BNE Treading Water Over Charity Fallout

March 24, 2014 | Bucky Turco

(UPDATED 3-25) In the latest twist to semi-anonymous sticker bomber BNE’s already confounding Saturday t-shirt launch—originally heralded as a “collaboration between BNE and Banksy”—BNE has admitted that street art fans who plunked down $80 for the still blank t-shirt in the hopes of snagging a piece of art history, had “NOT purchase[d] a Banksy t-shirt.”

The announcement–which has since been deleted–was posted via Instagram, where a firestorm of criticism had erupted against his unverified claims (eventually shot down by a statement on Banksy’s website:”Banksy has not made any t-shirts for a water charity.”) BNE’s post also took strong issue with ANIMAL’s use of the word “scam” to describe his false advertising in an earlier story. He rightly pointed to the fact that he did indeed donate $35,000 to charity:water as promised, adding less clearly that the havoc-inducing rollout was part of a continuing “social experiment.”

Indeed, charity:water confirmed that they had received $35,000 from BNE. Because of the Banksy controversy, however, they are now treating the money like a hot potato. In emails to us, Paull Young, spokesperson for the respected charity wrote that “we have heard some claims that this money has been raised in a fraudulent manner.” He later added, “legal counsel was involved,” and that the situation was an “incredibly upsetting” note to end World Water Day on.

For his part, BNE attested that he had received notices threatening legal action from charity:water; and in a move that further unnerved him, Pay Pal has frozen his account. Despite this BNE has told us unequivocally that he is refunding the entire sold-out run of 500 t-shirts, which went for $80 a pop, whether customers ask for their money back or not. (He has since changed course on this via this Instagram post.)

How he’ll manage this is unclear given that whether or not charity:water is actually giving back his donation remains to be seen. Asked how he’ll feel if charity:water actually does take some sort of legal action in spite of the $35,000 and his stewardship of Artists4Water, his awareness raising campaign (that featured limited edition $40 tees, $7 of which he donated), he said, “if that’s the case, then that’s really wack. I mean I brought them the biggest street artists in the world.”

So how did a street kid savvy enough to gain fame taking his tag global wind up in such a dumb predicament? After a lengthy, sometimes contentious, conversation with him, one can’t help sensing some frustration with the pecking order of the current street art scene. After decades running around the world sticker-bombing and tagging he’s watched Banksy quickly become a world famous media darling with what he perceives as a few well played stunts. Given that mindset, BNE may have naturally felt that Banksy would help out his cause as did Shepard Fairey and others.

Despite this weekend’s dust up he’s kept at least the lukewarm support of the renowned street artists who he teamed up with for Artists4Water. Writing on Instagram, art collective Faile wrote they were keeping a positive outlook on raising water awareness and as for the Banksy piece, they were “[unaware] of the situation, but “we signed up to support the charity and are reserving our comments and judgment[.]”

Speaking with BNE and sources close to the situation who wish to stay out of the fray, it seems that he was somehow convinced that Banksy would get on board with Artists4Water. Either way he admits that, at the very least, he jumped the gun, “and should have planned things out better.” BNE’s future projects include a socially conscious lifestyle brand that donates 20% to a new charity every month–a strategy born of his strong oft-repeated belief that people are more likely to donate from consumer self-interest than out of pure philanthropy. Shepard Fairey expressed support, telling ANIMAL it was a “practical model” that he encouraged, but added, “I emphasized to BNE that he needs to be very up front about his business and charity structure.”

(Illustration: Michael Ian Weinfeld)