The artist previously known as Borf, though that was never his name, is 10 years older than he was when his whimsical, mysterious graffiti campaign in Northwest Washington got him adored and despised and incarcerated.
He’s 28, sort of. He lives in New York now. He won’t say where, exactly. He says that’s irrelevant. He says he does no work that would compromise his anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian principles, but also refuses to say how he supports himself or whether he lives in a place his parents own in Manhattan, as some records suggest, or if he is working some sort of soul-numbing day job, the kind he publicly sneered at, to support his painting habit.
He also won’t let you take a picture of him. You can only shoot his art, but not him. If he thinks you’re trying to sneak a picture, he turns away or holds a hand over his face. He’s reluctant to talk about what his art means, but in the end he will blurt something so revealing that it explains just about everything. He will hate these paragraphs if he reads them.
His real name is John Tsombikos, and he claims to be living his dream of growing older without growing up.
He agreed to meet at his studio, which is in a still-industrial patch of Brooklyn in a converted warehouse. It’s un-air-conditioned and rents for $1,050 a month.
He’s tall, and has brown hair and brown eyes, a solemn, guarded face. His work is often funny, but he takes it and himself very seriously. He agreed to be profiled for this magazine but doesn’t want to be figured out (“stratified,” he says, as in defined with words like “artist”). He’s wary. One time he told a Washington Post reporter too much, and the article was accepted as evidence in his trial.
Borf, the 20-month illegal public art campaign, was designed to be noticed but not understood. The graffiti was all over the city, where suburban commuters would see it as would Howard University students. The name, the face and vague sentences like “Borf writes letters to your children.” “Grownups are obsolete,” on a sign held by a little girl. EL BORFISMO.
When he was finally witnessed in flagrante, a spray can in his hand, the world learned who he was. An 18-year-old white student at Corcoran College of Art and Design who had grown up in affluent Great Falls. It was all a tribute to a friend nicknamed Borf (it was Borf’s face) who had committed suicide at 16.
“You profess to despise rich people,” said Judge Lynn Leibovitz at his sentencing. “You profess to despise the faceless, nameless forms of government that oppress. That’s what you are. You’re a rich kid who comes into Washington and defaces property because you feel like it. It’s not fair. It’s not right.” Tsombikos was sentenced to a month in jail, a $12,000 fine, community service cleaning up graffiti and a legally enforced year without art supplies. The judge prescribed one more thing, less enforceable: that he pay the fine by getting “a real job, going to work like the people you demean, earning it with paychecks and the sweat of your own brow.”
The judge, in effect, had sentenced him to grow up.
His current version of street art isn’t illegal, and barely even destructive. He paints over a pothole and drapes a canvas over it, and cars driving by create what he calls a relief, an impression of the cracks in the road on the canvas. What he seems to like best is the engineering, finding the right cracks on a busy but not too busy street, waiting for the break in the traffic pattern, trying two colors at once, getting a little gravel to dry into the paint. Just one of this series has sold, he says, for $2,000. “It looks abstract, but it is really the physical world,” he says.
He alternates work on those with a 6-foot-wide oil crayon drawing of people at a beach on Cape Cod. He traced the outlines from a projection of a picture he took and looks at the blown-up image on his laptop. He fills in the colors with layering, smudging. The surface is plywood, and the frame is designed to go right over a subway-station advertisement. When the drawing is ready, he plans to invite friends and other artists, serve snacks, and have a viewing for four hours in a subway station for anyone who comes by.
But has the artist formerly known as Borf achieved success? It’s hard to be sure, and he doesn’t help you much.
His last solo gallery show was in 2013, when the former agent for the famously anonymous street artist Banksy took a shine to Tsombikos’s work and chose it for his gallery in London. Originals from that show sell online for up to $3,600. (Wrote a critic in the Upcoming: “Each part of his work is laid out plain to see, yet the effect is of obstacles to whatever might be lurking at the painting’s heart.”)
See 2011’s Banksy documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” in which someone who looks like Tsombikos is seen finishing the spray-painted sentence SORRY ABOUT YOUR WALL — BORF. There’s an unregulated humor to his work that undercuts his personal earnestness, or vice versa. A series of dumb jokes spray-painted on walls, the 2010 D.C. show “Potty-trained at Gunpoint” featuring disabled security cameras mounted like hunting trophies.
But he is not goofy in person, at least not at first. He is pensive and serious, and after silences will bring up terrible things in the world — police oppression of black men, development encroaching on places that have real community. He talks wide-ranging philosophy, drops words like “liminal” into casual conversation and informs you, with no discernible antecedent, that half the young adults in Greece are unemployed, then pauses for a reaction. If you are unable to muster a better response than a sympathetic noise, it makes you feel like Bob Dylan’s Mr. Jones, someone who doesn’t get it or even know what it might be. There’s a churlishness and petulance and childishness. But:
Watch him work.
For two hours, he is so focused on his beach scene he seems to lose himself in space and time. He doesn’t fidget, doesn’t stretch or sigh, doesn’t sit back to evaluate. He takes no longer than six seconds to choose the next crayon. He works first on a striped beach umbrella, then from left to right on some skin tones. He squats, sits cross-legged on the floor and then kneels as he fills in base colors around the umbrella and then returns to it. He adds layer after layer, and now the red stripe has a shadow. Now it crumples inward. He doesn’t ever seem to pause to think. The work is the thinking, maybe. It is focused, disciplined and intense. It looks very much like ... work ethic.
Asked how he has grown up, Tsombikos is not willing to say that he has. “What does growing up mean? Compromising my principles?” And that’s your answer.
In “The Memoirs of a Survivor,” Nobelist Doris Lessing describes the first act of adulthood as “the finality of the acceptance of a wrong.” This is what doesn’t seem to have happened for John Tsombikos. From the other side of the grown-up gap, it’s frustrating to talk to him, like listening to a college freshman explain what’s wrong with the world — but it clearly resonates with an audience, this fierce hug of innocence and naivete, the largely futile struggle for meaning. You know, art.
What has never been clear is exactly what Borf meant , how spray-painted images of a goofy face with a goofy caption had anything to do with a rejection of society’s constraints. Artists don’t explain themselves, of course, so you don’t really ask that. You ask about Borf, the boy.
Borf, Tsombikos says now, was annoying. As a 10-year-old, always making weird sounds and bothering people, never still or doing what he was supposed to. Until Tsombikos joined him in his world, where, he says, Borf had more ways of having fun than anyone. The teacher’s heavy masking tape dispenser was, a little investigation revealed, filled with SAND! Sand that could be sprinkled on the other kids’ heads! And with practice, you could get away with it! But Borf got into trouble, got sent to timeout. In high school, it got worse. His dad moved away, and Borf got kicked out of one school, didn’t fit in at the other.
Tsombikos says that his mother broke the news to him that his middle-school buddy was dead, had hanged himself from a basement pipe.
When she comforted her stricken son, Kathleen Murphy explained that Bobby had been seriously bipolar, that he was sick, and that there was nothing John could have done to save him. That was the point, Tsombikos said, that he bolted from the house and hid in the bushes for quite some time.
It turns out that was the very worst thing he could hear, that Bobby’s death didn’t actually mean anything, that there was nothing to learn or do, but that awful things happen and we move on.
Bobby’s death, Tsombikos decided, was a result of his struggle against an oppressive, grinding world that does not make room for eccentrics and subversives and people who are different. Borf’s suicide, Tsombikos decided, had to be a revolutionary act.
“That campaign saved me,” he says now, of his teenage spray-paint war. Setting himself small but thrilling goals, honoring his friend, not growing up.
For reasons that defy explanation, a 16-year-old died in 2003. But perhaps because he did, a 16-year-old has lived on ever since.
Rachel Manteuffel is an editorial aide at The Washington Post. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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