Around Thanksgiving 2014, police made the gruesome discovery of a woman's body stuffed into a Central City trash can. While the neighborhood mourned the woman's death, observers also noted the presence of a cryptic image on a wall near the Danneel Street alley where Mona Fedison's body was stashed, a Cupid-like angel watching a figure walk away from arrows that missed their target.
Not long afterward, more than three miles away, officials at the Lycee Francais de la Nouvelle Orleans charter school were in the process of completing their purchase of the former Priestley campus in Carrollton when they noticed a politically charged mural on the old gym. "May the Police Force Be With You," the stencil read, with an image of a man being restrained by police while Darth Vader choked him.
Like those who saw the angel image at the murder scene, the Lycee Francais officials wondered among themselves: Was it a "Banksy," a painting created by the famous British street artist?
No — the creator was much more local.
The artist often mistaken for Banksy is not trying to pass off his work as Banksy's — he signs each piece with his adopted name "Az" and has a website, Azwashere.com. Az is 32, has lived in seven or eight cities and moved to New Orleans about two years ago. He started tagging about two years before that.
"I was living up in Fargo [North Dakota]," Az says, "and I was so bored that I wanted to make the place look not so much like a stereotypical suburban city."
One night, when he was spray-painting the word 'freedom' on the back of an apartment building, someone took note of his license plate and Az experienced his first attention from the police. He left Fargo soon afterward.
New Orleans, he says, has become a place of "refuge" for him, and he no longer wants to move around. Instead, he and artist Rex Dingler are collaborating on a project called "Not Jericho," an online resource for connecting artists with property owners who have walls they want painted.
"New Orleans has been so against murals and graffiti in general, now that they are starting to want more public art, they're having a hard time finding the artists," Az says.
That tide may have turned earlier this year with the #ExhibitBe public art project started by artist Brandan "BMike" Odums. Not only was the transformation of a former West Bank apartment building into a three-story canvas hailed as one of the most successful public art projects in recent memory, but Odums was invited to share the stage with Mayor Mitch Landrieu during this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. Since then, Odums' murals have shown up at major city events with increasing frequency.
Az says he has met Odums a few times and discussed a collaboration, though nothing has happened. He applauded the citywide attention keeping Odums so busy.
"Every ounce of it is deserved," Az says. "The man is doing amazing things."
Several of Az's pieces, including a humorous depiction of Bigfoot making fake human footprints, are on the walls at Gasa Gasa on Freret Street. Az also was one of five street artists showcased in a recent exhibit at Treo, a bar and gallery space on Tulane Avenue in Mid-City.
"I think he's brilliant," Pauline Patterson, owner of Treo and Finn McCool's Irish Pub, says of Az. "I think he's very talented. It's very methodical, very professional — so many layers. I really do like his style of work."
So far, much of the public discussion of Az's work has revolved around whether it was created by Banksy, who worked in New Orleans in 2008.
"Obviously, there's always going to be the comparison to Banksy," Patterson says. "[Az is] just using a similar sort of outlet to express his political beliefs."
To people unfamiliar with street art, Az's use of stencils likely is enough to draw comparisons to Banksy, Patterson says, adding that many art forms come about in broad movements and doesn't mean Az's work is a derivative of Banksy's even if the two styles are similar.
Az says his own work has stylistic differences from Banksy's: His stencils often have more layers and depict human faces differently, especially in the amount of detail around the eyes. The artist says he doesn't view the public's confusion as a negative; the fame around Banksy's work has made people more likely to consider street art and its message on its merits instead of simply dismissing it as vandalism.
"I don't mind it because first and foremost, I do like Banksy," Az says. "I love his work, I really do. But I do put my signature on [my work], so if you look closer, there's no way you can mistake it for a Banksy."
Az's themes range from visual puns, like Bigfoot at Gasa Gasa, to political topics, such as using Darth Vader to comment on police violence on the Priestley building. "The one on the school, I wanted to hurt somebody emotionally, but not in a way that they would react angrily, more that they would react with reflection," Az says.
Keith Bartlett, CEO of Lycee Francais, says school leaders noticed Az's painting almost immediately after the closing of the Prospect.3 international art exhibitions in New Orleans, and they thought Banksy might have been in New Orleans for the event. Bartlett says officials were discussing how to preserve the art if it was painted by Banksy. Even though they know it is not, Bartlett says, the school has no immediate wish to see it removed.
"It certainly speaks to what's in the mindset of our society today," Bartlett says. "I also don't want to disturb it because it probably speaks to the neighborhood. To just cover it up would almost be disrespectful to their voices or their minds."
Az says most of his work has been Uptown, though he has done some pieces in the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. He scouts potential locations on Google Maps and Google Street View, then goes in person to observe for 20 minutes or so to determine whether he's likely to be disturbed while working.
On Danneel Street, that preparation had eerily unexpected consequences. Az had finished painting the angel with the ignored arrows only a week or so before the discovery of the woman's body. First, he feared that someone might try to connect him to the crime, then he wondered whether his image may have been meaningful to the killer — especially because investigators say the suspect, Evangelisto Ramos, was in an occasional relationship with Fedison.
Nor could he ignore the reason both he and the killer chose the spot: It was secluded and what a person was doing was unlikely to attract immediate attention.
"It freaked me out a bit," Az says. "My head was — it was a bit weird after that."
With the growing interest in street art, Az says he hopes to continue taking his work on a path that is less likely to lead to run-ins with police and will allow him to raise his 1-year-old son in New Orleans.
"I'd like to bring him up around here ...," Az says. "I'd love to have the culture of this town instilled in him from birth."
Az's says his new work may be mistaken for Banksy less often because he is experimenting with a new technique using paint balloons instead of spray paint. It creates a dramatically different effect. In the meantime, property owners may wonder what they should do if an "Az" shows up on one of their walls. Patterson says she wouldn't like a randomly scrawled name on her building, but she would prize a work of genuine street art.
"It would depend on what it was," Patterson says. "If it was Az, I'd probably want to put a frame around it and capture it forever."
— This story originally was reported by our partners at Uptown Messenger. For more, visit www.uptownmessenger.com.