Artists evolve, that’s a given. But doing so can run the risk of alienating the exact fan base that brought you to fame in the first place. For Adam Lucas – the Chinatown creative behind the street art moniker Hanksy – this change marks a rebirth that’s already been met with more praise than he ever imagined.
Initially gaining notoriety for his pun-laden wheatpastes and tongue-in-cheek Instagram posts, Lucas rose to the top of New York’s street art scene six years ago after recreating one of Banksy’s ubiquitous stenciled rats in the image of Tom Hanks. “Someone sent a picture of it to a popular street art website the next day and it went viral,” recalls Lucas, before adding, “Tom Hanks even tweeted about it.”
The years that followed this fateful tweet saw Adam participating in one sold-out exhibition after the next, and the artist even took on curatorial duties with the creation of Surplus Candy, a series of group shows featuring street artists from all over the U.S.
Riding on the fame of his original celebrity pun, Adam continued to create works in a similar vein, transforming famous faces such as Homer Simpson, Danny Devito and Macaulay Culkin into laughter-inducing public art. A self-proclaimed child of the internet, he reveals that the secret to his on-point wit was purely a result of spending hours on the web. “Growing up on the internet and spending hours on Reddit helped me realize what works and what people like. I’d say it was a massive contributor to getting me where I am today.”
Despite the success, Adam’s previous work always displayed a singularity that begged for more. In an effort to avoid becoming a one-trick pony, Lucas has spent the last 12 months completely revamping his style, undergoing the kind of transition that requires serious determination and immense focus. “It’s been a great 5 years and I love doing work as Hanksy, but I need to start thinking about the future. I just know the law of diminishing returns on my part and the public, so it’s important to switch things up.”
Earlier this month, Lucas showcased the beginnings of his stylistic shift with a pop-up entitled “29 Paintings I Painted Last Summer When I Tried to Be a Painter.” Taking place at the Krause Gallery in New York, the show comprised a series of paintings created in the summer of 2016. Though these newer works exhibit more complexity in both artistic execution and message, Lucas is quick to note the similarities these works share with his older pieces. “While my newer stuff may be different than my traditional Hanksy work, it’s still very much in the same theme – aesthetically pleasing, graphically strong paintings that deliver a joke.”
Serving as a bridge between Adam’s portfolio as Hanksy and his more recent work, the Krause pop-up was only a preview of what’s to come. The real reveal arrives this October, with Lucas currently focused on finding the perfect location. “There’s dozens of art shows opening on any given night in New York, so it’s important to think about how I can make mine unique – even if that means planning a hyper-transitory, one-night-only thing. The fact of the matter is, anyone can look at art on their hi-res screen at home, so what can I do to make them want to come out and see my work?”
As for the works that will be shown, Adam says, “I’m really proud of the paintings that I’ve completed thus far and I’m excited to see where it goes in the future. The new work still has a lot of word play involved and a lot of colors. They’re bright and bold on the surface, but if you dig a little deeper then you’ll find more serious themes going on. It’s not where I want it to be just yet, but it’s headed in the right direction.”
For Adam, this curiosity towards exploring more profound topics can be attributed to one fateful day: November 9, 2016, or, the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America. After spending the majority of the 2016 campaign trail executing a nationwide Dump Trump protest, the devastating news was especially difficult for Lucas.
“Once I realized that Trump won, it was such a somber feeling. It was then that I realized – having the audience and following that I have in this day in age – my art should stand for something and carry a message. I could continue with the whole celebrity and pop culture thing, or I could do something that makes an impact that I can stand behind. In the end, I would rather move forward and swim towards a goal than float along a river.”
Since then, he’s delved into a number of serious topics with his work, including a blue and orange mural of life vests that serves as a reminder of the ongoing refugee crisis. Additionally, for his Market Surplus show in June, Adam’s work – a mural of a Chinese man with the words “Don’t hassle me, I’m local” written across his chest – served as a critical analysis of Chinatown’s rapid gentrification.
“I grew up a lot in the last five years, and just judging by social media, a lot of my fans have, too. In the end, it’s just about growing.” But just because Lucas is growing up doesn’t mean he’s abandoning his street art roots entirely. “It doesn’t always have to be super serious and I’m still a dad joke enthusiast. In the end, I’ll always try to make work that people can enjoy.”
- Words: Gloria Cardona
- Images: Patrick Fahrner