It was one of those classic “you really had to be there” moments. Last Sunday, on a New York pavement in Central Park, an unremarkable, elderly street vendor was selling dozens of what appeared to be “spray art” canvas prints for US$60 (Dh220) a pop. Buyers, unaware of what they’d just handed over their money for, walked away carrying under their arms signed Banksy originals that are actually worth up to 330 times what they paid for them.
It was 3.30pm before the first sale was made to a woman who bought two small canvases for her children, but not before negotiating a 50 per cent discount. One man from Chicago, who said that he was decorating his house and needed “something for the walls”, bought four. The total takings for the day? Four hundred and twenty dollars. In true Banksy fashion, the establishment was once again rocked by a mysterious man who continues to make the art world real, visceral, exciting. The man is on a mission all right, but he attracts as many despisers as he does fanatical followers, dividing opinion on whether he’s a guerrilla artist or simply a talented vandal.
Currently on a month’s unofficial residence in New York, the urban anarchist, book author and Oscar-nominated filmmaker is in the process of producing a work per day, with his trademark spray-paint graffiti art popping up all over the city, as well as some more left-field affairs, such as the “Sirens of the Lambs” – a slaughterhouse truck driving around the streets of the Meatpacking District with cuddly toy animals poking their heads through its tight, heavily stained slats. The term “genius” is often misapplied when referring to artists, but anyone who’s seen what Banksy is up to Stateside right now would struggle to think of a more apt way of describing him.
Part of Banksy’s genius is his self-imposed permanent anonymity. Nobody, apart from his agent and one journalist who interviewed him face-to-face in 2003, can say for sure who he is or what he looks like – he once said that his parents still think that he’s just a really successful painter and decorator, and even the UK’s Mail on Sunday newspaper, after a year-long investigation, was unable to positively identify him. When Time magazine selected him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010, he supplied for publication a photograph of him with a (recycled, naturally) paper bag covering his head.
One of his works while in New York is another truck, decked out inside like a botanical garden, and somebody snuck a tracking device onto it, something that Banksy found and, according to his website, fitted to “a car service in Queens”. Necessity is the mother of invention and, it would appear, some people need to know who Banksy really is.
He isn’t remotely original in what he does, if you listen to his fiercest critics who claim his work is derivative. They say that he’s copying others, such as the French artists Blek le Rat and Jef Aérosol, who were busying themselves with his particular art form in the early 1980s, when the Brit was probably still getting to grips with crayons in school. Banksy dismisses this, only admitting to having been inspired by 3D, who went on to become part of the trip-hop trio Massive Attack, but if you see the works of Le Rat and Aerosol, you’ll know what people are saying. Because, while the use of previously formed stencils in street art is something that Banksy has made world famous, he was certainly not the first to use this method of image creation.
He once claimed that he took too long when producing his graffiti works, often getting caught before finishing, and that using stencils was the only way around this. But those who take this craft seriously think that the use of preformed stencils is akin to cheating, and Banksy definitely doesn’t take himself or his work seriously. On his website a few years ago, he put up a photograph of some of his work being auctioned, along with a caption that read: “I can’t believe you morons buy this s***.” But buy it they do, and his originals often fetch millions of dollars, collected by high-profile celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Someone once sold a property that Banksy had painted on, through a dealer, as one of his pieces but with a free house attached. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that his identity is such a contentious subject.
What we do know about him from the various (usually email) interviews that he has given over the years, is that he was raised in the British city of Bristol, a cultural melting pot from where Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and other trip-hop acts started to emerge in the late 1980s. He’s believed to be in his 40s and to have started painting on public property when in his early teens. Apart from the fact that his permanent residency since 1999 has been London, that’s about it. And his fans appreciate this anonymity as part of his magic, railing against the media’s attempts to expose him.
His notoriety has pushed him into the mainstream – something that his critics say makes him a sell-out – but while he’s obviously become extremely wealthy as a result, he still says that he’s given away thousands of paintings for free and he’s not averse to raising money for good causes, having auctioned many pieces to swell the coffers of charities close to his heart.
Still, he seems able to remain a renegade rather than a celebrity in the traditional sense. According to the art critic and Turner Prize judge Louisa Buck: “Banksy needs the art establishment in an inverted way, because if it didn’t exist, he wouldn’t have something not to care about; like a naughty boy who needs a parent to rebel against. But he’s a genuine artist who lives in the real world.”
His real world knows no international boundaries, having been touring the globe over the past decade, producing work in Australia, all over the US and Europe, as well as the Middle East. And his pieces have not always been stencilled graffiti, either. For instance, after checking with animal health experts, as part of an exhibition in Los Angeles in 2006, he painted a live elephant in red with a fleur-de-lis pattern. LA’s animal-rights advocates were incandescent and the authorities demanded that the paint be washed off, but flyers distributed to the gathered crowd of wealthy onlookers made the point that: “There’s an elephant in the room ... 20 billion (sic) people live below the poverty line.”
Before he became a household name, Banksy showed his mischievous streak by invading major museums, including the Louvre in Paris, where he managed to install an image of the Mona Lisa, plastered with a smiley-face sticker. And during a previous visit to New York, he attached a small portrait of a woman – which he had found and modified to depict her wearing a gas mask – to a wall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But it wasn’t until 2005 that Banksy became an international superstar. In August that year, he painted a series of images on a concrete wall in the West Bank: a girl clutching balloons as she’s transported to the top of the wall, stencilled children with bucket and spade dreaming of a beach and a boy with a ladder – each one a moving observation on the theme of escape.
Five years later, Banksy’s first feature film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It told the story of a French immigrant who lives in Los Angeles and is obsessed with street art, and with Banksy in particular. It went on to be nominated for an Academy Award and debate still rages as to whether it was a genuine documentary or simply a made-up story. Banksy has, however, consistently stated that it was real, but it would have made for a more interesting Oscars ceremony if he’d actually won on the night.
The Middle East market has proved as receptive to his work as anywhere else, with a gallery in Dubai offering 10 of Banksy’s lithograph prints for sale in June 2011, and several pieces were displayed at last year’s Legends of Street Art exhibition in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Viceroy hotel.
To coincide with his current US tenure, he was interviewed via email by New York’s Village Voice (a publication he said he can relate to, as it provides quality content for free) and said: “I started painting on the street because it was the only venue that would give me a show. Now, I have to keep painting on the street to prove to myself it wasn’t a cynical plan. Plus, it saves money on having to buy canvases.
“But there’s no way round it – commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist. We’re not supposed to be embraced in that way. When you look at how society rewards so many of the wrong people, it’s hard not to view financial reimbursement as a badge of self-serving mediocrity.”
New Yorkers are not sure what to do about the work that Banksy is leaving behind. Some city officials have arranged for his work to be painted over, often within hours of it being completed, while others are adamant that it should be left alone. Other “street artists” have been defacing the pieces, moves seen by the majority as straightforward jealousy. But Banksy appears to be unfazed and, while risking his anonymity, he’s pressing on with his piece-a-day mission.
“New York calls to graffiti writers like a dirty old lighthouse. We all want to prove ourselves here,” he told the Village Voice. “I chose it for the high foot traffic and the amount of hiding places. Maybe I should be somewhere more relevant, like Beijing or Moscow, but the pizza isn’t as good.”
As for the stall selling his originals, Banksy says on his website: “Please note: This was a one-off. The stall will not be there again today.” Yes, you really had to be there.
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