Kenk: graphic novel humanizes Toronto's most notorious bike-thief without apologising for him

Richard Poplak and Nick Marinkovich's Kenk: A Graphic Portrait is a journalistic inquiry into the life of Igor Kenk, Toronto's notorious stolen bike peddler, told in comic form.

I've known Igor since I was 18 years old, and truth be told, I found him confusing, likable, maddening, hilarious, charismatic, criminal, and even honourable after his own fashion. The Slovenian entrepreneur and bike-mechanic was a packrat (Kenk implies that he is a pathological hoarder, and I think this fits) and a seamy, rough-and-ready type who seemed to have stepped out of the pages of a Bruce Sterling story. He occupied a succession of shops at the western end of Queen Street in Toronto, long before the neighbourhood became fashionable, back when it was a depressed and seedy little strip in the middle of nowhere.

Igor used to fix my bikes (and very well, too, at reasonable prices -- and even on credit when I was broke), and inevitably a simple repair would turn into hours of conversation out front of his shop or back in its jammed interior, sandwiched into the tiny clear spaces between the mountains of bike-junk and refuse harvested from sidewalks and garage sales and dumps. I traded in my bike for a better one, paying the difference with cash, just before he was arrested in the early 1990s, charged with selling stolen bikes. Among the bikes that the police seized as stolen property was my old bike, which I had owned for 15 years and had traded in fair and square. I concluded then that no matter what Igor was up to, he was also being railroaded by the authorities.

That bike I bought from Igor? It was stolen later that month. The day after it was stolen, I went down to Igor's shop to get a replacement (on credit -- I was skint), just as two guys showed up to sell Igor the bike I'd just had nicked. I was inside the shop and Igor came in and said, "Go out there and pretend you're a mechanic, look the bike over, I think it's yours." I did, and gave Igor the nod. Before he could say anything, the two guys took off -- one riding his bike, the other riding mine. Without saying a word, Igor grabbed a bike from his stock and chased them down. A few minutes later, he rode back with my bike in tow, and charged me $10 to replace the fenders the thieves had stripped.

I knew -- everybody knew -- that Igor was dealing in stolen goods. Every second-hand merchant does (I was working in a used bookstore at the time and I'm certain that some of the books we accepted for cash or trade were hot, though we could never have proved it or readily distinguished them from the legit product). But Igor seemingly played by the rules: when he bought a bike, he recorded the seller's name and the bike's serial number, held the bike for the required period, and if no one came to claim it, he sold it.

But Igor also dealt in enormous volume, and bought bikes from guys who were so sketchy that it strained credulity to believe that they were just keen-eyed pickers who found yard-sale bargains and arbitraged them to Igor for resale. And indeed, in the end, Igor was arrested after he was caught instructing some of these suppliers to take a pair of bolt-cutters and steal a particularly nice bike.

The resulting arrest revealed a trove of over 3,000 bikes in various states of repair. More than 500 of them were claimed by Torontonians, who rose up in ferocious anger over Igor, whom the press characterized as the kingpin behind Toronto's epidemic bike thievery. On blogs and vox pops, Torontonian cyclists howled for Igor's blood, and the world's press picked up the story, calling Igor the world's biggest bike thief.

And perhaps he was. But whatever he was up to, he wasn't your average bike-stealing junkie or a mobster who dealt in industrialized theft as part of a criminal empire. Igor was a character.

In Kenk, Igor is a character in an engrossing, well-told journalistic account of his life and times. The author and illustrator worked with footage from a documentary on Igor by Jason Gilmore, using stills from footage from the year before his arrest, along with roughed-up, xerographic reproductions of newspaper stories, blog screenshots, framegrabs from newscasts, and found objects.

Through this odd documentary style, the creators build up a picture of a complex, dysfunctional, philosophical pathological case. Igor's early years as a kid in Soviet Yugoslavia and then as a cop in the Slovenian police force set the stage for his move to Canada, and the beginnings of his practice of hoarding all manner of consumer junk picked at markets, fleas, yard sales, and dumpsters. Igor is brought to life in his vehement ramblings about the wastefulness of Western society, the instability of economics, and the author and illustrator perfectly capture his fractured eloquence and epic Soviet grouchiness.

But while Kenk's authors humanize Igor through their tale, they don't apologize for him. Having read Kenk, I'm more convinced than ever that Igor really was a hub for Toronto's stolen bike trade, and that he knowingly nurtured it even as he decried dishonesty and waste.

The act of humanizing Igor makes him both more and less culpable. More culpable because it's clear that this intelligent and thoughtful man was deliberately choosing not to bear responsibility for his choices, using elaborate, self-serving justifications for his deeds. But more forgivable, too, because his real kindness and generosity, his humour and passion are all also on display, making him more than the criminal kingpin caricature that appeared in the press at the time of his arrest.

I've felt ambivalent about Igor since the conviction; the last time I saw him was a few months before the arrest. He admired my daughter, ribbed me about having read about me in the press, and was, all in all, the same guy I'd known for more than half my life. Nevertheless, I couldn't deny the depraved indifference to suffering that accompanies complicity in the theft of peoples' mode of transport, nor excuse it.

In Kenk, Poplak and Marinkovich manage to express empathy for Igor without excusing any of his misdeeds.

Kenk: A Graphic Portrait


  1. Yugoslavia was never Soviet, lol.
    Not even close in fact.
    In those days it was easier to go shopping to Graz or have a gondola ride in Venice than to visit Budapest for example.
    Soft socialist yes, soviet-style state communism? Not by a mile.

  2. Cory – since you knew “I concluded then that no matter what Igor was up to, he was also being railroaded by the authorities.” did you speak up on Kink’s behalf?

  3. The guy sold you bikes, so he knew where to find them and had them stolen from you, twice.

    Much more likely than the police railroading that looser.

    1. I didn’t see that Cory had his bike stolen twice. Perhaps I read it wrong, but it really looked as though he traded the bike in and the authorities included it as evidence after their bust.

  4. There’s a reason they would hang horse thieves in the old west; not only were they stealing property, but they were stealing people’s livelihood and access to society as well- it was impossible to farm without a horse. It would be challenging to get into town and buy or sell your goods or services- couldn’t get to the doctor, couldn’t get to the store, couldn’t earn money to live.

    Stealing bicycles affects the urban poor more than anyone else- people who rely on cheap transportation to get around, and may not have a couple of bucks to spare for a bus pass.

  5. I think the thing I loved most about Kenk, or his store, or his existence, or whatever, was the personality it brought to the Queen West neighbourhood. As the area gets more and more upscale, the interesting places where you can talk with the actual owner/operator for half an hour when shopping are being replaced by the blandness of the same old stores that are everywhere else in the world staffed by bored 20 something hipsters…

    It was great walking along and seeing store, store, store, bike chaos, store, store…

  6. I was one of the lucky 500 that got my bicycle back when Kenk was arrested.

    I’m glad that this graphic portrat of Kenk dosen’t act as an apology for his actions (which are inexcusable IMHO), but I don’t think I could ever read it. It would simply make me too angry to try and feel any sympathy for the man who took my only means of transportation away from me.

    He may not have directly stolen it, but he certainly facilitated it’s disapearance.

  7. See the great movie “The Bicycle Thief” for why stealing bikes has devastating effects on the people who need them the most.

  8. I think that Cory is using “Soviet Yugoslavia” as shorthand for “Yugoslavia during the Soviet era” (or what Wikipedia terms “SFR Yugoslavia” (for Socialist Federal Republic); it was modeled on the Soviet Union, but not a satellite of that country.

    As for Cory’s ambivalence about Kenk, I get that. A lot of crooks are really good at manipulating people’s feelings about them; it let cold-eyed sociopaths like Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde pass themselves off as folk heroes. Hell, in my own state, it looks like Rod Blagojevich will walk, despite clear evidence that he tried to get his hands on every dirty dollar he could lay his sticky fingers on, and despite his own defense basically saying that he wasn’t really a crook due to sheer incompetence; there’s a theory that part of the reason that the jury is hung is because of Rod’s decree that seniors get to ride on the Chicago Transit Authority for free, even though he didn’t bother to figure out how to pay for it, and it probably won’t last for much longer.

    1. Like “Yugoslavia during the Pre-Thatcher era” or “Yugoslavia at the cusp of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty Era” or “Yugoslavia during the Disco Era”

  9. A friend of mine says people would regularly go looking for their stolen bikes at his shop and some would even steal them back. He likened buying a bike there to leasing a car.

  10. He had stolen 3000 bikes.

    Rumor has it that the police chief got involved because the police chief’s nephew? had a bicycle stolen, so now it was personal.

    After Kenk was busted there was a noticeable drop in bike theft, (this in a city of several million).

    Is it his fault, yes.

    Does the bicycling infrastructure in N. America resemble that of the wild wild west, yes;
    no licensing.
    no registration,
    no insurance,
    few bike lanes,
    no mandatory helmet laws for adults.

    Civilization = bureaucracy. No regulation and you get people like Kenk able to exist in the cracks of society. It would be better for him, lead a more productive life, and us, not get our bikes stolen, if we had more and better laws, more and better infrastructure.

  11. We got one of our stolen bikes back from Igor; pretty lucky actually. Still no sign of the dozen or so other bikes we’ve had stolen over the years. Kenk is an interesting character for sure, but I don’t feel the least bit sorry for him.

    Here’s some cell phone shots I snuck in of the thousands of recovered bikes the police put up for the public to go through. It took us hours to sort through them and find my girlfriends beloved bike.

    I doubt that any of those bikes were gotten legally. Almost every one has a sad and disappointed ex bike owner behind it. I’m a pretty nice person normally, but bike thieves make me feel like doing some serious violence.

  12. What amazes me is that Cory can write a thousand words about Kenk as a human being, never denying Kenk’s criminal activities, and promptly get a bunch of comments from people insisting that Kenk was a criminal, as if Cory had denied it. Is it really that hard to hold those two thoughts — yeah, he was a criminal, but also a complex human being — in your head at the same time?

    1. In his longer posts, I’ve noticed Cory has a storytelling style that tends to obscure his points. I think most of us here know and appreciate what he’s getting at with the story, but the way he tells it makes it way too easy for us to focus on the stolen goods and harder to focus on on the Kenk-as-fascinating-human-being part.

    2. What?? No, can’t be. There are good and bad people, nothing in between. Since stealing a bike = bad, then obviously Kenk was a monster with no feelings beyond greed. Or something like that.

      This excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Kenk was hilarious to me:

      However, the Toronto Fire Department blocked the police from entering the building for safety reasons. A Fire Department rescue squad had to remove the upper-floor windows and lower the bicycles by rope because the Queen West store was crammed with bicycles and bike parts.

      Oh, puh-lease! Like the little bitty police men are going to instantly die if they enter a building without adequate egress capability. That’s ridiculous. I can just picture the scene, and it makes me snicker. The firemen must have been bored and looking for something to do. (and to coincidentally reinforce the need for their budgets, of course!)

      @millrick: Kenk was arrested in the 1990’s for bike theft but the charges were dropped. He was arrested again in 2008 and plead guilty to those charges. So some of the events in Cory’s story do indeed take place in the 90’s, when Cory lived in Toronto.

      1. “Kenk was arrested in the 1990’s for bike theft but the charges were dropped.”

        Thanks for the correction…

    3. Great post, and a great comment from Avram. What I love most about Cory (and Boing Boing in general) is that it illustrates (almost daily) the world as a complex place, filled with inconsistency and paradox. Again, great essay on Kenk from Cory (even if some see it as inconsistent or paradoxical), great commentary from Avram for pointing out the possibility of such. I’d reference something about foolishness, consistency, hobgoblins and simple minds, but I won’t. Ooops, maybe I just did.

    4. For a lot of people, it is hard to see someone as both a criminal/ bad guy and a complex person that has likable elements. The old Mafia did plenty of illegal things and murdered people. They also frowned upon swearing in front of a lady. The Soviet-esque socialist societies were partially based on who you knew or if you could bribe; Kenk seems to have internalized that so that he’d buy your stolen bike unless you were there when the thieves came in, in which case he’d go chase them down and get your bike back. I don’t know if you want to call him a sociopath but as long as you know his internal rules of conduct you can enjoy interacting with him.

  13. back in the day, Toronto was apparently the bike theft capital of the world (well, at least of Canada, but we like to think big here in T.O.)

    A local newspaper claimed 7000 bikes were stolen every year.
    (another media outlet claims 4500)

    stories like Cory’s were quite common and Mr. Kenk’s shop was indeed the first place one would go to search for a missing bike. his shop was infested with bikes of every imaginable description, many of which were wheeled through his doors by individuals who had stolen the bike to make a few bucks.

    was Kenk “the world’s biggest bike thief”?
    i doubt it, but it did make for good copy


    by the way Cory, didn’t this all take place around 2008, not the 1990’s?

  14. Oh, puh-lease! Like the little bitty police men are going to instantly die if they enter a building without adequate egress capability. That’s ridiculous

    Okay, there were three THOUSAND bicycles crammed into one location. Hoarding isn’t safe, especially with heavy and often sharp objects like bikes (or chunks of bikes) piled atop one another.

    Some hoarding blogs for firsthand accounts of what it’s like to live and maneuver in hoarding environments:

  15. Sorry but did anyone think about all the people who lost bicycles because thieves knew there was a rogue trader who dealt in stolen goods? So Igor chased and got back Cory’s bike but if Cory had not been in the shop at that time, then it would have been one more deal to make $$.

    The biggest problem is that these thieves have a person who will look the other way and not ask questions when buying stolen property. Igor was complicit in the crime.

    Think about it – people stealing catalytic converter, copper cables or whatever. They will get a fraction of the actual worth of those items but replacing these things or repairing the damage to the car/building is so much more for the innocent victim.

  16. So Torontonians were up in arms, eh? Guy doesn’t acquire 3K+ bikes, plus pay rent on workspace & home, & buy groceries, etc., unless people are buying bikes from him [or availing of his repair services]. So how many angry Torontonians were knowingly riding around on stolen bikes that they purchased from Kenk? It’s not dissimilar to the illegal drugs debate. Doesn’t seem like Kenk created the market; more like he was there fulfilling the needs of the market.
    Now that being said, if someone stole my bike, I’d be pissed to the point of violence; it’s my only transport, year-round at that. Thus I’m not endorsing Kenk’s M/O at all. Personally, I’d have to vote guilty. But for those living in Toronto, it appears that it’s not so easy to simply say “hang him high!” and leave it at that. And I think Cory quite nicely captured that situational ambiguity.

  17. @25: You’re right, plenty of people are/were riding around on Kenk bikes. The 3000 found clearly don’t include the thousands of bikes that were turned over, so the number might reasonably be estimated over 10,000 over the years.

    But Toronto is a big city, and that leaves many more of us for whom the criminal nature of Kenk’s enterprise was absolutely evident. Kenk’s enterprise was one way to understand that ethical behaviour comes down to your own set of values, and exposed the frustration that there were always people who knew what you knew, but were too self-interested, too motivated by a short-term benefit like a “reasonably priced” repair, to have the strength of their ethical convictions, too quick to fetishize a “fascinating, complex character”. Never mind that Kenk was also a destructive, threatening, charmless thug who made many many women feel very insecure when the walked by his charmless “chaos” on Queen. Supporting him was, from the get-go, acting against your community, against legitimate businesses and ultimately your own interests.

    I bought and serviced my bikes at Duke’s, an amazing institution that had already been in business in the area for about half a century when Igor’s parasitic enterprise began the blight it inflicted on the my neighbourhood. Every sale at Igor’s robbed Duke’s – and don’t think they weren’t aware of that – and every repair at “reasonable prices” – easy to price low when you don’t pay for the parts – stole from them as well. And that’s true of the other legitimate bike stores that have operated within a few blocks of Igor’s over the years.

    No-one I knew would go near Kenk’s, but everyone I knew lost bikes, and no doubt many of those bikes ended up there. I always wondered about the puerile rationale that elevates and tries to make something “complex” out of a thug like Kenk. Now I have Cory’s account of that kind of rationale, and I’m even less impressed.

  18. I had a bike stolen in Toronto. I reported it to the police, who advised me to go to Kenk’s shop (we lived less than a mile away) and see if he had it (Toronto police being, generally speaking, not terribly interested in policing). He made it very clear that there was no way I was coming into his shop to look for my bike – there was no “playing by the rules”.

    The only people I’ve ever heard describe him as anything other than a nasty thief have all, like Cory, been attempting to legitimise their own shitty behaviour in knowingly buying a stolen bike in the first place, He wasn’t honourable – he just had good customer service. Once he’d identified you as being prepared to buy from him once he put a bit of effort into keeping you sweet. To those of us who never willingly gave him any cash, he was aggressive and obstructive.

  19. I encourage everyone not to contribute any money to Evil Igor (I assume some money from the sale of this book goes to him) He is a unrepentant thief who stole people’s livlihoods by taking bikes from couriers. He also hurt people who used their bike as transportation and people who used their bikes for exercise.

    I think I saw him on the street today. He is much better dressed but you cannot hide the evil.

    He should be shunned until he shows some remorse.


    1. @28 : “I encourage everyone not to contribute any money to Evil Igor (I assume some money from the sale of this book goes to him) ”

      I don’t think it does. My brother in law is making the film, and my understanding is that Kenk gets nothing from the proceeds. I know that he gets nothing from the forthcoming film (which I am sure will move more $$ than the book will).

  20. hi, yeah, sorry, NO.
    a bike thief isn’t the same as a book thief. You don’t ride a book to work or school. Your book gets stolen, you don’t lose your job or fail a class. If you knowingly buy a stolen bike, you are a link in the chain that ensures, yup, your new bike is gonna be gone in a few weeks.
    I’m sure he’s a fascinating guy. If he steals my bike, however -and buying it from the jerk who stole it? same thing- I wouldn’t want to hear a story.

    1. “Your book gets stolen, you don’t lose your job or fail a class.”

      I can think of plenty situations where if my books were stolen I would fail a class.

      How far can you go out of your way, and how sure can you be sure that you’re not buying a stolen bike. If you think about all of the 20+ year old bikes on the streets of Toronto, it’s hard to imagine one that hasn’t been nicked at one point in its existence. I’m pretty suspicious that the bike I bought off craigslist was stolen after I found a serial no. under some reflective tape when I peeled it off, but what am I to do when I just paid $100 for a bike. Maybe people are just more comfortable going to their local bike shop and having a relationship with the vendors when purchasing a second-hand bike. Even if they know there is a good chance they will end up with a once stolen bike either way.

  21. Cory,

    You were “skint”? And your bike was “nicked”? I know you’re living in England, but cor blimey and stone the crows. Are we going to have to stage a de-Brittainifying intervention?

    And with all due respect: No. Not “every second-hand merchant” deals in stolen goods. If you’re going to praise the authors of this graphic novel for not rationalizing Mr. Kenk, perhaps such rationalizations aren’t needed.

    1. “Are we going to have to stage a de-Brittainifying intervention? ”

      No lets have classes in Culture Tyranny instead, and why gophers made it into Disney’s Winnie the Pooh, when they don’t exist in Pooh’s native habitat of East Sussex. I’ll leave it to you to Google where that is.

      1. “No lets have classes in Culture Tyranny instead, and why gophers made it into Disney’s Winnie the Pooh, when they don’t exist in Pooh’s native habitat of East Sussex.”

        Actually, I was fairly confident that they DO have the concept of “teasing” in both England and Canada. If it helps, feel free to imagine an emoticon at the end of my “cor blimey” statement.

        As to Winnie’s native habitat: wouldn’t that be Canada? Winnie was short for Winnipeg, after all. The (living) bear that was WtP’s namesake was captured in White River, Ontario, and displayed at the London Zoo.

        Agree with you about the addition of the gopher, though. To his credit, when he pops up in the movie he does say, straight out, that “I’m not in the book, you know.” A rare meta-moment for Disney.

  22. I hate to sound like Rob Ford or somebody but, I’ve ridden a bike in Toronto for going on Ten years, and I’ve never been the victim of theft. I always use a good lock, park it somewhere highly visible, and bring it inside overnight whenever possible. I’m not saying it’s your fault if your bike gets stolen, not at all, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Ever.

    Oh yeah, Just look at this awesome Kenk t-shirt:

    I don’t know if the filmmakers are still selling them or not.

  23. That whole episode is so bizare – when I was in Toronto 4 month ago this guy was just getting arrested and all the bikes he possesed that wherent couldn´t be sold where stored in the building I lived in – there where 18 people moving bikes for 10 hours – thats how many bikes there where. Two truckloads full. All where broken in their own way – it was a sight to behold. They are all still stored Front Street East 704 – a diner/old hotel where Al Capone had a safe (that still exists to this day) – right next to the distillery district. The bikes inhabit now the whole second floor of that beautiful building (soon to be half torn down to be transformed into a condo entrance).

    The guys legacy is really controversial in the town. I was just a visitor but found every little tidbit of this story more then interesting – so many people know about him or knew him personally.
    So if I heard right he was arrested not for his stealing of bikes but for involvement of crack trade in town.

  24. The book has a fairly long disclaimer right at the very start making it expressly clear that Igor doesn’t receive a penny from the project or had any control over content.

  25. Don’t most pawn shops advertise as though they’re openly fencing, whether or not they actually comply with law?

    Quotes from local (Toronto) TV ads:
    Jewelry isn’t forever.
    I’m the Loan Arranger. Take my cash and go to the track!

  26. Yeah, no. I’ve had 2 bikes stolen in the last 3 years (one was a birthday gift from my mother, bought and stolen within 3 weeks). I’ve resorted to having a parts-built bike (all legit parts as far as my fiance knows), but in Minneapolis, bike looting is a sport – I haul mine up 3 flights every time I come home because even locked up, someone can get something off of them. The one night I left it out, some joker decided to rip a hole in the seat so when it rains, it becomes a sponge.

    People have no respect for others belongings anymore, and no matter how much of a “guru” this Igor was to the author, chances are he was thieving his whole life, through necessity or simple choice, and was taking away someone’s mode of transportation. This guy doesn’t need to be immortalized, he should be vilified. Just because he’s a “character” doesn’t mean he’s above the law and if he loved bikes and biking that much, he wouldn’t have been stealing bikes from other people. My guess is he profited even more by taking in bikes he suspected or knew were stolen for less money, then selling them at a big profit.

    The guy should be prosecuted. He’s breaking laws, and should be prosecuted.

  27. Sounds to me like KENK took Cory for a ride the same way he took thousands of others peoples bikes. I bought a 2010 Kona Smoke in June and I’m glad there is one less criminal out there who wants it. I’m sure the more desperate KENK got the less he went by his self justified honorable thieves code of of not selling a hot bike until was legal. I didn’t read about KENK having a substance abuse problem, I’ll have to purchase a copy of this graphic novel. It goes to show you some people were never a friend in the first place. Book em Danno.

  28. Maybe a story that is loosely related can help those who can’t see characters as hero and villain at the same time…

    The brother of a friend of mine lets can him Peter is a professional with a good income; he’s lived all his adult life on Queen West. One day his bike is stolen. He had insurance on it so he went down to Duke’s Cycle with insurance check in hand and because Duke’s dealt in high end bicycles Peter was the perfect customer. Somehow Peter ends up with an even more expensive bike than the first and low and behold a week later it gets stolen too.

    Now with insurance check in hand again, this time an even bigger settlement because the list price was higher, off he goes to Dukes again. Duke sells him an even better bike.

    Now he’s got a bike that he hangs up on the wall in his front hallway because it’s so fabulously expensive that it wouldn’t last 5 minutes in the back yard – a bike so insanely expensive that he can’t take it anywhere because no lock is good enough to hold it.

    Vanity, Greed, Avarice. Take your pick.

    I discovered through that story (but Peter didn’t) that if you buy a road bike from the 1970’s and lock it with a link chain and a keyed padlock, no one even looks at it. But perhaps that’s the problem.

  29. Igor is just a predator, and deserving of nothing more than painful consequences (vinyl-covered cable locks are very useful for applying such lessons, as the last scumbag I caught trying to steal my bike discovered.)

    But were his customers much better? Seems to me that everyone in town knew the deal, but were happy to deal with him as long as it was some OTHER person’s bike that was on the sales floor. When THEIR bike is gone, then suddenly it’s a crime. If you think a store is full of stolen goods, then YOU need to do some reporting and nagging until it’s investigated.

    I have to ride a ratty old bike because, as trailer moms have said for generations, “we just can’t have nice things”. We’ve chosen this kind of society by looking at criminals as charming rogues and innocent victims.

  30. I think the book did a really good job of exposing the hypocrisy of his customers and the neighbourhood complacency. There’s a great interview with a local police officer to that effect.

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