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Art War! A Vigilante Battles Zabar’s Over a Banksy

Jul 14, 2023

By Naaman Zhou

Andrew Janoff, a thirty-five-year-old e-commerce manager who lives on the Upper West Side, spent much of last year in a neighborhood dispute with Zabar's, the venerable appetizing store on Broadway. That's his version. When asked about Janoff, Scott Goldshine, the general manager of Zabar's, said, "I don't know who he is."

It's an art-related dustup. On West Seventy-ninth Street, on the wall of a former Designer Shoe Warehouse, a block south of Zabar's, is a stencil by the British street artist Banksy. Known as the Zabar's Banksy, it is likely the last remaining public Banksy in New York, created during the artist's monthlong residency, in 2013. The other few dozen New York Banksys have been variously covered over, defaced, sealed in private collections, or auctioned off.

One evening last summer, Janoff crouched by the stencil, which shows a small boy wielding a sledgehammer, then affixed a piece of tape bearing his name to the wall. His aim? Recognition. His work? He’d been cleaning the painting.

For the past ten years, Zabar's has taken credit for guarding the Banksy from vandalism and the N.Y.P.D.'s "graffiti squad." Saul Zabar and his brother Stanley, the business's two patriarchs, had it covered with a pane of plexiglass the day it was discovered. Staff put a sign above the art: "Help ZABAR’S save this Banksy." One day last year, a new name appeared: "Help ANDREW JANOFF save this Banksy."

"They don't deserve to have their name on there, because they’re not cleaning it," Janoff said, over a smoothie at a local café. For months, he said, he had noticed a series of graffiti tags on the Banksy's plexiglass. He repeatedly wiped them away, using a rag and Goof Off. Each time, he replaced "ZABAR’S," on the sign, with "ANDREW JANOFF."

"Zabar's has abandoned it," Janoff said. "Credit should go to where credit is due. So that should be me."

Zabar's staff disagree. "We clean it," Goldshine said. "Do we clean it twenty times a year? No."

The Zabar's Banksy has come to mildly dominate Janoff's life. He has brought the issue to the attention of Willie Zabar—Stanley's grandson—whom he met at an event for an Instagram account called @oldjewishmen. Janoff, who claims to have the world's largest Jewish-bobblehead collection, was there on a date. "He told me that he would take care of it," Janoff recalled.

It was not taken care of—at least, not to Janoff's liking. And there was no second date. Janoff avoided shopping at Zabar's. "I’m not even a lox fan," he said. "So I’m not even missing out there."

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Goldshine, who fields complaints, isn't worried. "If somebody tells me the rye bread has got too much salt, or the Banksy picture is being defaced, we look at everything," he said. "That's why we’re still in business after ninety years."

Often, when visiting the Banksy, Janoff would find that his name had been removed. He utilized a three-step restoration process: first, a piece of blue tape, with his name on it; then a strip of white paper, also bearing his name; then clear packing tape over that.

One day, two pedestrians caught him. One carried a Zabar's bag; the other was about to snap a photo of the Banksy.

"Take that down," the photo-taker, whose name was Margo, told him. "We’re not here to take a picture of Andrew Janoff—we’re here to take a picture of the Zabar's."

"Why would you want Zabar's in there if they’re not actually cleaning it?" Janoff asked.

"You’re cleaning a piece of plastic, man," Margo said. "It's like the Empire State Building. The guys who wash the windows don't change the name to, you know, the Jakowski State Building."

Janoff moved aside, and the pair posed under the word "ZABAR’S." "Just so you know, your picture isn't truthful!" he yelled as they walked away.

Recently, a breakthrough came in the form of pastry. Janoff met another Zabar's manager, David Tait, who was more receptive. Tait assured him that they would look after the Banksy, thanked Janoff for his work, and, Janoff said, gave him a chocolate babka. (Tait denies giving the babka.) "I was glad I finally spoke to someone more official, who took me seriously and understood branding," Janoff said.

Janoff is now shopping at Zabar's again. The Banksy is clean. "It admittedly looks better without my name on it," he said. "That was only put there for justice purposes." But he still accosts passersby who take pictures of it. "I tell them that, although they are reading ‘Protected by Zabar's,’ it's actually me who is protecting it," he said. Then he shows them a photo of him with his cleaning supplies. ♦