Compulsive Bike Collector Tells All: Kenk

Kenk by Richard Poplak, Alex Jansen, Jason Gilmore and Nick Marinkovich

In a nutshell, Kenk (Pop Sandbox Production and Publishing, 2010) is fucking brilliant. Why? Perhaps the reasons for this are difficult to pinpoint, but they have something to do with the visually raw punk aesthetic exuding from the pages of this bold experiment, the complexity of the Igor Kemp world view, and the endearing affection that so many of us have for the intrepid outlaw, unafraid to stick it to the Man.

 

The Process

In the Author’s Note at the beginning of this fine and edgy work, Richard Poplak describes his graphic portrait thus:

The following is a work of journalism, with a twist. Most of the content in the book is derived from more than 30 hours of digital footage taken of convicted bike thief Igor Kenk during the year leading up to his arrest. Thus, you hold in your hands a hybrid project that simultaneously takes the form of journalistic profile, documentary and comic book.

The images have been doctored using a now-ancient technology employed by underground artists battling state-run presses in Yugoslavia during the 80s: the photocopy machine. Kenk came of age in that country during the punk-like FV movement. This style informed – and informs of – his ethos. I came to believe that this is the prism through which Kenk sees the world.

 

In “Portrait of a Serial Stealer” (The Walrus Blog), Poplak mentions his love of fumetti, photographic comics that became especially popular in North America during the 1970s. Supported by Alex Jensen (producer) and Jason Gilmore (cameraman and designer), Poplak decided to move forward with his vision of creating a photographically inspired “graphic novel”—without having a clear conception of what the final product would look like.

 

The backdrop to Kenk’s central narrative was fleshed out to a large degree by a visit Poplak took to Slovenia, where he learned about the FV movement’s blossoming in 1980s Ljubljana, the republic’s capital. Through exploring the archives of the International Centre of Graphic Arts (MGLC) due to the generosity of the museum’s curator, Poplak was able to research the growth of Slovenian punk (and the art scene that accompanied it) in greater detail, as well as hammer out:

…a detailed, Alan Moore-style script that would include the mood of the panel, the necessary facial expressions, the captions, dialogue, etc. (I was working off both the video and interview transcriptions typed up by one of our tireless interns, Katie Parker.) Occasionally I would draw thumbnails or do provisional layouts to get a sense of pacing, and modify the script accordingly (“Portrait of a Serial Stealer,” The Walrus Blog)

Poplak attributes the seamless fit between his writing and Nick Marinkovich’s artwork in part to Marinkovich’s being of Serbian ancestry—which led to his having a strong sense of what the rest of the creative team envisioned as an end product. The pages were manipulated using a variety of techniques:

Nick would fiddle a bit with the layouts in InDesign, and then run them through the photocopier, distress them, “illustrate” line work with a razor blade, scan them, add some vector lines, and voila—the Kenk visual treatment you see before you (“Portrait of a Serial Stealer,” The Walrus Blog).

Images were run through the photocopier many times over to achieve the desired gritty and hyper-real effect presented in the text. The photocopier was a model from the 1990s—a compromise, since the cost of machines from the 1980s proved prohibitive, in part due to the rarity of toner cartridges.

While I wrote out passages from Kenk for this blog post, I noticed that the font size was slightly larger where emphasis was being added to capture the natural cadence of Igor Kenk’s language–and I could hear his accent in my head. Poplak remarks, “The idea here was to approximate the rhythm of Igor’s patois, and to represent as truthfully as possible his particular brand of street poetry” (“Portrait of a Serial Stealer,” The Walrus Blog). The tone of Kenk’s accent resonates even further with the font selection (from the courier family?) which hearkens back to the days of early typewriters. In the excerpts from Kenk that follow, I have chosen to emphasize words that appear in a larger font in the text using bold, since the default WordPress wysiwig editor includes only one font size for text.

Beginnings

Back in communist shithole I was legend. Here, I’m just loser. From the old shithole, they call. The first 5 to 10 years, they ask me, ‘Are you a gazillionaire now?’ And I say, ‘No. I’m just a pro monkey.’ And they say: ‘Nah!’ So! Public hand this shit over. Thanks. I’ll take it. My greed factor is fuckin non-existent. I’m giving away my wonders. North America. We’re a fat baby, sucking on milk. We’re going down. But I’m the problem, right? I’m the worst villain in the western hemisphere (12).

The West. The Wild West. We eat and eat and eat and shit and puke and eat some more (21).

Kenk was born in Marlbor, Slovenia, 1959, during Tito’s forty year reign. On June 25, 1991, Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia. The country did not become embroiled in the Yugoslav Wars to the same extent as the rest of the republic, due to a slightly more tolerant attitude amongst the populace, compared with the racist and nationalist ideologies favoured by many in the rest of Yugoslavia. In the following passage, Kenk reminisces on his early years:

…Father a businessman dealing with small fries in agriculture. He really fucked himself up, that guy. Genetically beautiful. Extremely good cards he came with. But he really wasted his life away. He was a gentle giant. A nobody. His father used to say to him, ‘Idiots buy things, and smart people sell things to idiots. He forgot this. I did not (41).

Age 0 to 8, I was huge. So insanely explosive. The whole class had to shut up. I was the boss. I was math prodigy. My grandmother would show off my skills. 9 years old: Meltdown. The results weren’t so turbo-A anymore. 11 to 17, I was a small mouse.

Even still, I was chess master. Had chess teacher who was more of inspiration than my father.

He said that all moves are wrong. You must choose move that is least wrong. Because of this, I was insanely hard opponent. Pulled moves like fuckin 41 in Stalingrad (42).

…Good EQ is a better ticket than IQ. My father had high IQ. But EQ – emotional quotient – is different. It’s the drive, how much beating you can take (43).

Kenk joined the Slovenia Police Cadets in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, at age 15—considered an enviable achievement by many young men who wished to prove themselves:

“…Cause the school was considered the shit, right? I made it in there. And they really squeezed the fuck out of us….Knocked the shit from us. So, I learn how to knock the shit back (44-45).

Kenk became the Slovenian Police Judo Champion, his greatest success as a member of the police force. Due to this prestigious title, he earned 50% over and above his regular salary. Court-martialed for making a joke about Tito’s leg being amputated at the end of his life, Kenk was released from the force not long afterwards, due to his mother’s intervention. Kenk then found work cleaning train windows, then packing goods on horses through mountainous terrain.

During this time, Kenk began to sell goods in Slovenia on the “grey market” at a tremendous profit, smuggling items from the Austrian border into Slovenia. It was the beginning of his entrepreneurial success. During “the game,” for which Kenk was deemed a hero by his compatriots, he was renowned for smuggling bananas into the country. Another of Igor’s treasured imports was one of his earliest bikes, steel-frame East German racer.

Early Toronto

Kenk left Slovenia by marrying an air hostess for Air Canada, the child of affluent parents. The two fought violently with one another even in Ljubljana, and the relationship was doomed to failure.

In a poignant reflection comparing life in Ljubljana to Toronto, Kenk ruminates:

Back in old shithole, I was legend. Here I’m petty criminal. Meantime, in this city your dog fuckin sneezes, it’s crisis. Back home I was flush with junk because people are ignorant. It’s retarded. It’s sad (53).

What makes this particular passage so powerful is the visual regression of Igor Kenk, through a sequence of nine equally sized panels, from grown adult to the lonely boy who perhaps saw the world for what it was even at an early age. In his Walrus Blog article, Poplak mentions that early in in the creation of Kenk, he realized that the nine-panel grid would be the default architectural framework used in the book—a form previously established by the likes of Alan Moore, working in Watchmen and V for Vendetta.

Kenk’s early arrival in Toronto saw him delivering papers and picking up scrap bikes and restoring them, a pass time that he found very satisfying. A pile of bicycles began to appear in Kenk’s front yard, much to the chagrin of his neighbours.

He was travelling all over the world for free because of his lover’s employment with Air Canada, but when he arrived home, between the police pressuring him to clean up his yard and domestic disputes with his partner, Kenk was sent packing.

The Bicycle Clinic

At this point in the narrative, Kenk brags about his sex appeal with women in Canada, a monologue that accompanies a photograph of Kenk as a fashion model—which he did for a spell prior to opening the Bicycle Clinic in the impoverished neighbourhood of Queen Street West:

10, 15 years ago in neighbourhood? There was nothing, just a burnt-down area. Oh, it was horrendous, right? It was just third world country. There were people with no money for a potato. People were ignorant and retarded (63).

Upon opening his new business, Kenk was busted for possession of marijuana and stolen property. In the early days, he would rummage through garbage and go to garage sales to find all of his tools and bikes to refurbish. He would ride across town, pulling a trailer with up to eight bikes behind him. Business flourished. Kenk took to raising pit bulls, and the shop served as hangout for the down-and-out of the area.

In 1993, Kenk was incarcerated in a Toronto jail while police seized 140 bikes from his shop, claiming that they were stolen property. In spite of none of the charges holding, Kenk made the front page of the Toronto Star “…as biggest fuckin bandit in the western hemisphere (98).”

Among the most intriguing passages in Kenk are those featuring an interview with Robert Tajti, Planner for the 14 Division police force, “…the single busiest police division in Canada, encompassing a dense sweep of the west end of Toronto including Igor’s Bicycle Clinic (109).”

Tajti says it like it is. Thankfully, due process requires that there be significant proof before a judge will grant a warrant to police officers to search any premises—searches cannot be conducted on the basis of hearsay. Tajti throws the community’s arguments right back at them. If the bikes that are being sold at Igor’s are hot, and if the neighbourhood is incensed about it, then why do the bikes continue to sell? Kenk is abiding by the requirement of his second-hand license that he record the personal information of every individual selling him a bike, and that he hold every bike he purchases for three weeks before selling it. Until there is any evidence that Kenk has committed a crime, he is free to continue running his business.

The Logic of Late Capitalism

Kenk’s business logic is enigmatic; to his reckoning, thieves play an essential role in the business community, to the extent that when merchandise is stolen, the victims of the theft are left to go out and purchase replacement items for whatever has been stolen. “Of course it’s clear. If everybody is happy, that’s no good for business (130).” Kenk’s attitude towards consumerism lies on the premise that planned obsolescence is built into the fabric of our material existence.  And where the obsolescence is not planned, mechanisms are in place requiring the purchase of new goods to fill the void.

In an attempt to negotiate the space between criminal activity and legally-sanctioned consumer exploitation, Kenk will purchase stolen bikes and then leave them on the street for their owners to find.

Why wouldn’t you fix shit so that it doesn’t break anymore? But that’s a blind alley. There’s no money in that. But I’m the crook? I leave bikes outside the same day that they come. I leave them outside, even though I’m the biggest fuckin thief in western hemisphere.

So sometimes people come and look and go, all excited, ‘Oh that’s my fuckin bike.’ I go, ‘Yeah that’s why it’s fuckin here. So that you can find it.’ It’s a fuckin insult. For shit like this I don’t have time to waste, but if you think I’m a crook and you want to evaluate?

Well, fuck you. You know where to find me (130-132).

Star-crossed Lovers

The “Lovers’ Interlude” included on pages 190-191 of Kenk is an absorbing glimpse into the man from another’s point of view, that of Jeanie Chung, Kenk’s common-law wife. Trained as a classical pianist, Chung completed her PhD at the famous Julliard music school: “I’d rehearsed 8 hours a day for as long as I could remember. it was the beginning of summer and I just wanted to fry my brains and just be stupid (191).” Chung was enamoured with Kenk, who had seen her play at a piano recital. These lines pretty much sum it up: “we’re unrelated being that have just 1 thing in common….we feel good together (191).” Chung is clearly challenged by Kenk, and describes her difficulties with accepting his compulsion to recycle other people’s wares. She also describes the incredible experience of witnessing Kenk’s generally unrealized ideas when they come to fruition—an incomparable marvel. All in all, though, Chung suggests, “we’re just human, you see, and we don’t want to be alone” (191).

The Monkey Factor

Kenk describes western opulence as the penultimate dissolution of “monkey factor”—“it’s the ability not to crash (209).” By Kenk’s estimation, and for that matter those of many world economists, the rise of China and India as industrial powers—and with them the rise of the middle class in those countries—will lead to “2.5 billion people playing vulgar capitalism” (209). From the point of view of Kenk’s conservationist ethic, it is human nature running in reverse. Whereas most people aspire towards a life of luxury and excess, leisure, struggle for Kenk defines his existence:

I cannot get free from these guys. Even though on paper, I’m almost millionaire. I could retire. but that’s punishment. Even if they give me 10 million under condition that I’m not allowed to work, I wouldn’t sign for that treat.

No.

I can only exist to spring out of bed and to be in fuckin panic. To sip on fuckin coffee and run through the fuckin door. Hustle until I feel like I’m barely standing, coming home and fuckin falling in shower and scrub and scrub and scrub half a pound of shit off of me.

…The goal is maintaining Monkey Factor. That’s the final goal. Stay alive and keep smiling. According to my calculus – you can only be happy if you’re struggling.

However – struggling because you want to. Not because anybody else want you to (228-299).

The End

On July 16, 2008 Igor Kenk was arrested with two counts of possessing stolen goods. He was caught telling an associate to cut a bike lock, and then paying cash for the stolen bike; an informant had suggested that Kenk paid for bikes using both cash and drugs. A warrant to search twelve different locations in the Toronto area turned up nearly 3000 bikes. A search of Kenk’s premises turned up 56 grams of cocaine, 8 kg of marijuana, and $3000 cash. In total, Kenk was charged with 80 offenses and can no longer live with Jeanie Chung. All charges against Chung were eventually dropped.

Kenk’s trial led to his serving 30 months in jail. He has now done his time, and is once again living as a free citizen.

In spite of mention of Kenk’s drug charges appearing early on in the work’s prologue, it still comes as a surprise to learn of the enormity of his involvement in the drug trade at the end of the book. This is mainly due to the absence of any mention of Kenk’s either using or dealing drugs throughout his extended monologue. It remains an oddity at the end of Kenk that he paid for at least some of his bikes using drugs. Was he only addicted to bicycles, or to drugs as well?

Up to the bitter end of Poplak’s portrait, Igor Kenk remains a baffling public figure. For all of his talk of supporting what the author describes as a “DIY hyper-capitalism and what’s-ours-is-ours hyper-Socialism,” we see that Kenk is nonetheless a deeply flawed individual like the rest of us, especially in terms of the paternal absenteeism that he practices to two children born out of wedlock. But this is part of the appeal. The tortured, Sienkiewicz-like illustrations that accompany the text serve to accentuate the maelstrom that is Kenk, and we as readers are better people for being exposed to it.

As a former bike courier and amateur bike fanatic, this was an exceptional read. I am confident that Kenk is here to stay as an exemplary work of graphic journalism. My only complaint: my wife read Kenk first, and even before I finished reading through the book for the first time, the front cover began to detach from the spine. Nothing a little glue couldn’t fix, but for a $28.00 book I would expect more…

The Aftermath

To a certain extent, Kenk’s dream of realizing biketopia lives on in the form of the Bixi Public Bike System, now well established in Montreal. Although more libertarian experiments have proven partially successful in the past in cities such as Amsterdam, bike theft remained a problem for user who simply parked shared bikes under the assumption that they would be used by someone else as required.

And there are still some who insist on collecting bikes of questionable status. At my own workplace, an entire building basement is used as a bike lockup for cycling commuters. Last summer, however, the lockup began to fill up with bikes that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. When signs were posted explaining that any unclaimed bikes would have their locks cut and the bikes removed at the end of the fair weather season, one individual arrived and hauled away about thirty bicycles in a truck. The Operations Manager chose to assume a no-questions-asked approach to the matter, and the lockup has been much emptier since. Perhaps Kenk has followers in other parts of the world…

LINKS:

Fiza, Jozef. “Socializing the State: Civil Society and Democratization from Below in Slovenia” State-society relations in Yugoslavia, 1945-1992. (Eds. Bokovoy, Melissa, Jill A. Irvine and Carol S. Lilly.) Scranton, PA: Haddon Craftsmen, 1995. Pp. 163-178. Retrieved May 26, 2010.

Inkstuds interview with Richard Poplak. Accessed May 29, 2010.

Interview with Igor Kenk.” Pedal Power. Accessed May 27, 2010.

Kenk. Official website. Accessed May 25, 2010.

Pedal Power.” DocZone. cbc.ca. Accessed May 27, 2010.

Poplak, Richard. “Portrait of a Serial Stealer: The Making of Kenk, a graphic biography of the world’s ultimate bicycle thief.” The Walrus Blog. Posted on May 6th, 2010. Accessed May 26, 2010.

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