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.
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.
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’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.