Secret Lives

This Graffiti Fanboy Steals Priceless Street Art Under the Cloak of Darkness

On the prowl with the Thomas Crown of the New York City streets.

This Graffiti Fanboy Steals Priceless Street Art Under the Cloak of Darkness

Tommy is a bit jumpy. The six-foot Queens, New York, native, his closely cropped, dirty blonde hair covered by a black hoodie, just downed a Red Bull in his car. It’s well after midnight on a weekday and now he’s ordering a can of Coke with two extra-spicy chicken tacos from a food truck.

Tommy, who asked that his name be changed to protect him from retaliatory acts, knows this Bedford Avenue corner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is not the ideal location to commit what many in the street art community consider a crime. The fire engine red food truck has a scrawling LED sign advertising its menu, and there’s light pouring onto the sidewalk from a bodega. But a police patrol car just sauntered past and continued down the block, so Tommy knows they won’t be back for a while. Plus, earlier, New York endured a three-hour downpour, softening the glue behind an indeterminable number of posters affixed to walls by some of the most respected street artists in the world. And directly across from the food truck is one wall with pieces by two of Tommy’s favorite artists sticking to it…at least for now.

As I place my own entrée order, Tommy takes two nimble steps back toward the wall, looks left, then right. He flips around and his fingers go to work on a poster signed in white stencil by the local street artist “SacSix.” Tommy has already claimed a few pieces by SacSix since he began hoarding street art a year ago.

The woman in the truck giggles as she watches Tommy, and I turn to see the outstretched arm of a dancing Mike Tyson being pulled off the brick. Wearing a black-and-white striped shirt, the body of Iron Mike is buckling its knees and striking an Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock” pose. Tommy carries a box cutter and a heavy duty, pump-action spray bottle filled with water for assistance on these excursions. But because of the day’s rainfall he doesn’t need either of them now, and once Tyson is secured, Tommy starts on the eight-inch-tall Paris Hilton dancing in line next to him.

Hilton succumbs to Tommy even quicker than Tyson. “Normally it takes me five to ten minutes to take a piece down,” Tommy explains. “But on a great, rainy night they come off like butter and I almost feel guilty. It’s too easy.”

Tommy removes a work of street art posted in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The gritty New York graffiti subculture of the ’70s and ’80s was effectively wiped away by the ’90s, due to the city enacting aggressive train- and wall-cleaning policies. Since then, street art – the more elaborate and nuanced version of the medium – has infiltrated New York, and cities around the world. More recently, high-end galleries and auction houses have included street art among their offerings.

Michael Doyle, director of business development at Julien’s Auctions – a West Hollywood auction house that sells a wide variety of art – says street art, and its acceptance as a legitimate commodity, is here to stay. “It still has that rebel, fringe, controversial” side to it, he says, “but nonetheless we’ve seen a strong, steady increase in demand as well as prices.”

But because of the illegal nature of their work, street artists rarely see direct financial returns from their efforts – unless they’re formally commissioned. Like the London-based, world-famous Banksy, most street artists are anonymous, and the pieces that end up in public galleries and formal auctions are typically served up by lucky building owners who’ve had a noteworthy artist choose their wall as a canvass, or by an art dealer who brokered an agreement with such a building owner. Spray-painted walls targeted by respected street artists have been relinquished from buildings, and more elaborate installations have been plundered. In 2013, when Banksy embarked on a widely chronicled New York residency, he placed a Sphinx statue made of cinderblocks in Queens, and then disappeared as he always does. Soon, several men began to deconstruct the statue and load a truck with the blocks. The majority of Banksy’s Sphinx is now in the Keszler Gallery on Long Island, awaiting a buyer. Portions of its base, though, are in a storage unit rented by Tommy.

Such outcomes irk documentarian Colin Day, whose “Saving Banksy” chronicles the fate of a mural the artist painted in San Francisco. “It’s wrong if street art is removed for the intent of profit,” Day says, adding that, if someone does sell a piece taken from the street, they should at least try to track the artist down and give them a portion of the booty. He also feels it is important that a piece of street art placed on a wall remain on that same structure and, somehow, stay within the community the artist presented it.

A wheat paste poster attributed to SacSix in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Distinct from the ritzy galleries and auction houses, a street art black market has also developed on sites like eBay where authentication isn’t required. There are people who tour city streets, finding the right moments – and practicing the most efficient methods – to remove art.

But Tommy doesn’t consider himself a thief. He says he does not sell the artwork he confiscates from the streets, under any circumstances, and does not intend to do so. His collection is approaching four-dozen pieces, but he wishes to keep them all for himself, simply because he’s a fan.

Propped up next to the Sphinx slabs in Tommy’s storage room are works by New York street artists SacSix, Cost, Dee Dee, Dain and others, as well as the Frenchman known as Invader. There are stickers – some still on city street signs Tommy cut away, others carefully pulled off – and tile designs. Most of his collection is made up of posters known as “wheat pastes” because a flour-based glue is used to put them up.

“I know it looks selfish,” says Tommy, who works as a freelance graphic designer. “But I feel like I’m capturing a moment in a really artistic time. I wish I got my start sooner. It turned into a big hype thing, and now the big artists don’t want to put up wheat pastes because they know they’re going to be torn down and sold.”

An hour earlier, Tommy and I stood outside one of Brooklyn’s many fenced-in construction zones. On the far side of the plot, fixed to the wall of an as-yet demolished building, was one particular piece Tommy desperately wanted: a cutout poster of the iconic skull logo associated with the horror-punk band the Misfits, except the top half above the jawline more resembles the ’80s World Wrestling Federation star Andre The Giant. Tommy hypothesizes that the piece is by Shepard Fairey, who rose to prominence in the early ’90s by posting tons of stickers depicting Andre The Giant above the word OBEY, then in 2008 found worldwide fame for his Barack Obama HOPE poster.

“I’m going to ask permission [from the construction workers] to save it,” Tommy said, staring at the Misfits-Andre mash-up. He added that many nights he’s thought of breaking into the construction zone to retrieve the piece, but is afraid of being arrested for trespassing. “They’re going to put this building up in front of it and then it’s going to be gone,” Tommy said. “And that bothers me.”

“I’m saving it from its ultimate doom of getting defaced, and, probably, people are going to try and take it and they’re going to take it the wrong way,” he continued, insisting that most others would casually peel off small portions of the poster, possibly on a dry day. “Piece by piece it’s just going to start disappearing.”

Tommy shows off a New York City street sign he removed and the stickers by long-time street artist Cost that remain on the back.

SacSix doesn’t see Tommy’s actions as “saving” street art.

“There has been the occasion where I’ve seen a wheat paste that is essentially off and I’m taking it back to my apartment,” SacSix said during a recent phone interview. But then he added: “I would never go up to a piece that I know is securely wheat-pasted and try and tear it. If you have to wait for rainy days and you gotta go out there with blades and tools, that’s not really rescuing. That’s more stealing.”

He insists a “weathered” poster can be even more alluring than a freshly pasted one, and deserves to endure a complete lifecycle. “Colors fade, corners tear,” SacSix says. “Let it be beautiful in its decay.”

Not all street artists are so strongly against what Tommy does. Los Angeles-based Paige Smith – who goes by “A Common Name” and is best known for her “Urban Geode” street art project – says she quickly came to terms with the fact that people were going to claim her art for themselves. “I kind of consider people forces of nature on this planet. They destroy things; I expect it,” she says. “If anyone is walking through a forest and finds a gem or an arrowhead, they take it. I think it makes sense that they take it.”

Fellow Los Angeleno Illma Gore, a veteran street artist who is best known for her rather unflattering nude portrait of Donald Trump, says, “When you do something in street art, in the public domain, you’re giving it up; you’re saying, ‘This is for you. This is for the public.’” But Gore also feels that, financially, “It’s getting harder and harder to be a living artist, so there’s only a certain amount of art that street artists can give out for free.”

A piece of street art signed in stencil by local artist SacSix, now in Tommy’s possession.

Back at the Bedford Avenue wall across from the food truck, with Elvis-Tyson and -Hilton completely removed, Tommy eyes a neighboring two-by-four-foot poster attributed to Dee Dee. The haunting piece has a soft, pastel purple background with a flock of bats flying behind an Asian woman wearing green and yellow cat ears and a black ball gown. Tommy says he’s prized the poster for months after spotting it on a drive through the area, but the glue Dee Dee used has been too up to the task for peeling. As Tommy scurries to put the SacSix dancers in his car he says, “That Dee Dee is coming down tonight.”

“I appreciate the love for my work, it is very flattering,” Dee Dee wrote to me in an email. “However, it is placed in public for everyone and at a personal risk to myself. I would hope people would consider that.”

Tommy begins to peel off the Dee Dee poster, pulling the bottom corners up. Within seconds the artwork is his, rolled up into a ball and on its way to his car. Later we’ll find a dancing Mel Gibson piece by SacSix as well, and at home, Tommy will unravel them all and let them dry. Then he will mount and seal the pieces in frames.

Tommy takes down a piece by Dee Dee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

A bit of a loner, Tommy says he works long hours in graphic design to make ends meet. He doesn’t show his art collection off much, but says he may commit some of the posters to the walls of a new workspace he’s renting. Of these late nights on street art hunts, he says, “This is the only excitement I have in my life right now.” Typically, he goes out looking for art by himself, though in the past his girlfriend joined, and even assisted him. (One time she videotaped Tommy taking a Sawzall drill to the side of a SoHo building in what would prove to be a jarringly loud and sheepish effort to procure a famous Invader mural depicting the Ramones, which had been whitewashed in paint.) However, he and his girlfriend recently broke up, and Tommy confesses that his obsession with street art may have cut into the time he should have been devoting to her.

Tommy admits to getting an adrenaline rush when he takes street art for himself, dating back to his very first heist. Though he says he’s been a fan of street art since the early ’00s, it wasn’t until May 2016, when Tommy noticed a fluorescent wheat paste posted on a door in Greenwich Village, that he began to build his collection.

“I went to take it,” Tommy recalls, “and some guy asked me not to because ‘some spots are hard to get.’” Tommy interpreted that to mean that busy intersections like that one are marked by law-bending street artists with great caution. Tommy says he respected the message, and let the piece stay put – for a few days. He returned with his girlfriend, placed a large wood board on the ground underneath the poster, and began peeling. Another man approached Tommy and asked him to stop. When Tommy refused, the man took his picture. Then, Tommy stuck the poster to the board, went home and noticed the piece was signed by the artist Dain. He Googled the name and saw scores of pictures of Dain’s work, all of which Tommy loved. “I was just happy to get a cool piece of street art,” Tommy says, “and then the next day the post went up on Instagram and I was devastated.”

The Instagram user @themuseumofurbanart posted the picture of Tommy removing the Dain piece and captioned it: “A thief caught in the act of steeling {sic}.” Liked by more than 1,200 Instagram users, the picture’s comments are overwhelmingly critical of Tommy. There’s a suggestion that Dain should hire a security detail to watch over his work. More than one user wrote “Boooo!”

“I don’t think so much of my work that I’m bothered by it,” Dain responds. On the one hand, he feels complimented when a guy like Tommy takes his work. Still, Dain does admit he would prefer to “get some life” out of a piece and see it remain where it was placed for a time. Should someone truly covet a poster that’s already on the street, so much that they’re willing to go through the trouble Tommy does to remove it, Dain offers: “Just contact me and I’ll try and give you a good price on a piece.”

Looking up through the rain at street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The top set of tiles is attributed to the French artist Invader, while a wheat paste by Cost occupies the space below it.

Tommy recognizes the thought and effort put into street art, and tries to absolve himself of personal guilt by surveying the work over some time before pulling it down. “If it’s new, I usually won’t take it,” Tommy says. He claims he’ll only remove a piece if it has been up for a while and garnered some attention on social media.

Several of the artists interviewed for this article agreed that if their work has been posted to social media, they don’t mind as much if it’s removed, either by rain, a building owner, a city worker, or someone like Tommy. New York-based Hanksy – well known for his “Dump Trump” mural depicting Donald Trump in the form of a gigantic turd – says, “We live in this day and age where everyone has a pretty capable camera in their pocket, so now you can take a digital picture and have [your artwork] spread around the world in a second.”

Hanksy also says, though, that he understands why some, perhaps because they’re from the old school of graffiti writing, would object to premature removal of their work. “Back in the day you wanted a high-visibility spot and you wanted your work to run a long time to get eyes on it.” However, he points out that, today, “a piece can get taken down a day after you put it up, but if you have a nice, digital, colorized photo of it, then it lives forever.”

Prolific graffiti writer Adam Cost, whose work dates back to the late ’70s, firmly disagrees with that contemporary take. “When the focal point of being a street artist is getting a photo of your work and throwing it on social media as your exposure, that’s just not good,” says Cost. “Really, what comes into play is where your work is, the vibe it gives off [and] the way people are interacting with it in the public.” He adds that a photograph will never convey such aspects of the street art experience.

Tommy frequently uses a razor blade to cut through glue behind a street art poster. Here, he demonstrates his method of removing street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Dain says he’s consulted other artists, including Cost, on measures that can be taken to thwart thieves as best he can. They include avoiding posting on mailboxes – because when they get wet, the piece will slide right off it – as well as wood billboards, fences or doors that can be easily removed altogether. Dain also now refrains from signing his street art, which makes authentication far more challenging for black market sellers.

Cost says that when he’s on the streets he’ll place posters in higher, harder-to-reach places; use a stronger homemade glue; and “blanket” an area with numerous identical posters, so that if a fan takes one, plenty more will remain.

Tommy remembers once coming across nine Cost posters placed on a wall, all in a row. “To a person like me that’s like Christmas!” Tommy says. “I went one day with my work ladder. I sprayed them all and I just took them down, one by one. They’re all framed and they’re all sexy.”

Cost questions the sincerity of Tommy’s claim that he’ll never sell the artwork, postulating: “He’s gonna put his kids through college with this stuff, potentially.”

Getting upset, Cost says of people like Tommy: “They’re stealing a part of me, actually, and I didn’t give them authorization to that part of me.”

Still, he recognizes his work was never destined to be permanent, and a moment later he adds, calmly: “The only way you can have any solace with it is in the end you say, ‘Well, at least my work is being preserved…for better or worse.’”