Hanksy is a street artist who puts Tom Hanks’ face on copies of Banksy’s art. His first show, which just closed at the Krause Gallery on the Lower East Side, and where the menu offered boxes of chocolates and Dr. Pepper, nearly sold out completely, according to the dealer. “I think what made it such a success is the genuine honesty in it,” gallery owner Ben Krause told me. “Hanksy really is a huge Tom Hanks fan and a huge Banksy fan.”
Images of Hanksy’s pieces, pasted and sprayed over walls in both New York and Chicago, gained momentum over corners of the internet, not just those dedicated to documenting the pursuits of street artists and taggers alike, but also fans of a really great, really simple joke. After some sleuthing and one of the more awkward cold e-mails I’ve ever written, I tracked the man down and spoke with him.
EA: How are you known and what are you known for?
Hanksy: The internet and the general public know me as Hanksy. Some call me a street artist, others call me a bad pun. I take iconic images from the UK street artist Banksy and mash it up with a reference from Academy Award winning actor, Tom Hanks.
EA: When did you do your first Hanksy piece?
Hanksy: Last April, a little over ten months ago. So things have been moving surprisingly fast.
EA: Was that your first piece of street art, or graffiti?
Hanksy: I actually have been doing street art, like more developed stencil work as well as tagging a la Jim Joe or Chicago's Weed Wolf, for years. But nothing has gotten quite as much press or recognition as this project.
EA: Do you remember the first time you did a piece you were proud of, Hanksy or otherwise?
Hanksy: Not really. But there's plenty of satisfaction felt whenever you put up a piece, forget about it, then randomly pass by months later. And it's still there, still existing. Not yet painted over or altered by other taggers. I think that feeling of accomplishment derives from that inner adolescent vandal. One that used to write names in cement and so on. It's a pure feeling.
EA: Go on—pure how?
Hanksy: “Here is something simple, that I did. Something that makes me laugh, that I'm able to share with others.” It's lighthearted and doesn't try too hard to be profound or serious.
EA: Speaking of serious, it seems like the moment you try and talk about art that is on the streets, you immediately run into these competing definitions—street art vs. tags vs. graffiti. Do you think the insistence on different categories has a place in the conversation about art, or is that boring?
Hanksy: You run into all the time. It's frustrating. It's like asking “What is art? What isn't art?” I feel like the terms mean different things to different people. One person's vandalism can be seen as another's artistic expression. It is what it is. The internet, and people in general, will always attempt to lump things into categories. And they'll always argue over it.
When I first moved NYC, I'd go on these long runs, all throughout lower Manhattan. And I'd see Muffin Milk everywhere. Different versions. And I'm like, "Wow this guy sure loves cursive." Turns out it's a t-shirt company or something. Is that street art? I considered it to be, despite the end goal of selling merchandise.
EA: To make our lives easier, let's call this street art for the remainder of this conversation. Is street art inherently political?
Hanksy: Deep down, street art is illegal. So there is something to be said about that: going against the law… Public domain versus private… So yeah, it could be considered political. Some street artists use it as a tool, or a weapon, to place their own beliefs out into the world. Hanksy is a satire. It's used to poke a little fun into an otherwise uneventful facade. Hanksy carries no political agenda. But I fully support artists who utilize the street as a canvas for their political rib jabbing.
EA: Have you had any run-ins with the law?
Hanksy: No run-ins in NYC. Before this whole Hanksy project got started, I got hassled a few times in Chicago. More along the lines of a stern finger being waved by Chicago's finest.
EA: Thinking about doing street art, or talking about it, is one thing—going out on the street and actually doing it is another. What got you actually doing it?
Hanksy: Like anything in life, things are easier said than done. I've always wanted to attempt Newman's own Cool Hand Luke egg challenge. But I doubt I'll actually ever get around to hard-boiling the eggs. For Hanksy, it was a very funny pun—something that I, and those who I first showed it to, got a good chuckle out of. Usually things like this exist on the internet. Tumblr is full of things similar. But seeing as how it's based upon one of the world's most famous street artists, it felt right like it should be on some crumbling NYC brick wall, not a vertical scrolling blog. Then the reaction itself, both in real life and online, was incredibly interesting. The positive and negative comments, to watch it spread like it did, is what kept the concept's personality going.
EA: What came first: being a fan (of either Tom Hanks or Banksy) or the pun?
Hanksy: Deep down, I am a fan of Tom Hanks and his movies. I grew up on his movies. “The 'Burbs.” “Moneypit.” “Big.” Looking back, the 80s were a giant heap of sugary cereal with cartoons in the morning and the VHS shuffle in the evenings.
EA: What was the first Hanksy piece you made?
Hanksy: It was a Banksy rat adorned with the head of a smiling T. Hanks, on the corner of Mulberry and Kenmare in Lower Manhattan. The next day, someone walked by it, snapped a photo, and sent it over to Wooster Collective. From there it just picked up speed.
EA: Are you a Banksy fan?
Hanksy: Absolutely. My level of enthusiasm has varied over the years, but at the end of the day I'm a fan. I respect him and the work he's done. Plus his stuff is a double edged sword. Funny and political.
EA: If one was trying to explain what Banksy does to someone who knows nothing about street art, one might say something about how he can take an image and put it out of context to make a point—a girl floating freely… on the wall in the West Bank. A masked prostester hurling…. a bouquet of flowers. Are you out-Banksying Banksy?
Hanksy: Like gently taking the piss out of his work?
EA: A bit, yeah.
Hanksy: I guess I am subverting the subversive. It's a bit of everything really. Celebrating his work while also softly pointing out how mainstream and accepted street art has become to the general public. But not everything in life is meant to be taken so seriously.
EA: You just had your first gallery show (at least, as Hanksy) and it was extremely successful. What's that like?
Hanksy: It was all a bit shocking actually and I was surprised that it all fell into place. I didn't take it lightly and the fact that it was so well-received made me love this city even more. And it all happened by chance. It was never my intention to take Hanksy off the street and into the gallery. There's a great little taco shop in the LES and one night last Fall I was enjoying their spicy pork soft shells and randomly met someone who was affiliated with this gallery on Orchard. He mentioned Hanksy and one of his pieces that he'd seen recently. We had beers and some tequila and he expressed interest in putting Hanksy in an exhibit. He had no idea I was responsible for the art, but I gave him an email where he could reach the artist. The success and spontaneity of it all is not lost on me.
EA: Were you at the show? At the opening party, I mean.
Hanksy: I was. I dipped in for a bit. I had a decoy though. My friend was there in a leather jacket, hoodie, and Ray Bans. He was instructed to only answer questions or converse with predetermined Tom Hanks quotes. In his pocket he had roughly 30 notecards, each with lines like "She tasted like cigarettes" or the “Big” rap.
EA: Was there a part of you, large or small, that wished you could say, "Me! I'm the artist!”
Hanksy: Well of course! It's always nice to receive some recognition. But my close friends know and that's good enough for me. Without the mystery, Hanksy would lose a bit of its luster.
EA: Are you currently making non-Hanksy street art?
Hanksy: I'm working on a series of new stuff. It's still very humorous and relies heavily on easily known pop-culture references. It may or may not include Tom Hanks/Banksy tie-ins and while nothing's been put up yet, New York can expect something very soon. Every once in a while I'll pull out a paint marker and scribble my old Chicago tag in a run-down dive bar bathroom, but that's basically for nostalgia purposes.
EA: This is a pretty humorless question about humor, but do you think most people have taken the art in the spirit it was given? And has selling the work for profit changed that at all?
Hanksy: Not exactly. Most do, but I've come across comments or stories written about Hanksy saying I'm directly ripping off Banksy's style. Like, "Where does this guy get off, stealing Banksy's work?" They are completely missing the point. It's a satire. My goal was never to make a profit. It came about and there was a genuine excitement around the people at the gallery and the community in general.
EA: Now that you have made a profit, if you had a day job, did you quit it? Are you a full-time artist?
Hanksy: By no means am I a full-time artist. I have my day-to-day pursuits, something I went to school for, but I'm always chasing the dream. Office lights can be terribly hard on the eyes and the chance to live a dawn to dusk existence doing something creative is what I strive for. So we'll see.
EA: Regarding your work, Tom Hanks sends the message, “I don’t know who Hanksy is, but I enjoy his (her?) comments via the semi-chaos of artistic expression.” Do you know if Banksy knows as well?
Hanksy: There has been word, from mouths that have some credentials to back it up, that he has seen the work, is following it, and completely encourages it.
EA: What's it like to know that two artists of whom you are, by your own admission, a huge fan of, know about and encourage about your work?
Hanksy: It's humbling and completely special. The internet has broken down so many barriers where things like this can now happen. I wouldn't say it's a dream come true, but it's definitely a small fantasy.
EA: Do you feel like you've sort of cheated somehow, to have this special thing happen, all over a joke? Or do you feel like only an entirely genuine laugh could provoke such an outpouring of response? Or some combination of the two?
Hanksy: Initially, it was simple. And don't get me wrong, it still is. But not everything in this life has to be somber, serious, and thought-provoking. Street art included. Mindless humor is meant to be had and the success I've seen shows that other people believe that as well.
EA Hanks hopes you get it.