Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
How an English construction worker is fighting for better road infrastructure by scribbling on the streets like a third-grader.
You may have heard of Wanksy, English construction worker, penis doodler, and pothole avenger. As the Manchester Evening News reported last week, the surveyor and professional artist had gotten sick of the numerous potholes in his hometown of Ramsbottom, in northwest England. So he remixed the nom de guerre of street artist Banksy and did as any attention-seeking 8-year-old would: He started drawing penises. Penises around the potholes, to be precise. Wanksy's work hit a nerve: Over 17,000 people have “liked” Wanksy on Facebook in the past week alone.
Meanwhile, Wanksy's strategy seems to have worked. "Been there 8 months at least," Wansky wrote on Facebook beside a photo of some patched-over wieners. "A bit of art and they are filled in 48 hours. [W]ho needs canvas with roads like these."
At least in the United States, the pothole problem seems to be improving without the help of saucy graffiti. In the U.S., the winter of 2014 created a horrifying pothole season, but cities like New York and Chicago led the charge by sending out strike-force crews that tried to respond quickly to complaints. Many cities have also established tech-savvy ways to field pothole reports: Indianapolis has a real-time pothole viewer, Boston has its 311-like app Citizens Connect, and many others have partnered with the reporting website and app SeeClickFix.
But for Wanksy, those solutions come too late. CityLab caught up with the street artist over the phone to talk about Ramsbottom's technological failures, why he doesn't like the term "graffiti artist," why children can handle cartoons just fine, and what the he'll do next.
First of all, why penises?
I wanted something that would attract attention to the pothole, and nothing’s better than a giant comedy penis. They’re also quick to draw. And nothing fills holes better, truthfully.
In the States, there are a lot of local governments that allow residents to report on potholes through websites or smartphone apps. Did you try doing that before you got to drawing?
There’s a local website for the area, but the website actually threw up a malfunction if you tried to report it. It wouldn’t let you do it—it crashed the website, so you couldn’t actually report them online. The only way to do it is on the phone, which is pretty difficult to do when you’re driving on your bike. Your car, it costs you an absolute fortune if you hit one. I’ve known guys who have come off motorbikes. I know guys who have been put in hospital from hitting them on the bike. They’ll cause damage to any form of transport you use on the road—they’ll damage it. And nothing seems to get done until you draw a giant comedy penis around it.
Why do you think your work has become so popular?
I think it’s popular because we’re simply not the only town, city, or country that has a problem with potholes. I think this is, by the looks of things, a worldwide problem. There’s money there to fix the roads—at least it’s taken from us, the taxpayers. But it doesn’t seem to get spent on them enough. And I think that’s why it’s so popular, really—because so many people have problem with it, really.
There’s at least one government official who's said, basically, "Think of the children." From the Manchester Evening News: "Has this person, for just one second, considered how families with young children must feel when they are confronted with these obscene symbols as they walk to school?"
It’s like something that children draw. They’re old enough to know what it is. They’re probably drawing it on the school bus themselves. I’ve yet to meet someone who’s offended by it. They’re more offended by hitting the pothole, to be honest. They’re more offended by the council taking the Council Tax, which is supposed to use to get the potholes fixed, and not spending it to fix them. I think that’s a worse problem than comedy penises that get drawn about the place.
So it sounds like the local government has responded—that this has worked.
Oh, it does work, in terms of filling them in. I use non-permanent paint, I try to stress that. It’s specifically designed for marking the road, and then to wear off. It’s not a permanent feature. So in my eyes, it’s not really graffiti, as it were. I don’t want it to stay. I just want it to highlight the problem and get the problem fixed so I use—it’s basically like liquid chalk.
When do you go about doing your drawings?
Anytime, day or night. Whenever it’s quiet enough and convenient enough to do it.
You’re also a professional artist.
Fully qualified, university-qualified artist. A painter, and I like to do some graphic image, printmaking. To be honest I’ve done things that are more colorful and better than this. Sometimes the simplest things are the best.
Will you continue to draw the penises?
I might do some art pieces, believe it or not. Yeah, I will probably will do a little show, a little exhibition somewhere, but I’m not sure yet, it’s only an idea. Obviously as an artist, if you get this much recognition, it’s always nice. But it’s not really about that, to be truthful.
This interview has been edited for clarity.