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The last time he made work in New York City, Banksy, the famous street artist, had trouble finding locations. “Most of the empty lots I planned to use have got condos built on them already,” the elusive British stencil maestro told the Voice in a rare interview in October 2013. That month, he put up one new piece per day, fomenting a scavenger-hunt energy as droves of fans quested around the city to spot and photograph the latest piece before the elements — or vandals — could damage it.
No scouting difficulty this time. Banksy’s first work in the city in five years is on the Bowery Wall, the seventy-foot surface at Houston Street and Bowery where Keith Haring once put a mural in the 1970s. Now a curated space, courtesy of the property owner, it has recently shown David Choe, Ron English, Brazil’s Os Gêmeos, Spain’s Pichi & Avo, and more.
On Thursday, a masked figure cloaked in white spacesuit-like overalls was observed standing on a lift, making black vertical tally marks in clusters of five on the white wall. A press release went out. The work is a collaboration between Banksy and the American street artist Borf, it explained. It is a tribute to the jailed Turkish artist Zehra Doğan.
Doğan, a member of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, is one year into a nearly three-year sentence in Turkey. Her crime was to make a watercolor depicting a town in Turkish Kurdistan in ruins after combat between the army and Kurdish rebels. Perversely, the painting was based on a photograph the Turkish military itself had circulated. But its appropriation by Doğan, who is a progressive journalist as well as an artist, was not to the liking of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime.
“I really feel for her,” Banksy said in a brief statement to the New York Times. “I’ve painted things much more worthy of a custodial sentence.”
By Saturday afternoon, some 48 hours into its display, the work was in conversation with the city — for better or worse. Clusters of pilgrims gathered on the sidewalk and in the median traffic island facing it to snap the best views. A group of students from St. John’s University listened to a guide extol the site’s importance in art history. On the second-highest of the work’s four long rows of tally marks, Doğan’s face looked out over the scene, in a clever and attractive design: the vertical marks now prison bars, and the last one tapered to represent a sharpened pencil. Down near the sidewalk, the inscription FREE ZEHRA DOGAN beckoned passersby to remember her name.
The vandals, too, had shown up. Between the third and fourth row, an interloper had scrawled his identity in red spray paint nine times over — damage that would require a fresh paint job to remedy, which would no doubt invite recidivism. Such is the city.
The work remains elegant, if no longer pure. Its simple geometry contrasts with Banksy’s more common use of stencils — representing humans, dogs, rats, butterflies, flowers, fire hydrants, shopping carts — and the stark pathos of its appeal on behalf of a prisoner of conscience is a welcome moral improvement over the massive hoardings for fashion labels or alcohol brands that pollute whole walls in this part of the city.
It will pass, of course — street art is transient by nature, and thus also, at least in some measure, by design. In her actual prison cell, Doğan can only make her own tally marks to count the days; her release comes in principle in December 2019. According to the press release, she has yet to learn of this venture. A campaign by PEN America invites the public to write U.S. authorities to urge them to demand her release.
A second Banksy has popped up a mile or so away, this one more in keeping with his brand, furtive and sly. A large stenciled rat — one of his fetish animals, and sadly fitting for New York City — has appeared on the face of a stopped clock on a derelict former bank building on the northwest corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.
The hour hand of the clock is stalled above the rat’s rump, seeming to push it up the clock face in a futile circular motion. Here, too, street-art pilgrims and gawkers stand on the corner looking up and snapping pictures. Beneath the clock, homeless individuals sit with their belongings in the condemned doorway. All parties appear supremely oblivious to one another. Prisons, distress, exclusion, futility: The dots connect and the metaphors write themselves as shoppers stream past and an open-topped tourist bus chugs by.
UPDATE 3/18/18 2:00 p.m.: And we have confirmation.