The man in the hooded sweatshirt and cargo pants was not recognizable, but the three letters he was rendering as a 15-foot mural on the wall of a Hell’s Kitchen building certainly were: B.N.E
This mischievous monogram, posted by marker, spray can, roller and especially stickers, has become part of the landscape of New York and cities worldwide, thrilling graffiti admirers and roiling public officials. Its saturation has provoked one of the more enduring Internet mysteries: What and who is B.N.E.?
After a thorough interrogation of the suspect over the weekend ... well, he would not really say. In what he said was his first interview with a journalist, the man in the hooded sweatshirt said he was responsible for this viral dissemination of the three-lettered puzzle, but refused to divulge his name, age or many details about his background and method, for fear of arrest. He also refused to have his face photographed or to say what B.N.E. stands for. His initials, perhaps?
“Let’s just say it has a meaning that’s personal to me,” he said, acknowledging the conjecture online: Breaking and Entering, Bomb Nuclear Explosion. “At this point, it means whatever you need it to mean.”
The postcard-size stickers bearing the three simple black letters are affixed to mailboxes, phone booths, signs, walls, parking meters and streetlights, mostly in New York and Japan, but also in Bangkok, Prague, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur. He goes through 10,000 stickers a month. In 2006, B.N.E. so blanketed San Francisco that the city’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, offered a reward of $2,500 for information leading to his capture.
In relentlessly spreading his tag, B.N.E. follows graffiti writers with nicknames like Taki, Revs and Cost. The idea is to leave one’s mark in as many places as possible, in wry, brash and mischievous ways — a process known as “getting up.”
This weekend, B.N.E. was not spray-painting surreptitiously, but creating a sanctioned mural on a concrete wall in a temporarily vacant building at 595 11th Avenue, near 44th Street. It is part of an exhibition of his work that opens Thursday, sponsored by Mother, a Manhattan advertising agency.
“B.N.E. has single-handedly created a globally recognized and valued brand in the new social economy,” Mother officials said in a news release. “His presence in Flickr photo galleries and YouTube pages dwarfs that of many multinationals.”
But Peter F. Vallone Jr., of Queens, chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, condemned the show. “This isn’t even someone who’s decided to go legitimate,” he said. “This is an unrepentant criminal who has cost honest taxpayers a lot of money, and he’s profited from it.”
The show itself is a taunt, featuring metal plates and canvases with the B.N.E. tag stamped over images of Mickey Mouse, Bart Simpson, Spider-Man and Bugs Bunny.
“I don’t see other graffiti writers as my competition anymore,” B.N.E. said. “Now I’m going up against the Tommy Hilfigers, Starbucks, Pepsi. You have these billion-dollar companies, and I’ve got to look at their logos every day. Why can’t I put mine up?”
The interview was arranged by Bucky Turco, the editor of Animal, an online magazine, who is helping B.N.E. produce the show. B.N.E. said he would skip the opening party because police officials routinely showed up at such events with video cameras and handcuffs. Anyway, he is heading to South America to blanket another city.
Daytime is for scouting: What are the most trafficked areas? How intense is the enforcement? Do local officials clean their phone booths, or will a tag there last? Nighttime is for tagging, to avoid being seen or photographed.
No, B.N.E. said, he has never been arrested. Yes, he said, he has been chased and shot at by outraged citizens, including the gutsy old man in a Madrid suburb who kicked him in the rear end and yelled at him to get lost.
Yes, he uses only prepaid disposable cellphones. No, he never takes pictures of the work, travels with stickers or paint equipment, or saves anything to his laptop. Yes, his mother thinks he is crazy (she is one of a few family members and old buddies who know he is the man behind B.N.E.)
“You kind of isolate yourself, living this life,” he said. “You meet a girl and she asks, ‘What do you do?’ and right way, you have to lie.”
B.N.E. said he was in his early 30s and funded his tagging through part-time jobs — again, no details. His accent and knowledge of local artists suggests he is from New York. He said he began 15 years ago painting in the old-school graffiti style of flashy lettering, then simplified his style and, 10 years ago, started with stickers.
“I can’t do 500 tags in a day, but I can do 500 stickers,” he said.
Designed with illustrating software and printed on vinyl, the stickers have an iron-grip adhesive. “This is my voice, and if you try to remove it, you’re shutting me up,” he said. The font is the serious-looking Helvetica Neue Condensed. Once, on City Island, he said with a chuckle, workers carefully painted around the stickers as though they had an official purpose.
“I’ve always rebelled against authority,” B.N.E. said. “Like any kid, I wanted to write the whole neighborhood. Most kids like that would then want to go out and do the whole city. In my case, I wanted to do the whole planet.”
Speaking of the planet, Mr. Turco showed a photograph of a huge B.N.E. mural, in a Japanese suburb, that he said was “visible from space.”
Asked how he could prove he was in fact the guy putting the mysterious moniker everywhere, the man in the hooded sweatshirt and cargo pants seemed delighted at yet another layer of mystery. Sure, anyone could use the same graphics and impersonate him for an art show. One could only wait to see if the real B.N.E. would emerge.
“If someone was having a show of my work without me,” he said, “I know I’d show up and cause some problems.”