This post was produced by Open Media Miami, an independent company that works in partnership with Beached Miami to cover neighborhood news along the Biscayne Corridor.
The words, painted in bright colors, stretch 255 feet across a concrete wall on N.W. Sixth Avenue in Wynwood: “Give a Wall St banker enough rope and he will hang himself.” At the south end of the mural, which faces the I-95 expressway, a suit-and-tie-clad effigy holding a money-stuffed briefcase and wearing a canvas bag over its head dangles from telephone wires, suspended for Miami commuters to see with a noose wrapped around its neck.
Since its installation on October 25, the so-called “hanging banker” has been the focus of local, national, and foreign media. The New Times lauded it as one of the best artworks inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests. Right-wing blogs such as Human Events took it as disturbing proof of the movement’s animosity toward American capitalism. The Daily Mail asked if the dangling mannequin crossed the line. Fox News called it “sick.”
The street artist behind the spectacle, Above, says he’s ecstatic that his piece created such a stir in the media.
“I like it. I love it. I think it’s great,” says Above. “I wasn’t expecting Fox to cover it like that, but I actually really enjoy that.”
Above says the “hanging banker” is his response to Occupy Wall Street, though he does not claim affiliation with the movement. He painted the mural, a twist on “Give a fool enough rope and he will hang himself,” to voice his opinion about the global financial system, which, like many around the country, he views as corrupt.
“It’s pretty gross, to be honest,” he says. “[T]he world’s gotten so out of control.”
Originally from northern California, Above has painted walls in 50 countries while guarding his anonymity. Reluctant to divulge much of his biography, the artist says he is in his early thirties and grew up on welfare.
“I don’t need a lot of money,” he says. “I live really frugally and I don’t own anything. All I need is my backpack and my computer and I’m good to go.”
Above’s art ranges from social commentary to sentimentality. In Lisbon, he stenciled a mural of a man handing money to a homeless woman who would sit next to the same ATM every day. A mural in a California park depicts a little girl blowing hearts at a boy who is trying to catch them.
“It’s about connecting with people on an emotional level,” Above says.
His “hanging banker” piece has certainly done that here in Miami. Jeffrey Cohen, a realtor with Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell, thinks the piece is a testament to Wynwood’s burgeoning arts community and a coup for the Occupy movement.
“You’re in the most dynamic, exciting area of the country right now,” he says. “[Occupy] probably got more traction from that little sign … and the banker in effigy hanging there than if they had gathered two or three hundred people to sit in a square in downtown Miami.”
Roger Valdes, 29, recently took a trip to Wynwood from his home in Hialeah to photograph the piece, which he also interprets in the context of the Occupy movement.
“It needs to be aggressive because, how else would you get the message across?” he says. “It’s pretty dramatic, but it gets your attention.”
On the other hand, Janet McDaniel, a professor at FIU, thinks the “hanging banker” sends a dangerous message.
“It sadly gives a sense of wishing harm on one another,” she says. “Revenge and hatred are emotions like greed, what Occupy is against … [The banker] promotes a cycle of hatred between classes and that isn’t what is needed to foster any type of national advancement.”
For all the hoopla, Above did not come to Miami to create the now-notorious “hanging banker” piece, which is part of the local outdoor art project Primary Flight. After 12 years of art-making and globe-trotting, he is preparing for his first solo exhibition in the United States, a booth at Scope Art Fair during Art Basel in early December. In the meantime, he has been painting indoor and outdoor pieces.
A block away from the “hanging banker,” on N.W. Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street, Above is working on a bigger wall. He wears paint-stained overalls and a straw hat that, along with oversized plastic sunglasses, helps conceal his face. His new piece depicts three women dancing in ‘80s-style gym clothes, each of them superimposed onto another version of themselves to simulate movement.
At one point, he walks over to N.W. Sixth Avenue to check on the work that made him infamous. Someone in a white SUV drives by, slowing down to take pictures of the mannequin. Above says people come to photograph or stare at the banker and the wall every day.
“What it does is I’m rattling, I’m getting inside somebody,” he says. “Whether it’s positive or negative, it’s just getting more people talking about Occupy Wall Street and this whole situation at large.”
Not bad for a side project.
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