THE GREAT APE CAPER
How a piece of stolen art brought a community together
by Kristin Hackler
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On February 10, the painting, Ishmael, was stolen from the Tin Roof. In less than a day, the majority of the West Ashley community came together in search of this iconic artwork.
In less than a minute, it was gone. A cherished and iconic painting of a gorilla by Charleston street artist Ishmael seemed to have simply walked out.
“It was a chaotic point in the night,” said Tin Roof bartender John Hurt, better known as Johnny Puke. “The bands were loading out, and there were people in the dance area. One minute I was talking to Nick (Tin Roof co-owner, Nick Della Penna) at the soundboard and we both looked up and the painting was gone.”
Minutes later, the call went out. Facebook, phones, text messages were blowing up with the message: “Someone stole Ishmael.”
It wasn’t just the idea someone could steal from a popular locals bar like the Tin Roof. It was what they stole that had people of all ages in the West Ashley community up in arms. Known as “Ishmael,” the four-by-three-foot unframed canvas has held a prominent place in the Tin Roof for several years. Depicting a gorilla, open-mouth and teeth baring, just barely discernable against a black background, the image is raked with a few spatters of red under the towering, capitalized name “Ishmael.” Both the name and the eyes of the gorilla glow eerily under a single tube of black light. It was a gift from an artist who, then and now, is considered to be one of the most prolific and well known underground street artists in the area: Ishmael. The painting was in honor of the book that inspired the artist’s unique name, Ishmael, a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. Although never officially appraised, the police incident report lists the painting’s value at $5,000.
“I was very surprised at the audacity someone had walking out with such a prominent piece of art in a very loved local bar,” said artist and EightFourThree magazine publisher, John Pundt. “This is not a small piece of art, so I have to give some credit to his ninja-prowess to even consider going out the door as the band was loading. To even consider that someone would harm or steal from such good people is saddening.”
It wasn’t just the value of the painting or the meaning behind it that riled up the local artist population. It was as though each and every person that had seen that painting, that had shared a drink or a story or a wild experience under its fiery gaze, had been personally robbed. While it felt like a slap in the face to so many, it also brought to light the bond shared by the local artist community, with many living in the West Ashley area.
On hearing about the theft, Pundt and local artist Ben Sellers were among several artists who did everything they could to spread the word, advising people to keep an eye out in case the thief decided to toss the painting rather than be caught with it, believing it would be impossible to hide it if the thief decided to keep it. Practically everyone in West Ashley was on the lookout.
“I was pissed,” said Sellers. “Even if you don’t know Ish as an artist, you know that painting. What helped was the immediate, effective action. With everyone texting, calling, and posting on Facebook about the theft, it really helped get the word out. And to be honest, I don’t think for a second that kid really knew what he stole.”
“The outcry to please return it went along with threats to break kneecaps. But I would say that is not necessarily the best motivator,” said Pundt. And even though angry words were certainly shared, there was positive action taking place, as well. Along with the Tin Roof’s promise to not ask any questions if the painting was returned within 24 hours, other artists were doing what they could to offer their support. Some, like Jason Eisenburg at Holy City Tattoo, even offered free art services to anyone who could provide information in apprehending the thief.
In the end, it took almost three days before the return of Ishmael to the Tin Roof. While it might not ever be known if the young man who brought it in was the actual thief, all were pleased with his actions. Carrying it under a thick blanket, the unknown man walked in the front door and carefully hung it back up on the wall. The handful of happy hour bar patrons instantly burst into applause and before the frame came to rest against the wall, pictures of the painting with the words “Ishmael is back!” were flying across Facebook. Within 15 minutes, regulars were streaming into the bar to see if it was true, and to breathe a collective sigh of relief that this icon had been returned.
“I don’t want to give him credit, but he did bring it back,” said Sellers. “In a way, he stole it as a child, but he brought it back as a humble young man.”
“I have to give him respect,” said Pundt. “He didn’t just leave it in the back patio. He hand delivered it despite the threats being tossed around. Kudos. The bartender even bought him a drink.”