Hanksy (tomhanksy.tumblr.com) is a street artist known for combining Banksy’s familiar stencil images with the head of actor Tom Hanks. The popularity of his work resulted in major online attention (which caught the eye of Mr. Hanks himself) and a successful solo gallery show in December 2011. His second exhibit, “Young Puns 2–Now with More Pun”—running November 8–28 at Krause Gallery—includes new pieces that gently lampoon celebrities such as Will Ferrell, Bruce Willis and Vanilla Ice. We caught up with the enigmatic pun-lover to talk about his rapid ascent from unknown wall-sprayer to internet sensation.
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TONY: For those who have never heard of Hanksy, explain what you do.
Hanksy: I started out taking the iconic works of the British artist Banksy and adorning them with the mug of Academy Award winner Tom Hanks. I coined it Hanksy; it’s just kind of a play on words. I’ve since moved on to utilizing other pop-culture figures and carrying on with the word play. I take those images and put them up on the street, both legally and illegally.
TONY: How did the original concept come about?
Hanksy: I’ve been a fan of Banksy for a while now, and I’ve always had a deep love for Tom Hanks movies [from when I was] growing up in the '80s and '90s. And I’m a fan of the stupid joke, so it all just worked together. I came up with this idea that made me laugh, and I thought it would make other people laugh.
TONY: Why did you decide to emulate Banksy?
Hanksy: For a lot of people—street artists and fans of street art—Banksy is a really good gateway artist: He’s very popular, he’s very prominent, he’s accessible, and when I initially got into street art, he had the best pile of work to dig through. Over the years as he got more popular, my interest began to wane just a little bit as I began to discover different artists. In the beginning I was, you know, a huge fan, and now I’m just a fan.
TONY: Would you say you’re an accessible, gateway street artist?
Hanksy: Yeah, the things I put up are very easy to swallow. I have a pretty lighthearted, comical approach, and as far as the general public is concerned, that is usually more attractive than something that has a more political, serious tone. I would say my biggest fans aren’t heavily involved in street art. [But] if one of my pieces grabs their attention and motivates them to look deeper into work that’s more elaborate, or larger pieces that all these other fantastic artists are doing, then that’s great.
TONY: What kind of reception have you received from within the street art world?
Hanksy: It’s been a funny reception so far. I’m both loathed and loved. A lot of times I get a pat on the back, [but there are] some relatively well-known artists that just despise me. I’m an easygoing guy just looking to put a little humor on the street and into the world, and I don’t know if they have a problem with that, or [the fact] that I’m not making more, you know, somber or political statements. But I’m okay being outside of the community; I’ll still do my thing.
TONY: Do you think your success is part of the reason some artists dislike you?
Hanksy: For years I was putting up work and I never got any notoriety or press or recognition. When I started doing this last year—I’ve only been putting up work as Hansky for about a year and a half now—it really took off. Within one day, someone had taken a picture of it, sent it to [street art website] Wooster Collective, and the day after I put it up it was everywhere. Tom Hanks tweeted about it. And I think it has to do with that sudden rise. Viewing it through the eyes of another artist that has been putting up work for years and years, putting every effort into getting a little bit of recognition, and then I come along—some goofball that just wants to make people smile—and I get all the success? Yeah, I think it has a big part to do with it.
TONY: You’ve done some collaborations with Moustache Man, another lighthearted street artist, who tags mustaches on subway ads and posters. How did you meet?
Hanksy: We met probably six or seven months ago through a mutual friend. We just bonded. It had something to do with being these knuckleheads of the street art world that don’t really care about being serious. Someone asked me the other day, "Why would you go through all this effort and do all this work just to make a stupid pun?" And I was like, "You’re missing the point." There’s so much serious work on the street, and it’s fantastic and it’s elaborate, and it blows my mind the skills that these guys possess. But there’s no one else doing the stupid stuff that’s going to make someone who’s having a bad day chuckle and snap a pic. I think [Moustache Man and I] are in the same vein: It’s okay to be silly. Even though he’s not putting up that much work anymore due to his arrest last year, we still entertain each other with our ideas and we’ve collaborated on a few pieces, [one of which is] in my show.
TONY: Being arrested is a serious concern. Do you still put up a lot of work on the street?
Hanksy: Deep down, when you tear off all the layers, it is illegal. You’re putting work up on other people’s property. I’m aware of that, so I try to only do legal stuff now. Of course, when the well has run dry, I’ll go searching for water elsewhere and I do put up stuff illegally. I don’t tag my name; I respect taggers that write their name as many times as they can all over the city for their sheer persistence. But I don’t put myself in the same category. Those are vandals and criminals in my eyes; they’re destroying property and services for the sake of their own narcissism.
TONY: Would you put an artist like Jim Joe in that category?
Hanksy: Yeah, I would. I mean, I love Jim Joe’s work. His work is everywhere, and he climbs higher buildings than I’ll climb. And while it’s nice to walk around and find that hidden Easter egg on the street, you have to think, Shit, man, somebody owns that building. And it might not even be a corporation or a conglomerate. It might be, like, the 65-year-old immigrant that’s working the deli at the corner. And I don’t want her or him out there scrubbing my name off the glass.
TONY: If Hanksy became successful enough, would you quit your day job and do it full time?
Hanksy: I would like to. To do something creative for a living is something I’ve always dreamed about. I dropped out of law school a few years ago because I didn’t want to sit in the office nine-to-five under the fluorescent lights. So if I had the opportunity to do Hanksy full time, I would. I just don’t know if that chance will ever come; I mean, puns and wordplay get old pretty fast. So I’m just going to ride the wave until I get there.
TONY: How much further do you think this wave can really go?
Hanksy: I kind of crossed that bridge after my first show, when I was only doing my Tom Hanks and Banksy stuff. I was like, Where do I go from here? So I moved on to other celebrities and I got more popular. When it does fade away, when my inbox is empty and the phone isn’t ringing, then I’ll reevaluate the situation: either change it up, or move on with my life and have this as an anecdote I can tell my kids. Whatever happens, I’m not going to get bent out of shape about it. I mean, I’m not going to be in my forties and fifties and still putting up monkeys with George Clooney’s head holding a phallic banana. And I’ll be okay with that.
TONY: As your style evolves, what are the core elements that remain?
Hanksy: The fact is I really just take stupid puns that are on the internet—these are basically memes in real life—and put them on the street. And people have come to know that if there’s a celebrity and there’s some silly wordplay going on, usually it’s Hanksy’s work. So I think the core elements are: pop culture reference, and wordplay, and on the street. And hopefully humor can wrap its arms around those three things that make up my work.
TONY: Are you a funny person?
Hanksy: I don’t think I’m that funny. I’m pretty much average. I mean, I think I’m funny, but I know a lot of people that write that off as being immature.
TONY: Would you say you’re cool?
Hanksy: I am not cool at all. Do people call themselves cool? Do they stand in the mirror and say, “I’m a cool guy”? I guess the fact that I’m doing street art and it’s getting recognized, and I have a bunch of shows planned ahead, that’s kind of cool.
TONY: I ask because you’ve found the sweet spot between street art—with its cool, illegal sheen—and dorky pun humor. And I wonder to what extent they are reflective of you?
Hanksy: I think they kind of cancel each other out. Whatever points I get for being an illegal, underground street artist is wiped clean by the fact that I’m using stupid puns. That’s not cool.
TONY: But it was pretty cool that Tom Hanks went to your first show, bought an artwork and signed the guest book as “Tom Hansk(y).”
Hanksy: Yeah, that was super cool. When I told my mom, she thought that was the bees' knees. [Laughs] I knew he was aware of Hanksy but it’s kind of surreal; he’s one of the most well-known actors in the world. And a couple weeks ago there was a podcast, I think it was a Nerdist podcast, and Tom Hanks gave a little shout-out to Hanksy on it. Every time something like that happens I just smile and go, That’s so cool, shit like that can happen to normal people from the Midwest like myself. It’s a really flattering—and odd—experience.
TONY: Is there anyone else whose endorsement would mean that much to you?
Hanksy: I have to say it was pretty much zero to 60. Tom Hanks is 60. After that I was like, I should just lay my paintbrush down and put a cap on my spray can, 'cause I’m done.