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Seven Years with Banksy
By Robert Clarke
Michael O'Mara Books LimitedCopyright © 2012 Robert Clarke
All rights reserved.
In 1994 I found myself back in New York. I had been travelling around the Middle East with my brother after my father had passed on, and had stopped in Bristol for the summer. I had this unquenchable lust to be back in New York and even though I only had a small amount of money left, I got myself on a plane and headed over the Atlantic.
By now I felt I had developed a relationship with the place, having first visited New York in the harsh winter after John Lennon was shot down in 1980. Those were the days when you would see a subway train screeching into a station that had been bombed (covered in graffiti) massively inside and out. They were like living, breathing works of art coming at you non-stop. When the doors sprang open, every square inch was tagged. It was another world and it exhilarated me. I would sit and watch the trains coming over from Brooklyn on the bridges and trip.
I loved the graffiti and back then there were no glossy coffee table books fetishizing the subject. It was just hyper-real. As a kid just out of his teens this was like being in a Kojak thriller all of my own. When I was back again around 1984 most of the trains were clean but you saw Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat works on the subway walls instead.
By 1994 the city had changed its nature again; it seemed a tamer place but it still retained a raw edge. Since 9/11 New York has become so sanitized it barely resembles its heyday and I, like many others, have fallen out of love with it. But I'm glad I'm no longer addicted to the place.
To set the scene: in 1994 I came rolling out of JFK and on to the A train heading into Manhattan. I got out at St Marks Place and strolled down 8th Avenue to Tompkins Square Park in the East Village where my mate Max lived. He was only going to let me stay with him a couple of nights so I had to act sharp to get sorted. A place to crash was obviously a priority: the nights were drawing in and the big freeze of winter was on its way.
I struck lucky and hooked up with Max's ex-girlfriend, Phlipp, an English girl who I knew from London, and she threw some good fortune my way. Within those two days she found me a place to stay – a warehouse space over in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was just one stop on the grey L train from lower Manhattan, and back then it was only just starting to be populated by artists converting old warehouses and industrial spaces into living quarters. Spaces could be huge and rent minimal, just how artists like it. Now the place is expensive and full of young trendies living the high life. Back then we were sandwiched between Poles, Hispanics and Hassidic Jews, and there was only one or two places to eat. The City changes and money moves the underprivileged out. In '94 it was a decidedly righteous place to live.
My room was basic, with access to an adjacent roof from where you could take in a view of the city. There was a nest of rats down my stairwell but as long as they didn't come into my room they never bothered me. About twelve of us shared a bathroom but it was all good and functional. I was established in living quarters in the Borough of Brooklyn.
It wasn't too long before I needed to find work. I had an old Social Security number that a friend had procured for me when I had lived in San Francisco. It was dodgy but I could use it for a while before the wheels of bureaucracy would catch up. Meanwhile Phlipp had just quit a job working at a low-rent hotel in midtown. She had had enough of the place but offered to introduce me to the crew that ran it as they might need someone to fill her shoes.
I went to check it out – the Carlton was no normal hotel. It was one of the best located but cheapest places to stay in town. It was an old, crooked, funky joint that used to house whores, crack addicts and various lowlifes. There were some dignified old-timers who had resided there for years and some loons who just holed up there, washed up from some personal crisis, and had never left. But here's the thing: artists, of one description or another, had begun to stay there due to the affordable rents. At some point one of these artists had offered to paint their room instead of paying rent. The management took an enlightened perspective and said, 'Yeah, okay, paint whatever you want.' Virtually all of the rooms had been painted by different people in different styles, so much so that the place had an international reputation and various artists would even fly in to stay for free while painting their room.
The first day I walked into the place it was a sensory overload – the hallways, toilets, foyer and stairwells were all decorated in styles that grabbed your attention, not to mention the rooms. I was introduced to the crew that ran it. They looked me up and down and made me a cup of something before I left but it didn't seem that I was going to walk into a job right there and then. So I was back on the street, rubbing my hands in the autumnal air and feeling a little disappointed as the place had taken hold of my imagination.
Now, the neighbourhood I had moved into was not completely new to me as I had another link to the area. Her name was Dominga, a Brooklyn born, Chinese-American of Singaporean extraction. She was previously married to Scott, a mate of mine with dual British and American citizenship. He had been living in Williamsburg and we used to hang out over there back in the day. I went over to visit and told Dominga I was wondering about how to make some rent when she said: 'Hey, what about being a cycle courier – you can borrow my bike.' So I got downtown to a courier service the next working day and signed up.
I knew the city quite well from my previous visits as I had lived in a number of neighbourhoods since 1980 such as 'Hells Kitchen' the old Irish 'hood, the East Village, Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem, and I also had friends all over so I figured I would soon find my way around. I had to cross over the infamous Williamsburg Bridge every morning and night, something I had been warned against doing by everyone I knew, but I was adamant nobody was going to fuck with me and got it on.
It's a serious job, as anyone who has been a cycle courier will tell you, and the reward is certainly not the money, although it's enough to get by on. The reward is getting to know the city. You are granted instant access to a multitude of places and faces that are strictly off-limits to the general public. It was dangerous out there; cold, wet and hard, and that was even before you started working, but the other couriers were brothers in arms and slowly the city revealed itself to me.
One winter afternoon I was belting up the Avenue of the Americas on the bike when Keef, the boss of the Carlton Hotel, shouted out to me from the sidewalk. I screeched to a halt in the slush. It turned out he had also been a cycle courier for some years so he had the camaraderie in spades. He was psyched to see me doing what he used to do and it turned him onto me more than our previous encounter and he mentioned there might be some night shifts available at the hotel if I was still interested. I told him I was and gave him a contact number. It wasn't long after that I got a phone call and I was invited over to the Carlton to be trained up in the art of the night porter. Soon I had enough shifts to leave the courier's slog behind me. The refrain from E.S.G.'s tune 'Uptown downtown, you've got to turn your life around' began to leave my head.
I started to do eighteen-hour shifts at the Carlton Hotel. It was excruciating to be woken at 3 a.m. by some drunken bum who wanted a bed for the night, but on the whole it was an easy number, even though I worked alone at night. Foreign tourists had started to show up and use the hotel and it was interesting to talk to the international clientele.
The bolloxed and banjaxed folks that passed through the doors was worthy of a book in itself: there were the crack-smokers and -dealers who we would try to screen but some would fool us with a straight appearance; there were the assortment of whores of both sexes who came in with their customers to turn a quick trick, and then there were regular people who happened upon us on account of the good rates. Finally, there were the artists who would usually stop over one at a time and there would be a break before another showed up. These individuals were nearly always impressive and worth getting to know.
The centre of operations was a tiny office, full of junk and odd artefacts with an even smaller room off to the side that had a bunk in it (and a baseball bat) where you could hopefully catch some sleep in the early hours when it could get quiet. It was one of the most pleasant parts of the job to invite a guest into the office and have a cup of tea and shoot the breeze.
After a few months one of the day managers mentioned that we had an English artist staying for a tour of duty and that he was from Bristol. 'You're from Bristol aren't you?' he said.
I looked forward to meeting this person. Lo and behold, one fine morning, bleary-eyed as I was, there stood before me a guy by the name of Robin. He was framed in the office door and a radiant light was coming off him ... no, not really! There he was, framed in the door and he just looked at me with a nonchalant expression.
He didn't say anything so I said, 'All right?' He nodded and I spoke again and said, 'You must be the one from Bristol?' He nodded again but didn't communicate much else. He was just there. 'Is there something you want?' I asked. He had some personal effects in the little safe, so I gave them to him and he said, 'See ya,' turned and walked off. 'Oh,' I thought and got on with what I needed to get on with at that time of the morning like turfing out the bums before 10 a.m. and getting the books square.
So that was our first meeting and it makes me smile because that non-committal long gaze thing is him through and through. He isn't very forthcoming.
A brief description: he is quite tall but not overly so, he is slim and slightly gangly. His dress sense isn't really together. His clothes didn't make any sense. He wasn't trying to concoct a look or identify with some youth code. It was nondescript. The guy was a crow, he didn't stand out, or in; you just wouldn't notice him. He could blend in or out at will as if he had an invisibility cloak. This was my fundamental impression when I look back at those three short minutes when I first clapped eyes on him. To be that way requires some magic spell or something and I don't think he was conscious of that effect – he was born with it. This is the first clue to how he's managed to go so long undetected. And long may it continue.
After that first inauspicious meeting I can't say I looked forward to seeing him again. He was just there, in the hotel, doing his thing and it was my job to keep an eye on him.
So I was doing my shifts on reception, often eating a pint of Ben and Jerry's 'New York Super Fudge Chunk', while this new artist would come and go through the foyer. It wasn't an open reception. We had bullet/baseball bat-proof security glass fronting the office with a space to speak through, just in case of any antisocial behaviour so often displayed by disenfranchised New Yorkers. But we did have a door, naturally, and that was usually open.
Robin and I started to nod at each other from day to day but usually he would just pass by, quite rapidly. 'What have I done to offend him?' I thought, although in truth this was really my least concern. He knew I was English, but we English are very cautious of each other, especially when we're abroad. Rather than a chummy acceptance of another Englishman, it is usually a long-winded process of just getting to know each other a little at first. Where this foolishness comes from is anybody's guess but there it is – English reticence – yet when we do connect it is usually solid and lasting.
I knew he knew I was English, but maybe he didn't know I was from Bristol, so I decided to go up to his room uninvited and introduce myself properly.CHAPTER 2
One evening I made my way up to Robin's room. There was an appointed time when I shut the street doorway at night and then I would walk the hallways, just to make sure there was no anti-social trash hanging about. I would do this a few times each night and early morning. As I came towards his room there was the usual smell of paint and the door was shut so I knocked. There was no response from inside so I opened the door a little and stuck my head through the gap.
'All right?' I broached.
'Yeah,' he said.
'Can I come in?'
'Yeah,' he said. So I stepped inside.
The place was a wreck: paint all over the place and stuff everywhere, but on the walls something was coming together, including the ceilings and doors. Odd, cartoonish, fiendish-looking creatures were beginning to peek out in broad outlines and bright colours. It was like a Gremlins toy town manifesting through the walls. So this is what he does, I thought. I didn't comment much but said 'Hey, looks all right.' 'Yeah,' he said.
I didn't feel exactly welcome but I sat on the floor and relaxed. He was working and you know what these artists are like, so I settled back a bit and just started to chat a little, talking a bit about Bristol and whatever but it was pretty quiet generally and I watched him work. The atmosphere became warmer as the minutes passed. He was very busy, immersed in his work. After a while I realized I had been in there for over an hour. It had been nice to sit there, trying to figure the newcomer out, seeing him in action, but I had to go and sort the laundry and answer the phones and do the books and be around for the residents so I took off.
His artwork looked like fun but it wasn't as serious or avant-garde as the usual stuff that got done in the rooms. Mind you, some of the rooms had been done out so heavily that it was depressing to go into them, and some had such explicit sexual references it made you wonder what sort of behaviour was demanded of you if you stayed there. One room was full of depictions of car crashes and flowers and that really got to my mum when she stayed in it. So Robin's room was definitely staking out its own ground. It wasn't traditional graffiti as some might expect. It was something else, like the Wacky Races with a macabre tone. I liked it but it didn't particularly challenge you in any way and I wondered how the hotel became interested in him. It almost didn't seem to fit the place.
Ah well, just another visiting artist, I thought. I also figured he might not be around that long as the usual artist tenancy was a couple of months at most. Although he was British, there were no real gestures of friendship and as he was quite aloof, I just let it be.
As time went by though, I would invite him into the office for a cup of tea and the English reticence thing started to melt a little and mutual acknowledgement became more regular. His room was coming along and he had started to occasionally bring around some people he was hanging out with. They looked like proper New Yorkers and lacked any pretentious airs that are sometimes common among creative people. Little parties began to take place in his room and when I was walking the halls in the evenings, the door was often open and I would pop in and have a beer, meet his associates and take in the advancing jungle world that was appearing on his walls.
I think he was testy with me because I actually just worked there, 'a member of the staff', and we hadn't crossed into a space of mutual trust that you need to let people in. The reality was I didn't give a damn about how crazy it got in the hotel. I liked the madness and insanity of the place. And in contrast with the vomit-soaked rooms and firearms his vibe was quite chilled out and cosy, if a little standoffish.
A young blonde girl attached to him showed up on the scene and you just had to look at her to see she was wild and spiky. She was on the punky-street side, and chased after him like a young puppy with her tailwagging. You could feel their energy before you saw them coming in off the street clutching bottles of American Sudsy beer wrapped in brown paper bags.
Excerpted from Seven Years with Banksy by Robert Clarke. Copyright © 2012 Robert Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Michael O'Mara Books Limited.
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