What Happens When People Try to Deface a Banksy?


New York City was quite literally atwitter last October when the British street artist Banksy decamped there and announced a monthlong residency. As Banksy posted a new work each day in different locations, fans took to social media and raced from place to place in a citywide scavenger hunt to find his pieces before they were changed or defaced. The implicit impermanence of each artwork raised an interesting question: If Banksy is out there tagging public properties — in essence, defacing them, according to then-mayor Mike Bloomberg — who intercedes when someone defaces the Banksy?

The new HBO documentary Banksy Does New York (debuting November 17 at HBO) tackles that question, and it turns out the answer is pretty delightful, as you'll see in the exclusive clip below: Banksy's works were protected by a self-assembled squad of New Yorkers who called themselves the Wet Wipe Gang, and they would restore the art pieces that had been tagged and even tackle the people who attempted to abscond with Banksy's more free-floating work.

"It's interesting because these aren't guys who have anything to gain — unlike the building owners, who would maybe stand to gain monetarily from protecting the works," the documentary's director, Chris Moukarbel, told Vulture. "These are just fans who are dedicated to Banksy and making sure other people can see his work."

The Wet Wipe Gang would then typically upload their clean-ups to social media, and that's part of what gives Banksy Does New York its kick: Much of the movie is comprised of that crowd-sourced content, which was generated by people of all walks of life from all over the city. "In a way, it was as simple as doing hashtag searches," said Mourkarbel. "Everybody who was posting photos and videos that month would use a hashtag, and in a sense — whether they meant to or not — they were creating this massive archive."

It's a fitting format for the film, since Banksy's residency was powered by and promoted on social media, and many of the key members of the Wet Wipe Gang found each other in that fashion.

"A couple of them were friends, but a number of them came together over the course of the month, which is sort of an interesting side effect to Banksy's project and how it brought people together from all different parts of the city," said Moukarbel. "They're all still connected, and I think there's something sort of sweet and unexpected about that."