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Maddie Moran is standing in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria carrying a purse full of cooked spaghetti, offering fistfuls of noodles to strangers. Almost no one is taking her up on the pasta, but she doesn’t seem to mind. It might not be helping that her face is scrawled with black paint that reads “Banky [sic] was here.” But she deflects the incredulous stares with a disarming smile.
Moran was one of a few onlookers who, on January 16, turned out for an event circulated widely on Facebook that promised to reveal the true identity of Banksy, the mysterious graffiti artist. She said she brought the cooked pasta because the Waldorf “confirmed their open spaghetti policy” and the event “wasn’t [catered] by anybody.” Alrighty, then.
Adding to the surreal nature of the afternoon, Moran would later clamor to get her picture taken with Michael Whatley, a Kentucky man with no connection to Banksy, who achieved some minor internet fame after a stranger surreptitiously used his headshot to advertise the event.
It all started late last year, when a Facebook event surfaced promising that Banksy would show up for a “meet and greet” at the Waldorf Astoria — with the first hundred guests receiving “a free face painting from the scoundrel himself!!” It didn’t take long to completely debunk the veracity of the promises made in the Facebook event’s description. The artist’s name was repeatedly misspelled, and even Banksy’s publicist wasn’t interested in keeping the mystery alive, telling the Voice last November the event had “nothing at all to do with Banksy.” But its very debunking seemed to become part of the joke — and certainly didn’t stop 12,000 people from RSVP’ing to the event.
“We know it’s a big joke,” said Dariush Nehdaran, a 33-year-old Queens resident who is originally from Iran. He said he showed up because he “wanted to make friends.” A 25-year-old East Harlem resident who declined to give his name said he made the decision to drop by while checking his Facebook page on the toilet. “I was taking a shit this morning and Facebook told me a friend was going to an event nearby,” he said. “I thought, ‘Fuck it, that sounds fun.’ ”
And even though most in attendance seemed to have dropped by on a whim (only a couple dozen of the 12,000 confirmed attendees showed up), almost everyone recognized Whatley. For the better part of an hour, the man who improbably became the face of Banksy was greeting complete strangers eager to get a picture with him.
Though he was more or less the guest of honor, Whatley himself had nothing to do with the fake event in the first place. He works full time at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and didn’t know the event was using his photo until a friend sent him a link to it last September. He figures Steven Rausch, who created the Facebook event, found his headshot because it’s the first hit when you run a Google image search of “average man.” He even once directed a play titled An Average Man, likely boosting the search result.
Rausch offers exclusively nonsensical answers when asked about how the event came to be: “Well, me and Bankers were hanging out, just watching Gilmore Girls…the episode where Rory is presented to the DAR, and Bling was just like, ‘Mate, I think that’s what I want to do…’ ” he wrote via Facebook message. Rausch says he lives in Washington, D.C., and works conducting “quality assurance for bean canning companies.”
For his part, Whatley said he just happened to be in New York working a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “It was just really serendipitous with my work schedule,” the 26-year-old explained. “I hadn’t been to New York in three years, which is a lot for a theater person.” He dropped by because he couldn’t miss a chance to participate in what he called “a good-natured internet prank.”
But not quite everyone was in on the joke. Just a few minutes after people began recognizing Whatley on Park Avenue outside the hotel, Lili Melot and Claire Sardet — both 23-year-old NYU students — breathlessly asked him for a selfie. “We really didn’t know what to expect,” said Melot, who found the event on Facebook and was understandably proud of scoring a photo with the notoriously secretive artist. But when asked why they assumed Whatley was really Banksy, a flash of embarrassment spread across their faces. “He isn’t?” said Sardet. “We’ll probably keep this story between us.”
Whatley said he enjoyed his brush with faux fame. “It was like they were excited to talk to a celebrity. No one’s really ever talked to me that way,” he joked. “Getting offered spaghetti from a woman’s purse is not anything I expected to happen to me.”
While it was easy to believe Whatley was telling the truth, it was hard to resist asking how we know for sure that he’s not really Banksy.
“I guess you don’t,” he said.