AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In New York there is no shortage of artists. But recently, one artist caused a flurry of excitement around the city. Banksy, elusive, British and best known for his graffiti art, and for the month of October he staged what he calls a residency on the streets of New York. Everyday, he unveils a new work on his website and identifies the neighborhood it's in, but not the exact address.
Stephen Nessen, with member station WNYC, caught up with one of several Banksy fans who are racing to be the first to locate the daily street art.
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STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: Like most dedicated Banksy hunters, 24-year-old photographer Aymann Ismail, knows it takes shoe leather or rather bike rubber, to be the first person to find a Banksy.
AYMANN ISMAIL: The plan every time is you just kind of go and hope you run into it before anyone else does. So it really is just like kind of luck.
NESSEN: Being first is more than bragging rights. The first piece this month was a life size stencil of a couple of street urchins reaching for a homemade sign that reads: Graffiti is a crime. Once the location was identified, the sign was soon stolen, the stencil defaced and painted over by the end of the day. Documenting a clean Banksy is the goal.
ISMAIL: I wouldn't consider myself a good cyclist, just reckless.
NESSEN: So on a recent morning, Ismail is biking around Lower Manhattan, scanning walls and refreshing Banksy's website on his phone, waiting for the newest work to appear. Around 11, the site is updated. The art this day is not on a wall, it's a meat delivery truck with dozens of stuffed animals' heads poking out of slats on the side.
ISMAIL: Here's the new piece. Ugh, Meat Packing District. Let's go, it's a truck.
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NESSEN: It's a 15 minute bike ride away. We pedal furiously weaving between cars, and running red lights. It doesn't take long to bump into other Banksy hunters heading in the same direction.
ISMAIL: I've actually - I've zigzagged through already and haven't seen anything.
ROBERT DUNNING: Me, too.
ISMAIL: So let's just keep riding. Unless you want to split up, I don't care.
DUNNING: I'm down man. I'm...
NESSEN: Like the man whose art they chase, the hunters too enjoy a little anonymity. Ismail only knows this hunter by his Instagram handle, CapNYC. His real name is Robert Dunning. The 33-year old was the first to find a small Banksy stencil of a beaver on a wall, next to a knocked over No Parking sign in East New York.
DUNNING: It's a treasure hunt everyday, who doesn't love a treasure hunt.
NESSEN: They ride together for a bit then split up. Ismail is getting desperate. He even stops a construction worker to get a clue.
ISMAIL: Have you seen a truck filled with stuffed animals.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No, (unintelligible).
ISMAIL: Not at all today? You've been out here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, I've been out here.
ISMAIL: It's a weird question, I know.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Alright.
NESSEN: Back on the streets, three hour after the site was updated, Ismail finally finds the truck.
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ISMAIL: There it is. Worth it, so worth it.
NESSEN: The pastel colored stuffed animals are actually puppets, whose mouths move. They pop their heads in and out of the truck like real animals. On the artist's website, the piece is titled "Sirens of the Lambs."
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NESSEN: Across the street at the London Meat Company, a truck is dumping several buckets of chicken waste; a reminder that among the trendy boutiques nearby, this is still a working meat packing district.
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NESSEN: The truck drives away minutes later. But if you missed it, there's an accompanying museum-style audio guide on Banksy's website.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is a piece of sculpture art. And I know what you're thinking: Isn't it a bit subtle? Here the artist Banksy is making some sort of comment on the casual cruelty of the food industry, or perhaps an attempt at something vague and pretentious about the loss of childhood innocence?
NESSEN: The site says the truck will be driving around for the next two weeks. And Banksy's month-long residency promises a fresh chance to find a new piece of his art everyday. The artist who made a name with his distinctive stencils and later sold his art on canvas for millions, promises this show will be strictly on the street.
For NPR News, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York.
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CORNISH: This is NPR News.
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