Banksy himself couldn't have better choreographed the heart-pounding hoopla sparked by the final piece in his month-long NYC residency, a giant balloon hung on a warehouse in Long Island City, which was ripped from its anchors in dramatic fashion by two would-be thieves and ultimately carted away in a police van.
The balloon, which spelled out "Banksy!" enjoyed only a short stay on the side of the building at Borden Avenue and 35th Street before it was removed, reportedly, by a duo of pranksters who arrived at the scene and attempted to spirit it away. But David Aguilar, one of the suspects arrested during the episode, insists it wasn't that way at all.
Aguilar, a 25-year-old street performer, said he'd been rushing to the scenes of newly revealed Banksy pieces for days, having even managed to collect two bears from the roaming Sirens of the Lambs truck. He was in Long Island City within an hour and a half of the location being revealed, and watched, with others, as a man scrambled up the building toward the balloons.
"I saw this kid free climb up the building wall," he told us. "I didn't know if it was an individual balloon, and then I saw the kid trying to get it down, so I went to go meet him up there."
(Photo by Kelly Weill/Gothamist)
Aguilar said another man ran to the metal shop next door and asked to borrow a ladder, but balked when it came to actually going up. So Aguilar climbed the ladder and joined Ronald Galarza, who he said he didn't know prior to that moment, to try to remove the balloons.
"I tried to hit it with a little stick to see if it would come off, and the kid, Ronald, he went over and grabbed the second portion of the ladder, which pretty much locked us up there," Aguilar told us. "There was no way down. He was like 'Well, hold the ladder and I can cut it off.' I was like 'Okay, are you sure you wanna go up there, you should just leave it at this,' you know?"
Aguilar admitted that he was interested in taking a letter—preferably, the exclamation point—and hanging it somewhere else in the city. But when he realized the balloon was one contiguous piece, he knew he was in over his head. He also realized, once Ronald made his famed leap from the wall, that he intended all along to take the whole thing with him in a getaway car.
"I'm sitting up top watching all of this going on, and I'm like 'Do I jump down? Am I making it worse by staying up here? If I stay up here and then can't retract the ladder, will a fire department have to...you know?'" Aguilar said. "I just knew that it would get more and more out of proportion, because it already, like...once people started screaming I was like, 'There is something not good about this.'"
He jumped, and was promptly arrested by police. He was held overnight but ultimately released without charges. The repercussions, though, have lingered. Following a story we posted entitled "Watch The Guy Whose Been Stealing Banksys Get Arrested," angry messages have flooded Aguilar's social media accounts, and a potential job fell through after his would-be employers read his name in connection with the incident. But Aguilar insists his heart was in the right place.
"It just felt like an offering, in a sense," he said, adding that he didn't even consider taking the piece until the ladder entered the picture. But when it did, he decided to go for it.
"This is the people's chance—not a building owner, not somebody who wants to cover it up— this is someone's chance to enjoy and own a Banksy," he said. "It just seemed so right, but I guess in hindsight a lot of people felt connected to the piece, and I think there's a part of that that should have been respected, you know?"
Had he successfully escaped with the piece, Aguilar said he wouldn't have sold it, but taken it to Union Square to show it off. As a street performer, he understands the importance of bringing art to the public sphere, rather than allowing it to rot away in the NYPD property clerk's office, where it has been labeled "arrest evidence."
"[The media] almost made me look like a villain, like I've been chasing all the Banksy pieces trying to rip them out of walls," he said. "When really I just happened to stumble on the bears—awesome!" he said, adding that he also had some blue paint from the side of the Bronx cheetah piece, a photo of which he posted on Instagram. "It just blew up. And everyone had messaged all of my pages saying 'Oh my God, you are an art thief, you are a criminal, we hate you!'" Hatred, he said, which is completely misguided.
"I practice meditation, I eat organic and raw at home," he said. "I'm not a criminal."