Nowhere Man

Banksy, the most famous street artist alive, is waffling. I don’t
realize this until I’m flying back to JFK from LAX, suspended in
the air somewhere over the Ozarks. I had gone out to L.A. to see
“Barely Legal,” his first major U.S. show, where I was
hoping to find him, talk, and try to understand his appealing mystique.
(And hey, maybe cut some stencils together.) I was curious to see what
Banksy, an artist who is himself suspended in midair between cult figure
and bona fide star, would have to offer this time. What would he do
next?

But let’s start with the headlines, because for many,
that’s where he begins and ends. “Animals Sprayed by
Graffiti Artist,” BBC News declared in July 2003. The report
claimed that a young man, whose real name was Robin Banks, had tagged a
cadre of pigs, cows, and sheep, enraging the local animal-rights
activists (and farmers). He had already sneaked into the London Zoo and
sprayed “We’re bored of fish” in the penguin cages. In
October 2003, “Graffiti Star Sneaks Work Into Tate,” sang
the BBC headlines. Having stenciled “Mind the Crap” on the
steps of the Tate Modern in time for the 2002 Turner Prize ceremony,
Banksy had gotten inside this time. “I thought my work belonged in
there and I got tired of waiting,” he had said. In July 2004, the
London Evening Standard published his photo and identified him as Robert
Banks, from East Bristol. But the photos were never fully verified.

 

Banksy_01.jpg

 
An image from “Barely Legal.” Photograph by Sinuhe Xavier.
 

“Need Talent to Exhibit in Museums?” The New York
Times
asked in March 2005, the day after Banksy, dressed in fake
beard, hat, and trench coat, punked four major New York art
institutions—the Met, MoMA, the Museum of Natural History, and the
Brooklyn Museum—by hanging (and most important, filming himself
hanging) his own adapted paintings inside the museums. “Spray Can
Prankster Tackles Israel’s Security Barrier,” said The
Guardian
in August 2005, after Banksy painted the Palestinian side of
the wall with optical illusions.

 

Lost in the hoopla and media
coverage was serious consideration of the graphic power of
Banksy’s work. His early images showcased drawing and
stencil-cutting prowess with an added edge: his seemingly effortless
wit. Using an engaging trompe l’oeil technique, he created a range
of visual puns—rats taking photos of pedestrians, policemen
kissing, the Mona Lisa with a rocket launcher—and expanded on the
stencil-graffiti syntax established by Blek Le Rat, softening the hard
edge of the stencil with clever takes on clichéd images of war,
government, religion, and art.

 

Banksy_03.jpg

 
The modified canvas that Banksy hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 2005. Photo courtesy of Jo Brooks PR.
 

His vandalism also interacted with the
city’s urban furniture on a visceral level: Rats spilled toxic
fluid off the wall and into the street, policemen spray-painted their
own graffiti on the walls, a diver appeared from a public fountain
holding a drain plug. The style reflects its environment, says Tristan
Manco, the Bristol-based author of the book Stencil Graffiti, by
blending elements of official signage with those of punk bands like
Crass, who used stencils to make their logo. The pranks were a natural
outgrowth of his sense of humor as well: A mixture of meta-graffiti and
wry social commentary, they were a pie in the face of stuffy elitism.

 

Marc Schiller, who runs the Wooster Collective graffiti website with
his wife, Sara, has promoted Banksy—and street art in
general—tirelessly in the U.S. He started an outcry when the
publisher IDW appropriated Banksy’s imagery without notification,
and he provided pictures of the museum pranks to The New York
Times
. “Every once in a while, you meet someone who can do
things other people can’t do, and I put Banksy in that
category,” he says. “Graffiti is something very
inaccessible; it’s not something everyone likes or understands.
But Banksy’s work appeals to everyone; it crosses cultural borders
and age. He’s become a truly mythic hero.”

A mythic hero
with a PR handler, however, who informed me that a sit-down interview
with Banksy would be impossible. Yet last June, she called to give a few
details about his L.A. gallery show in September, so I made plans to
attend. In the intervening months, Banksy put up two stencil pieces in
my neighborhood in Brooklyn, replaced 500 copies of Paris Hilton’s
album with his own artwork, and planted an inflatable doll dressed as a
Guantánamo Bay prisoner behind the fence of the Thunder Mountain
Railroad ride at Disneyland. All of a sudden, Banksy was
everywhere—and nowhere.

The show began on a Thursday night in a
warehouse at the end of a deserted industrial alley east of downtown
L.A. The address was announced on Banksy’s website the day of the
show, and when I arrived on Friday at noon, word had it that Angelina
Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Jude Law had been there the night before. The show
itself was what you’d expect: half greatest hits—video
footage of the Met prank, several altered paintings, reproductions of
some of his famous icons—and half new work, including a sculpture
of Michelangelo’s David wearing a bulletproof vest and a
painting of a white family eating a picnic among starving Africans. The
ideas driving the newer work, however, teetered on the hackneyed. In
one, a group of punks lines up to buy a shirt that says “Destroy
Capitalism”; in another, an auctioneer sells a painting that
reads, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this
shit.”

 

Banksy_02.jpg

 
Banksy’s elephant. Photograph by Sinuhe Xavier.
 

And then there was the elephant. Painted red with gold
fleurs-de-lis, it wandered dourly within a fenced-off area where a man
and woman sat on a couch and read magazines. The elephant was emblematic
of the show: It was a motif Banksy had used before, but this time it was
bigger, much as the attention paid him has grown massive, and the
subsequent validation even greater. By the time Saturday rolled around,
the alley played host to an ad hoc block party of gawkers and news
vans.

 

I thought maybe fellow street artist Shepard Fairey could help
me find Banksy, so I went to his show on Saturday night, where the line
outside stretched down the street. “He might stop by here
tonight,” Fairey said cryptically. When we spoke by phone a few
weeks later, he said he thinks Banksy has kept his identity secret for
two reasons: “Number one, he can do this and not get arrested, but
number two, the rebel pose is the most marketable pose ever.”
Angelina Jolie bought three of Banksy’s pieces from the show, some
upward of $30,000. He’s working on Africa-related campaigns for
Bono. Nike has contacted him several times (he declined), as has Puma
(he accepted). Although he’s done commercial jobs in the past, he
has recently made it clear that, with his success in the art world,
he’s done with work for hire. “It’s not black and
white,” admits Schiller.

Whether or not he’s eschewing
commercial clients these days, Banksy had his detractors before the
“Barely Legal” show; they harped on his self-promotion, his
endless media baiting, his pithy one-liners that disintegrate on close
examination. His apparent ambivalence might explain why I felt a little
let down on the flight home, trying to reconcile how an artist who had
spent his career criticizing celebrity culture was now actively courting
that market. And I wasn’t the only one. “Banksy—slowly
becoming what he is against,” read a recent thread on his fan
site. The general consensus on the boards is that Banksy is at a
crossroads, trying to “keep it real” for those who want to
see more street art, but charging hundreds of thousands of dollars for
those who can afford pricey canvases. The hope is that he’ll take
the money he made from “Barely Legal” and invest in more
street work.

The more crucial question, however, is what he does
next. His style remains iconic, but it doesn’t reproduce well in
the gallery; there, it has little of the power the street produces in
him. But as prices rise, and as his fame grows, street work becomes more
difficult to pull off. And how do you top a painted elephant, anyway? A
painted whale? How do you top the Met? The White House? Now that Banksy
has been properly introduced to this side of the Atlantic, we’re
again suspended, wondering. For now, I don’t mind the
anticipation.


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