Since 2002, British street artist Banksy has charmed the public, enthralled the art world, and infuriated the police with his political spray paintings, stenciled onto sidewalks and museum walls alike. But in 2012, Tom Hanksy, another anonymous graffiti artist, hit the streets to satirize Banksy’s work, stenciling images of Tom Hanks’ head onto iconic Banksy images. Hanksy now has several gallery shows and a viral Tumblr under his belt. The artist has additionally broadened his repertoire to include lampoons of several other celebrities. The Eye chatted with Hanksy about the evolution of his career, the value of graffiti, and the art of pun-making.
How would you describe what you do?
I draw and paint and produce images that supposedly summon upturn grins and “I-see-what-you-did-there” head nods. I mostly do this on the street.
Which came first—a desire to respond to Banksy, the realization that Hanksy is an awesome pun, or an infatuation with Tom Hanks?
Seeing as my late-’80s and ’90s childhood seemed to be a sugar rush of cartoons in the early morn and a VHS roundtable as the sun went down, I’d be hard-pressed to say I wasn’t a fan of Tom Hanks. Specifically, young, comedic Tom. Dude will forever make me laugh. I mean, have you seen Joe Versus the Volcano or The ’Burbs? Sign me up, forever and always.
Inevitably, some people disagree with what you do—for artistic, ethical, and personal reasons. What’s the biggest criticism you’ve received? How have you responded?
I’ve received some fairly sharp criticism, both from the public and other well-known artists, but it’s all good. I’ve realized talk is just talk and everybody just loves to freaking talk. The Internet is a helluva drug and it’s easy to fall down that black rabbit hole. See, my little corner of the street art world is bright and sunny and far removed from the rest of the room, which tends to remain dark and gloomy. Apparently, there’s an unwritten rule that public art should be somber, sober, and incredibly solemn. But to quote the late Heath Ledger in his last notable role as the wickedly animated Joker, “Why so serious?” Cheer up kids, I know it’s NYC law to be unhappy, but it’s OK to go against the grain every once in awhile.
Along those same lines, there seems to be a debate as to whether your work is an “appropriation” versus a “copy” of another street artist’s work. What are your thoughts?
When I first started putting up work as Hanksy, duh, it was almost a complete copy of Banksy. Besides the slight addition of Tom Hanks’ mean mug that is. But wasn’t that the whole point? Without the recognizable attributes of Forrest Gump attached to the well-known street art of Britain’s Most Famous, the joke wouldn’t exist. I’ve since moved on (both from Banksy and Tom Hanks), and while I still use stencils as my main application, the end product is much more animated.
Which one of your puns are you most proud of? Which of your paintings?
For me, the silly will always outshine the serious. So my favorite pieces will always be the most immature. Back when the new Wizard of Oz [film] came out I painted James Franco’s face on a toilet and called it “The Whiz-ard of Oz.” It’s incredibly absurd, I know, but to me that’s what makes it most attractive. Like, why would anyone put in so much work for something so stupid?
At the start, what kind of response did you hope your art would elicit? What audience are you targeting?
Honestly, I never thought about the response. When I put up my first Hanksy piece two years ago, I simply thought it was a funny gag and, because of its source material, would be even funnier if it was on the street. Now, two years and a small career of puns later, I hope the response is relatable to the lighthearted intention that drove me to the streets in the first place.
Street art, of course, is moving to the ivory towers of museums, galleries, and Ivy League school publications (cough, cough). Classical art has always been best received by the upper middle class, and now street art is no exception. What do you think about this? Is it going to change the world of street art?
Despite a number of high-profile galleries placing street art rats alongside notable classical fine art darlings and asking similar prices, it’s my opinion that the genre isn’t there quite yet. NYC is still a circle jerk of blowhards when it comes to the fine art world, and as of 2013, the main contenders still see street art as a category for the common folk. And that is quite OK with me. It’s more exciting to scrape from the bottom up.
Do you ever wish you could reveal your identity and step forward to take credit for your work? Besides avoiding legal repercussions, do you think remaining anonymous adds any kind of benefit?
The fact that I’m still anonymous is fairly organic. I mean, I never revealed my identity because there was no real point. It was just a gag I went with. Now it’s like my “Cloak of Invisibility” and I’m freaking Harry Potter. It allows me to act freely and unconfined and without restriction. I just need to find my Hermione.
Would you say your work has some kind of “message”? If so, what is it?
One could argue that my celebrity-infused street art is a response to the genre’s general acceptance into the mainstream. But nah, if I said that I’d be lying. It’s just to make me laugh. Hopefully others do too.
Any hard feelings between you and Banksy?
Not that I know of.
Have Tom Hanks or other featured celebrities responded to your work in any way?
A good chunk of them have tweeted or re-tweeted articles. Tom Hanks has mentioned me a few times and Jim Gaffigan has always been super generous with publicity. Hot Pockets.
On a personal note, my last name is Utter (rife with pun possibilities). What would you make of it?
I don’t know. You might have to ask an Utter street artist.