victim with green sniper marks drawn on the car.
This piece is accompanied by a sound that can be played via mobile phone or Banksy website, a 35-minute recording of a US air strike over Baghdad in 2007. The strike killed a Reuters journalist and two children. The codename of one soldier is wild horse.
We took some pictures, including our own, and happily headed to Katz Deli to eat a giant salami sandwich afterward. During breakfast, my friend repeatedly checked her iPhone, trying to locate number 5: a truck with the painting of the Garden of Eden. Apparently the truck was moving around the city and nobody knew where it would go next, unless someone caught it and posted online.
While my friend headed to her first meeting, I decided to visit Banksy’s number 3, “You Complete Me”. It is conveniently located one Metro stop away from my hotel. It had already been defaced but was then restored nicely by Perry Levy and his group Banksy Restoration Society (though it was vandalized again a couple of days later). I took a picture of it—a mural of a dog peeing on a fire hydrant—and unashamedly asked a pedestrian to take mine next to the the dog and the hydrant.
The next day, I become greedy. I wanted to see the second truck or Banksy’s number 11. It is a truck filled with stuffed animals that was circling the Meatpacking district. I was convinced that it was not far from my hotel, but the reality was that it involved three subway stops and a 20-block walk, plus some more walk around the Meatpacking District in search of the piece of work, The result was zero, nil, zilch, and I was late for the meeting.
I had to skip number 12, and missed it when Banksy decided to open a vendor project in Central Park. Number 14 was defaced after several hours and it is so far away in Queens. There was no way in the world that I could squeeze it between four meetings and a public discussion, unless I could ride a helicopter.
But the universe still worked on my behalf. While waiting for my next meeting, I checked my iPad and it just so happened that Banksy just updated his website and some people already posted the exact location.
Soon after the last meeting of the day, I rushed to Tribeca to catch number 15, which is a tribute to 9/11. People already crowded the area: young, old, children, Asian, European, Caucasian, Mexican, African-American. There were flowers laid on the street. It was serene; everyone refrained from speaking as they solemnly observed the touching image of the twin towers.
The “Banksy: Better Out than In” project has successfully forced people (my friend and I included) to move around the city, to visit neighborhoods that they had never visited or even thought of visiting before. He gave a twist on fragments of modern life, from the ‘legitimate’ war in Baghdad to animals’ slaughters and a devilish Ronald McDonald.
I hope this project will evoke something beautiful inside everyone’s heart, and that is compassion.
About Elisa Sutanudjaja
A (moderate) mother who also happens to be an Eisenhower Fellows 2013.