BNE Was Here, There, and Everywhere – John Lewell Photography


Going through my photos from Bangkok from last year, I came across the featured image (above).

It has the kind of juxtaposition I like: with the surfeit of visual messages on every object, including the woman’s body.

Most prominent of all the messages is one that says: “BNE Was Here.” It’s a message you’ll come across again and again if you take street photos in the cities of the Far East.

For example, here’s another one (below). I took it because of the distinct oddness of the couple: a girl with a big floppy ribbon in her hair and a boy furtively holding a cigarette while carrying in front of him a multi-colored bag as though it contained something of special value.

an awkward situation

The man, about to get in a pick-up truck, glares at me — perhaps worried lest I record some kind of illegal transaction.

Can you see the sticker in the background: “BNE Was Here”? I think this adds something extra to the image — not mystery, exactly, because these stickers are so ubiquitous — but a reassuring sense of familiarity when it’s most needed.

The BNE Affair
In case you missed the media coverage of BNE I suppose I should provide a brief explanation. BNE (or BNE) is the logo used by a person who started scrawling traditional graffiti nearly thirty years ago. After a few years he turned to stickers, churning them out in their thousands and covering our cities with them: especially New York and Tokyo, but also Prague, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

Especially Bangkok. Here’s another example:

prominent sticker on lamp post

(I snapped this shot on the way to lunch: that’s my son in front with his arm on his mother’s shoulder.)

Of course, there’s so much graffiti and so many stickers in Bangkok you could be forgiven for noticing them. However, the media did start to pay attention and articles about BNE appeared in The New York Times and Forbes magazines.

Journalists even succeeded in tracking BNE down and getting his comments, learning that he not only generated about 10,000 stickers a month but also had help from colleagues to put them in place. His presence on key websites, like Flickr and YouTube, was greater than that of many multinational corporations.

Man With a Brand
Having built a brand that sells nothing, “BNE” saw the light (so the story goes) and decided to donate it to a good cause. He explained to Forbes magazine that he was spray-painting a wall in Jakarta when a woman said it must be wonderful to be rich enough to use paint in this way. So he agreed to paint her fence as well, listened to her life story, and learned how people in her city had to go without food because they spent so much money on water. This was the beginning of the BNE Water Foundation.

“BNE is a global movement dedicated to helping people in need to get access to clean, safe drinking water and basic sanitation. We raise funds + awareness with art and BNE products.”

Click on today and you get taken to a Water Damage Restoration Removal & Air Conditioning Repair service. Oh dear, whatever happened to all those donations?

Scandal Breaks
In 2014, scandal rocked the BNE venture when ANIMAL ( announced: “In a brazen act of chutzpah even by the standards of the graffiti world, where gaming each other is commonplace, pseudonymous global sticker-bomber, BNE, has fraudulently claimed to have collaborated on t-shirts with Banksy, the undisputed king of street-art, for the benefit of World Water Day.”

Apparently, BNE had falsely claimed to be collaborating with Banksy, whose work, unlike BNE’s ubiquitous stickers does at least have the combined virtues of invention, variation and humor.

Failing to receive any t-shirts — and aware that the product would not be authenticated by Banksy — donors started to ask for their money back. PayPal reversed all the payments and shut down BNE’s account. In a follow-up post on ANIMAL, BNE was described as “the sticker-bombing con artist BNE.”

The Unseen Tee-Shirt
This is a story of our times. Hundreds of people were prepared to believe an anonymous street artist when he said: “You do not get to see the artwork on this tee until it arrives at your door.”

Oh, that’s OK. Don’t bother to show us the product. Don’t tell us your name. We’ll just give you the money. And don’t tell us how you spend it.

BNE relied heavily on the power of photography to spread the word and establish a presence on the Internet, taking his “brand” beyond the city street and into the minds of people everywhere. I guess I’m continuing to promulgate the same virus with this article.

If it was genuine, I salute BNE’s intention to help solve the water crisis in the developing world. If it was not genuine, then I’d cry “Shame!” The message itself: “BNE Was Here” was certainly not always truthful. In many instances, “BNE Was NOT Here” would have been closer to the truth.

The BNE stickers will probably appear in future pictures, next time I walk around the streets of Bangkok. I’m not too worried. It’s unobtrusive compared to the Sainsbury’s bag in the UK. Its in-your-face color ruined a lot of my local street photos, until I finally accepted it in the shot below. Thank heavens THAT’s gone.

Couple with four bright orange bags

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