On September 6 of this year, a Facebook event appeared promoting a Banksy meet-and-greet, scheduled for January 2016 at New York's Waldorf Astoria. The event gained substantial traction and widespread interest over the past few weeks as a weird internet in-joke.
Part of the endeavor's charm is how badly faked the whole thing is. The event description spells Banksy's name wrong three different ways, promises that Banksy will be "formally introduced to polite society," and offers complimentary face painting to the first 100 guests—"from the scoundrel himself!!" After Banksy's spokesperson denied having anything to do with the event (or the face painting), event creator Steven Rausch nonsensically told the Village Voice, "Well me and Bankers were hanging out, just watching Gilmore Girls… the episode where Rory is presented to the DAR, and Bling was just like, 'Mate, I think that's what I want to do.'" When the Voice article hit the internet, that became part of the weird in-joke too.
As for the kind-looking young man Rausch chose for the face of the event, well, that's Michael Whatley, who we can officially add to the list of totally normal people who through no effort of their own have become the face of a strange internet phenomenon. Whatley lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he's an assistant production manager at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. As a part of the Actors Theatre, he directed a play called An Average Man. Because of the magic of Google, whenever you search "average man," you get Whatley, whose headshot just so happens to make him look like an extremely average man. If Whatley had to guess, the Banksy meet-and-greet's creator probably searched for "average man" while he was looking for a fake face for Banksy, found his charming face against the semi-generic Louisville skyline, and ran with it.
Last week I chatted with Whatley over the phone about whether or not he's Banksy, how utterly bizarre and interesting the internet can be, and what it's like to be the face of average men everywhere. He's doing his best to have some fun with it.
VICE: Are you Banksy?
Michael Whatley: I think if I was Banksy, I'd have to say no and if I wasn't Banksy, I'd also have to say no. So the answer to that question is irrelevant.
When did you find out that your photo was being used as the face of Banksy?
A friend of mine posted a link to the event to my [Facebook] timeline on September 8, which was the first I'd ever heard of it. I got interested, but then it kind of faded into the back of my mind until I got an email from the Village Voice asking some questions about it. At that point I kind of wondered if I was being set up to take the fall for some of Banksy's more notorious crimes, but sometimes the only way to overcome a snake is to walk through its woods in ice skates, you know? I'm no patsy, is what I'm trying to say. If anyone thinks I'm Banksy, I think they'll have a hard time proving it. It is a super goofy thing to have become a big deal, but I'm a fan of goofy things.
How do you think that photo ended up being the banner for the Banksy meet and greet on Facebook?
As close as I could figure, when you Google image search the phrase "average man," my picture is the first thing that pops up. I think it's because I directed a 10-minute play at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2013 called An Average Man by Stephanie Alison Walker, but I don't know why the two things are connected in that way. So I think the person creating the event wanted a picture of an average man to represent Banksy. Why we assume Banksy is a white guy, I don't know. There doesn't seem to be evidence for that, but that's what the event administrator seemed to want to do.
You're also the face of a Twitter account @Chester_Ray50.
I did not see that! I had no idea!
Yeah, your bio is, "Construction worker, team is the Wolfs."
[Laughs] This is news to me.
On Motherboard: Anonymous Has Changed the Way We Think About Anonymity
Would you consider yourself an average man?
I think there's something about being average that really makes you feel safe and secure, that there's a certain anonymity to being average. But it turns out that it can't be that anonymous, because if you're special enough to be the 'ideal average,' you get popped into all sorts of weird situations.
What's the backstory of the photo?
So at the time it was taken, I was a member of the Actors Theatre of Louisville Apprentice Intern Company and we all as a group, all the members together, took headshots on top of the theatre's parking garage as a way of promoting ourselves on the website.
So that photo is actually of downtown Louisville, which can be average in some ways.
An average man in an average city.
Have you ever graffitied anything?
No, not really. When I was a teenager, we toilet-papered some cars and stuff, but that's all in the past. And it wasn't particularly artistic either, it was just something that happened.
Follow Michael on Twitter.