At this point, if Banksy farted in a bottle, it would sell for a lot… and ANIMAL would write about it. Hundreds raced to swarm around his NYC pieces every day all this month. But 10 years ago in May of 2003, Banksy’s first New York art exhibit was a small and humbly-attended affair in the expanded space of a Triple Five Soul retail store on Lafayette.
“It wasn’t a huge thing. It wasn’t a tiny thing. 100-125 people,” Ben Velez, the brand’s former marketing director tells ANIMAL. “We did our usual thing. We called friends. Personal emails. We did these things every so often.”
Before the British street artist’s illegal stencils were being chiseled out of walls and auctioned off for $1.1 million, before his every move was tracked, documented and fanned over via the internet, before the mystery, the mania and the mobs, Banksy was just some stencil-painting guy from London by way of Bristol. Here’s the untold story of that barely-seen show.
At the time Triple Five Soul’s VP of Marketing, Velez would ask artist friends and artists admired to participate in the “Vs. Projects” series he curated inside the premier street wear brand’s gallery/party space. Street art popularity wasn’t a concern.
Velez was leaving the job for Burton. For the last show, he wanted Banksy.
“Well-steeped in New York City’s anarcho-punk scene in the 80s, I had immediately fallen in love with the message and aesthetic of the just-emerging Banksy. I was a real fan, and I say this cautiously, with the caveat that there is very, very little that I am ever a ‘fan’ of.”
To find the elusive artist, Velez went out on a limb through Stone’s Throw, then Studio K7, then a shady unlisted mobile number with a Bristol, UK area code allegedly belonging to Banksy’s intermediary “mate.”
“Banksy was elusive, paranoid and absolutely impossible to contact,” Velez recalls. “We couldn’t arrange travel as he didn’t want anyone having his info, so we had to hand him his airfare upon arrival in British pounds.”
Velez also handed Banksy the keys to the store. He’d work when it was closed. His total budget for getting Banksy to the city? About $3000.
“He went to town in there, by himself, by night,” Velez says.
“He was particularly concerned about this being his first ‘commercially-oriented’ gig, so I gave him carte blanche to say/do whatever he wanted.” He felt that Banksy was doing something historic.
“The show was all stencils, directly applied onto the wall, with much of the content being extremely purposeful and excellent, given we were still living directly in the shadow of 9/11 and, moreover, underneath the awful Bush Jr. regime. The pieces spoke to flag waving, patriotism, bombing and consumerism… I remember having to convince people that they needed to come to it, that this guy was really special.”
“He was a very quiet, funny and nondescript guy who almost looked more like someone you’d go get your taxes done by than an infamous anarchist street artist,” Velez recalls fondly. “Once he had sussed me out as a good guy with shared politics (and not some marketing business wanker), he let his guard down and we spent some time hanging out.”
DOZE (pictured right) was there too. Done painting trains, but not yet represented by Jonathan Levine, Doze Green was entering the fine art game and was definitely more well-known than Banksy at the time of the opening.
“It was pretty intimate. Everything was left on the rack,” DOZE says. No one was worried about pieces being stolen. “I was in London a few months before the opening and there was a big stirring. He was coming up. I met him that night. He was really intelligent. We spoke about the temporary condition of the universe and how our DNA is the only constant thing in the universe.”
“He was the most memorable person at the party,” DOZE recalls. “But I didn’t think much of it. He was just some white guy from England.”
Banksy even gave Velez several prints including a London crusade original of the Queen sitting on a prostitute’s face, complete with Banksy’s sketch/stencil outline notes on the back. “I tried to get Pest Control to validate it, but no success,” Velez admits. “It was a gift that I treasure and that’s how it should remain.”
The Triple Five Soul manager’s experience was more financially lucrative. “She hired contractors to remove the wall just before she was fired or quit or whatever happened to her,” Velez says. “She sold it to a friend of mine in Los Angeles.”
“I still can’t quite understand why he agreed to do it,” Velez wonders. “The show itself was up for three months, with absolutely nothing for sale.” There was no money to be made for Banksy or Velez, just memories.
“He was shy and did not want to meet or know anyone, and we actually spent the time during his show kicking it on a nearby street corner while he chain-smoked. We had few quiet, but funny moments together, and then he was gone.”
(Photos: Ben Velez)