Interview with street artist BAMN: Mural of a Whistleblower

In the summer of 2011, a large mural of Bradley Manning appeared in the neighborhood. Straddling the nexus between Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the image had “Hero” written above the smiling face of the world’s most famous whistleblower, who had supposedly leaked hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents to Julian Assange and Wikileaks.

Through a bit of digging, I tracked down the artist of the mural, sort of. The artist chooses to be known as ‘bamn,’ and aside from street art, the only outreach is a flickr account and, finally, an email address.

Bamn agreed to an email interview, which took place over several emails and weeks.

Handout: When did you paint the mural? How long did it take?
bamn: I did this mural early June 2011 with a paint roller. It didn’t take more than thirty minutes. I had to work fast because I didn’t really have permission.

Handout: Why did you choose that particular spot for the mural?
bamn: There was a suggestion from a friend who works nearby that something should go on the wall. I didn’t ask for permission, but I figured that if I was questioned my friend could back-up my “story”. What amazes me is that the owners haven’t removed it.

Handout: The mural is kind of shocking, given that Manning is the most public figure in a long time to possibly be tried for treason. I was very surprised the first time I saw it. Was this your intention?
bamn: What’s shocking to me is that whistle-blowing is considered treason. I support Manning and Wikileaks wholeheartedly, but the mural was painted for the public. My only intention is to spark dialogue. 

Handout: What has been the reaction to the mural? How long until “Traitor” was written over it? I found this guy on the web who was not a fan [not-linking to a blog post by someone who did not like the mural].
bamn: Reactions to the mural have been overwhelmingly positive. Every time I pass that wall I see people posing and taking pictures. 

It took about a month for someone to build up the courage to write “traitor” across the mural. Then, according to my friend who works nearby, within an hour some random guy* put black tape over the word “traitor.” Then the next day my friend fixed the mural with paint. I expected dialogue, but never did I imagine it to be so immediate and literal.

As for that blogger, I don’t pay attention to people who can’t formulate an intelligent argument.  

Handout: Your name, bamn, is I assume from Malcolm X’s phrase “by any means necessary” (via Sartre). What are you hoping to accomplish that will be done by any means? Is the Manning mural one of those means?
bamn: This world needs a makeover, and I intend to facilitate and encourage that change by any means necessary. I may not have the same power of speech that brother Malcolm did, but I do have an understanding of the visual language. This mural was accomplished with all means available at the time: done on a temporary construction wall, with a paint roller, leftover paint, and without a sketch or permission.

Handout: bamn, of course, includes more than freedom of speech issues. What are the most important issues you see in New York? In the U.S.?
bamn: For NY: preservation of communities, end to police brutality & corruption, facilitation of local business.

For the US: withdrawal from all foreign conflicts, diversity of political parties, separation of business and politics.

I always say, “follow the money.” All major issues are class issues.  

Handout: The Guardian (UK) recently released a reader’s poll for who should win the Nobel Peace Prize. The readers chose Bradley Manning. What do you think of that?
bamn: I was not aware of the reader’s poll. I would hope that Bradley Manning gets the prize. I don’t think we would’ve known about Julian Assange or Wikileaks if it wasn’t for Manning.  

Manning is a beacon of hope and has set the standard for courage. He had the odds stacked against him and everything to lose, but he still chose to go with what he felt was right.

Handout: The rapidly gentrifying – or already gentrified – neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint are considered to be very liberal and politically conscious. Do you think that this is so? Has this been your experience in these neighborhoods? Or in New York City as a whole?
bamn: Liberal, yes. Politically conscious, not so much. I think this is the case with NYC as whole. A politically conscious person understands gentrification, and works against it. Most of the change that Liberals partake in revolves around consumerism and only effects them personally.

I think New Yorkers are more informed than most people in this country, but that isn’t saying much. Even with the internet there’s a huge disconnect with what’s going on around the world. However, I believe that’s changing. Just look at the Occupy movements. People are hungry for real change. [Handout: An “Occupy Wall St” tag was spray-painted next to the Manning mural sometime on October 20th.]

Handout: Do you see yourself reflected in the popular culture of the country? If so, where? If not, where is the potential for that?
bamn: Yes and no. Street art is popular right now, but the views I have aren’t as popular. I think people with similar sentiments are peppered throughout the world and congregate on the internet. Hijacking pop culture vehicles, like street art, is a good way to get not-so-popular messages across.

Handout: How long have you been an artist? How long have you been doing street art?
bamn: I’ve been arting around for about a decade now. The street art is a new thing. My first street work was with the Poster Boy movement about a year ago.

Handout: Do you use a name like BAMN because you want to remain anonymous? If so, why? You don’t think the artist must be a public figure?
bamn: Isn’t that the beauty of Graffiti? To hide in plain view.

* Some Guy, Andrew, confirmed, telling me he “saw the mural every day on my commute and was appalled when I saw the Traitor label. That night I started covering the white letters in ‘Traitor’ with black electric tape, which matched the pain color of the mural.”

On November 18th, the White House responded to the We the People: Your Voice in Government’s citizen-created “Free PFC Bradley Manning, the accused Wikileaks whistleblower” petition by saying “the White House declines to comment on the specific case raised in this petition.”

In response, the Bradley Manning Support Network noted that “supporters had surpassed the signature threshold required by the rules on the new White House online initiative” to receive a comment from the White House.

The White House has also not addressed the request from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture for an unmonitored meeting with Manning.

note: this interview took place before Manning came out as she/Chelsea Manning.