Meet Igor Kenk. For a long time, if you lived in Toronto and your bike was stolen, chances are good that someone would eventually tell you to check Igor’s shop. When police busted him in 2008, they charged him with 80 offences, and recovered nearly 3,000 bikes. The headlines that resulted, and the attention garnered by Kenk’s outspoken, eccentric and puzzling personality, earned him the title of “world’s most prolific bicycle thief” by international news outlets.
Now we have Kenk, the book (and possibly, animated film), an intensely detailed, layered and unforgettable portrait of Kenk, his life and times. A tale of crime and obsession, and a remarkably intimate project, Kenk presents a picaresque collection of scenes: Kenk with customers, or with his common-law wife (a Juilliard-trained concert pianist), Kenk cruising the yard sales and selling scrap to the junkyard, Kenk outside the courthouse. Various interludes offer insights into his country of birth and his adopted city, among many, many other subjects.
Kenk’s voice is relentless throughout. Equal parts hustler, curmudgeon and philosopher, he rambles, philosophizes, rants. At times, his blustery facade falls, offering a glimpse at his self-doubts and uncertainties.
“The question is whether I feel guilty or not. I’m having trouble understanding where does it begin and where does it end,” he says during one of the book’s relatively quiet moments. “I’m coming from a place where stuff that is lying in the garbage here was completely and utterly out of reach to me, even though I was far from the bottom of society.”
He relates how one former girlfriend described him as having a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality: “‘Some vicious note comes out of you when money is around,’ [she said]. So I choose to be poor. I choose to be the underdog.”
A prologue recalls the opening pages of Frank Miller’s classic Dark Knight Returns, with a TV news motif that establishes some background information and sets the tone. The various headlines, sound clips and talking heads culminate with a newscaster asking the fundamental questions for this book. Local residents and international media want to know, she says, “Who is Igor Kenk, did he steal 3000 bicycles, and what was he planning to do with them?”
Author Richard Poplak answers two of those questions, but wisely avoids oversimplifying his story. By the end of the book it’s hard to determine if Kenk is a misunderstood hero or a con artist, if he masterminded an army of bike thieves or if he just didn’t care where the bikes he bought for his second-hand shop actually came from. Most likely, the truth is somewhere in between.
In a brief interview featured on the book’s official website (kenk.ca), Poplak describes how he connected to Igor Kenk through a passion for cycling.
“[Bikes] are for Igor a way into understanding the wider world, and that’s something I relate to,” says Poplak, a former competitive cyclist. “My job ... was to tell the story of a very, very complicated man, who happens to steal bicycles.”
Born in Slovenia in 1959, Igor Kenk grew up during a particularly turbulent period in the country’s history, and came of age during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. He spent a short time as a police officer (even winning the Slovenian police judo championship), before finding success (and something of a calling) as a smuggler and all-around hard-working hustler.
“[My father’s] father used to say to him, ‘Idiots buy things, and smart people sell things to idiots,’” Kenk says. “He forgot this. I did not.”
Kenk immigrated to Canada in the late 1980s with a former girlfriend. After an assortment of odd-jobs, including a stint as a model, he found success using the skills he had developed in Slovenia: scavenging for scrap, then selling or re-purposing what he found.
“It took me four years to sort of find what I thought was going to be a temporary solution,” he says. “I’m delivering newspapers and other bottom-of-barrel jobs. And then I’m picking these scrapper bikes and fixing them. And I found that extremely rewarding, to rescue shit and put it back to use. And in the process I guess I evolved into fairly ardent and competent defendant of scrappers.”
He soon opened a second-hand bike and repair shop, and his notorious empire grew. One sign of his peculiar business savvy: in 1996 he bought the building that housed his shop for $85,000; after his 2008 arrest, he sold the building for a reported $640,000. Not bad for a guy who calls himself a loser.
Kenk’s story brings to mind Vittoria De Sica’s 1948 classic neorealist film The Bicycle Thief. Along with the obvious parallels—bike theft is a key element of each work—both stories compare favourably in terms of politics and ethos.
In his essay Bicycle Thieves: A Passionate Commitment to the Real (available on the Criterion website), Godfrey Cheshire writes: “[Neorealism’s] resort to documentary-style, street-level filming…was initially a matter of sheer necessity. It soon became an ethical stance, one with consequences both immediate and enduring.”
A 300-page “hybrid that simultaneously takes the form of documentary film, journalistic profile and comic book,” Kenk was produced and published by Pop Sandbox, which is comprised of Poplak, producer Alex Jansen, filmmaker and designer Jason Gilmore and illustrator Nick Marinkovich. They based the project on more than 30 hours of video and photographic footage taken of Kenk over the 14 months leading up to his arrest, and the explosive creativity that’s so palpable on every page shares Bicycle Thief‘s “rush of creative energies sparked by, and ultimately tied to, a particular historical crisis,” as Cheshire describes it.
Kenk’s story is inexorably connected to the gentrification of formerly poor neighbourhoods in Toronto. There’s a strong sense that Kenk might have faced particularly harsh treatment from authorities because his neighbours wanted him out. At one point, Kenk makes the prescient observation, “If people start making five times as much money here, I’m fuckin’ screwed. I’m out. I’m finito.”
Amid the information-dense panels, the visual element that stands foremost is the crumpled-paper, bashed-out-on-a-typewriter, zine-like look of the work. Poplak describes the striking visual style in an author’s note: “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—his ethos.”
While a more explicit connect between Kenk and the FV movement would have been welcome, the Pop Sandbox team offer an interesting explanation of the FV on the book’s official site.
“Reminiscent of the punk zines and Zappa-esque nuttiness of the late seventies and early eighties hardcore scenes in the West, FV Disco nevertheless had its own particular esprit,” they write. “The primary medium was the photocopy machine, an agent of democracy because it put publishing—which was until then state-run—in the hands of the people. A dark yet vibrant artistic movement was born, forming the basis of an entire underground culture.”
“Dark yet vibrant” could just as easily apply to Kenk. Roger Ebert’s description of The Bicycle Thief‘s impact also recalls Kenk’s musing of his work as a form of advanced communism.
“Neorealism, as a term, means many things, but it often refers to films of working class life, set in the culture of poverty, and with the implicit message that in a better society wealth would be more evenly distributed,” Ebert writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
“I’m just running around trying to pick other people’s garbage and put it into use,” Kenk says at one point. “You put out as much as you can and consume as little as you can. So that it’s your pleasure to contribute. In other words, true communism.”
In an author’s note, Poplak also connects Kenk’s plight to the common expat experience.
“The immigrant narrative is so often an attempt to reconcile a new reality with a fraying version of home,” writes Poplak, who immigrated with his family to Canada from South Africa in 1990. “This is the purgatory in which many of us live.”
In The Bicycle Thief, the father character Antonio Ricci has his bike stolen, and without it he’s unable to work and earn money to care for his young son. After an emotional (and pretty depressing) series of experiences that follow from the theft, there’s a scene where he says, “Why should I kill myself worrying when I’ll end up just as dead?” His fatalistic words, at once crushing and oddly freeing, resonate with Kenk the book and the man.
“Back home I was flush with junk because we were poor. And here I’m flush with junk because people are ignorant,” Kenk says. “Back in old communist shithole I was legend. Here’s I’m just a loser…I’m the worst villain in western hemisphere.”
Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.
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