On Saturday afternoon, just before three o'clock, I made my way past tourists and members of the American Psychoanalytic Association into the well-appointed and luxuriantly carpeted central lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. I walked up to a group of three otherwise unassuming people standing a few feet from the reception desk and said, "You folks look like you're here to see Banksy."
They responded enthusiastically that they were.
One of the three was Michael Whatley, who I remembered from the Facebook event's banner image. His face has stared out at the tens of thousands of Facebook users planning, or considering, or claiming to be considering, attending an event titled, "'Banksy' Meet and Greet (First 100 Get Free Banksy Face Painting)." The event was created in September; almost 13,000 Facebook users responded that they would attend.
"Come see the famous (and controversial) 'Banky' be introduced to American society for the first time at the Waldorf Astoria, NY NY!" the Facebook event's description trumpeted. Also: "First 100 RSVP will receive a free face painting from the scoundrel himself!!"
I saw the event sometime back in September, when a friend from college said they were attending and Facebook tossed it into my feed. There are plenty of fake Facebook events —like PET EVERY SINGLE DOG or drop out of school and turn into JOHN CENA— and normally I wouldn't pay much attention to them.
This one was oddly specific, though: it offered a particular time, and a real place, to show up. The place was accessible to me. Why not attend, if only to see who would show up to a clearly fake Banksy event?
Whatley lives in Louisville, Kentucky, and found out about the event shortly after it was created. Whatley had directed a production of a play called An Average Man, and now his professional headshot is one of the first image results when you search for "average man" on Google. This is likely how Steven Rausch, the event's creator, found the photo.
Rausch himself didn't show—he lives in Virginia—and he didn't reply to my Facebook messages, either. Whatley, having been hooked by solid SEO, decided to go along with the joke; he was able to attend because the theater he works for was running a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The day of the event, 12,700 people had listed themselves as attending, and another 5,500 were "interested," but as I stood in the lobby of the Waldorf with Whatley and his friends Cynthia and Will, it seemed as though we might be some of the very few who would actually, physically show up. There had been activity on the event page—someone was posting photos of herself wandering the halls of the hotel—but we'd seen no one so far. The Village Voice had confirmed in November that Banksy was not, in fact, holding a meet-and-greet at the hotel, so perhaps that had put people off.
Whatley, Cynthia, and Will decided it might be easier for people to recognize Whatley—dressed in the same purple shirt as the Facebook photo—as the face of Banksy if we waited out front of the hotel. We ventured out into the balmy but grey weather. At first, things remained relatively quiet. A man with long hair said Whatley looked familiar, then wandered on, and another pair of Whatley's friends made an appearance. Then the fans descended.
First came a pair of brothers, Dana and Dariush, who said they were aware the Facebook event was a joke, but were coming to Manhattan to go to MoMA and wanted to see if anyone would show. They took a few photos with Whatley, and Dariush, who was visiting from San Francisco, set about adding everyone as friends on Facebook. While they hung out, five young men also appeared, one of whom seemed to think Whatley was actually Banksy. They talked to Whatley for a surprisingly long time.
In the meantime, several other Banksy fans arrived. Three young women all dressed in white timidly asked Cynthia, Will, and me if we were there for Banksy. They hadn't come far, but also hadn't realized the event was a joke. When we explained, one of them exclaimed, "Wow." They left quickly.
Jesus, who was visiting the city from Guadalajara, was the next fan to arrive. He understood it was a joke, but just wanted to take in the scene. Like many others, he'd heard about it after someone posted the event on Facebook. He didn't stay for long, but did mention how he "really fell in love" with New York after visiting a couple years ago.
A few other fans arrived, and paused to take photos with Whatley. They would usually gingerly approach and ask if he was the guy from the Banksy Facebook photo. Whatley told me later he was surprised at "how far into reality some people would go for an online gag event…it turns out the answer is pretty far." And it was indeed an odd confluence of circumstances: Rausch, after all, had chosen the second image for "average man" rather than the first image, and here Whatley was, dealing with his moment of pseudo-celebrity with aplomb.
Eventually things moved back inside, to one of the Waldorf's marble-walled outer lobbies, where we encountered the most devoted fans of all: a trio of SUNY Purchase grads named Maddie, Liza, and Zach, who had arrived with faces painted (by Banksy, they insisted). Maddie's face read "Banksy was here," Liza had been painted like a tiger, and Zach had what I believe was a snake under his eye.
The three were by far the most prepared for the event. They're deep in what's called weird Facebook—an amorphous network of Facebook groups and users who post a lot of memes, make a lot of jokes, and deal heavily in irony. Maddie was carrying a purse full of cooked spaghetti with her; this was in accordance with the Waldorf's "open spaghetti policy," which one of their friends, Andrew, had confirmed with the hotel via Facebook post back in September. I took a handful of the spaghetti and put it in my coat pocket. Another reporter asked about the spaghetti, and Maddie explained they had to bring it, since the event wasn't going to be catered.
"It's kind of our own socialism, but with spaghetti," Liza chimed in.
"We're all weird Facebook," Liza told me when I asked, and later, via text, Maddie clarified for me that "there were others [from weird Facebook] who came early" but left to go sing karaoke.
"More people were there…but prefer to stay anonymous out of the watchful eye of Big Journalism," she explained.
Whatley greeted his weird Facebook fans, received some of the complimentary spaghetti, and then left for the day. Shortly thereafter Maddie, Liza, and Zach also left to make sure they didn't have to pay for more parking. Each had come from at least an hour away; Liza had traveled four hours.
At last, we were left standing in the lobby of the Waldorf. We stepped outside to see if anyone else was around, but no one was left. It was around 4:20 in the afternoon (heh), and in just shy of two hours, a whirlwind of 20-some-odd Banksy fans, confused or otherwise, had descended and left the Waldorf. We parted ways, and I walked down Park Avenue, making sure to dispose of the spaghetti sitting in my pocket on my way to the subway.
The day was not, as I understood then, a standard weird Facebook meetup, where, according to Liza, "there's more people and everyone is a lot more drunk." But it did feel like the puckish online community had forced something sudden and worthwhile out into the world. If you can corral a handful of people into having fun by pretending a guy in a purple shirt is Banksy for a couple hours, why not try it out? I've certainly spent much worse two-hour periods in midtown Manhattan.
Later, making sure to discharge my journalistic duty, I got in touch with Whatley again, via Facebook. He told me he found it "incredibly weird to be treated like a celebrity for a little less than an hour because of a trick of Internet fate, rather than anything I had control over" which seems like the healthy response.
"I don't know if Banksy would support that," he added, "but I thought it was OK."
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org