Maybe Banksy was the unassuming guy in the green and grey ski coat who walked past the long line of people waiting on a grey December morning outside Vanina Holasek for the first—though unauthorized—Banksy gallery exhibition in New York. I didn’t expect to see him as galleries are not his preferred venue; all the pieces at Vanina Holasek were purchased from private owners or removed from the environment where they appeared. But maybe Banksy’s curiosity tempted him to show himself.
Was he the dark-haired, thick-sideburned man talking to the slim woman with the professional quality video camera on the second floor? As my head crested the steep and hazardous stairway, I grew excited when I heard that man say, “I do this,” gesturing to the stenciled graffiti pieces framed on the walls. But after a tempting pause he added, “But a little bit different, my own thing,” and my hopes were dashed.
Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall
(Weapons of Mass Distraction)
(Weapons of Mass Distraction)
Wall and Piece
As expected, the artist was nowhere to be found. Britain-based graffiti writer and artist Banksy works anonymously; even his art dealer, Steve Lazarides, teases that he doesn’t know who Banksy is. His anonymity is his artistic identity, integral to his work and his perspective. But just before Halloween last year, a blurry camera-phone image of the elusive artist threatened his sanctuary. Bouncing around the Internet, the photo, if authentic, would be the first ever of the artist caught at work. (Previous photos of Banksy have surfaced, though none have been authenticated by Banksy or his comrades.)
If, in fact, that photo leads to his unveiling, will it prevent him from working? It’s hard to imagine that he would surrender so easily; he’s proven adept at avoiding the aggressively inquisitive public eye. But if people knew who he was, if they could point and whisper, “There’s Banksy” as he gingerly squeezes tomatoes at his local supermarket, would his art lose its power? His ability to protect his identity creates a sense of magic, especially in a nosy society that scrutinizes every move of its celebrities and public figures. What happens when the magician’s secrets are revealed? He’s forced to find new tricks. For Banksy, that would mean either finding new ways to work incognito, or working in completely new modes. Unless…this is all part of his plan.
Banksy’s graffiti first speckled the public surfaces of his purported hometown of Bristol, England, some time around 1993. Only a few other fragments of information about Banksy’s history appear in nearly every article about the artist: his name is either Robert or Robin Banks, he was born in, or around, 1974, and…well, that’s pretty much it. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that Bansky’s tag (the graffiti term for the artist’s name, his or her calling card) started appearing throughout the UK and his work gained notoriety.
In 2001, he added a new dimension to his oeuvre with the first of his three self-published books, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall. Existencilism followed in 2002, and Cut It Out in 2004. (In 2005 Random House published Wall and Piece, a collection of work from his previous books with, as the front cover proclaims, “10% More Crap.”) All three are small, five inch by four inch, pocket-sized books, with slick black covers and white titles in the stenciled form typical of his street art. In addition to photos of his work the books contain anecdotes and comments by Banksy; he frequently uses text in his graffiti, but the books provide a comprehensive written companion to the visual narrative of his work. Most notably, each volume contains a manifesto; the three different excerpts from descriptions of historical revolutions implicitly submit Banksy’s work as a new mutiny. The books are all published under the company name, Weapons of Mass Destruction, both a jab at the current political atmosphere and a proclamation of what Bansky wants his work to be: a force so immense that it can shatter the reality we’ve come to accept.
Graffiti is inherently subversive. Graffiti writers, as they call themselves, look for the most challenging but visible spaces to paint. The trick is getting their work up without getting caught. Banksy found a clever way around this. In Wall and Piece he explains how, at 18, while trying to tag the side of a passenger train, British Transport Police showed up. Banksy hid under a dump truck for over an hour and, “As I lay there listening to the cops on the tracks I realized I had to cut my painting time in half or give up altogether. I was staring straight up at the stenciled plate on the bottom of a fuel tank when I realized I could just copy that style and make each letter three feet high.”
The result is a form at once recognizable in its startling realism. Working mainly in black and white, Banksy cuts elaborate stencils, that, when filled in, create pictures using shadows and negative space. Like carving a pumpkin, the skill comes in visualizing the image in reverse. For a piece on a brick wall in Chalk Farm, London, in 2006, Banksy painted a backdrop of white. On top of this he stenciled a life-size picture of a maid, dustpan in one hand, the other lifting the white backdrop away from the ground like a curtain. Her broom propped up against the wall behind her, she looks out to check for passersby who might notice her dumping the dustpan’s contents. The curtain looks heavy and substantial where it is pulled back revealing the brick wall. The details of her fingers, her lace apron, and her facial features, lips parted slightly, eyes dark and mischievous, challenge the skill of work done by hand. Banksy completed the piece in 18-minutes.
Initially, Banksy’s anonymity protected him from the legal ramifications of his illegal work. But the message he conveys almost necessitates his invisibility. He’s in an ongoing battle with corporate power and in order to fight it he must remain independent. Rats, the trademark of his early work, are role models for what Banksy calls the “dirty, insignificant, and unloved” members of society. Sulking monkeys wear sandwich boards declaring, “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.” A girl, gas mask covering her face, is hit by a gust of wind launching her ponytail and the petals of her red flower. Two male police officers steal a kiss, their arms pulling each other together. He paints these characters with sympathy and affection. In the beginning of Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, he says, “Graffiti has been used to start revolutions, stop wars, and generally is the voice of people who aren’t listened to.” He chose graffiti because he considers it the ally of the underdogs of society.
If power is the enemy capitalism is its commander in chief. Banksy strafes from all sides with irony and satire. Comparisons to Andy Warhol are frequent but, if Warhol condemned money he did it implicitly. Banksy, on the other hand, chides and berates those who have it, especially corporations and government institutions. In Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, there is a photo of a piece that combines both his stenciling work and looser, freehand painting. An ATM stenciled to look as if it’s set in relief spews huge, curvy, octopus tentacles from the cash dispenser. The tentacles, presumably drawn free hand, are strong and fluid. One holds a man, flung from the machine, his wallet suspended just above his hand. On the opposite side a tentacle holds a bat (either baseball or cricket). In uneven but consistent lettering it says, “Let’s dispense with the formalities” and below this sits a cartoonish dog, leaning away from the grasp of the octopus. The ATM is mugging the man who’s come to retrieve cash. The simplest interpretation would indicate that Banksy doesn’t like paying ATM fees. But there is a larger idea at work: financial institutions rob their patrons of their power, their money, and their ability to fight back.
An indoor painting shows four women draped in large hooded robes worshiping at the base of a red sign with white lettering that reads, “Sale Ends Today”. The composition recalls traditional Christian art; with two women on each side of the sign the piece is symmetric and their penitent position on their knees elicits images of Christ’s followers at the base of the crucifix. In Wall and Piece, a picture of the characters from Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, blindfolded and bound with rope, sits across the page from a definition of “Brandalism”. It reads, “Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It belongs to you. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.” Money, and the institutions that worship it, are criminal and require criminal acts of retaliation.
In addition to graffiti, Banksy creates paintings, clandestine installations, and what he calls, “Street Sculpture”, a category that includes public stunts like distributing picket signs at a 2003 London May-Day demonstration that read, “I don’t believe in anything. I’m just here for the violence.” (To keep his cover he was either disguised or aided by the few friends who know his identity.) He has placed faux art in the Museum of Modern Art, the British Museum, and the Louvre, among others. A rock artifact hung in the British Museum went unnoticed for eight days.
Cave-like etchings on a broken piece of stone showed “early man” with a shopping cart. The accompanying placard read, “This finely preserved example of primitive art dates from the Post-Catatonic era…The artist responsible is known to have created a substantial body of work across the South East of England under the moniker Banksymus Maximus but little else is known about him.” His punny “Post-Catatonic era” suggests that Art, the institution as well as the elitist concept, is unconscious. The fact that no one noticed this obvious fake only enhances Banksy’s statement. But his antagonistic relationship with Art has gotten complicated, tangled by the exorbitant prices people now pay for his work.
Banksy’s art acts as his public identity. It’s there for all to see, in plain view, mocking our capitalist values. But like any artist, he needs to make a living, and selling his art is the logical way to pay the bills. Recently his work has sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in auction and private sales. At the Vanina Holasek Gallery, a piece of his graffiti removed from its original environment had a price tag of $250,000. His most expensive piece, “Space Girl and Bird”, went for £288,000 at a Bonhams auction. In a May 2007 New Yorker article titled, “Banksy Was Here”, he commented on the subject:
The money that my work fetches these days makes me a bit uncomfortable, but that’s an easy problem to solve – you just stop whingeing and give it all away. I don’t think it’s possible to make art about world poverty and then trouser all the cash, that’s an irony too far, even for me…I love the way capitalism finds a place – even for its enemies.
He’s weary of appearing hypocritical, but realizes that he can’t completely escape the capitalist machine. In the early days, before Damien Hirst, Brangelina, and Christina Aguilera paid top dollar for his work, he admitted a touch of desire for the benefits of fame. In the opening statement from Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall he wrote, “You could say that graffiti is ugly, selfish, and that it’s just the action of people who want some pathetic kind of fame. But if that’s true it’s only because graffiti writers are just like everyone else in this fucking country.” Now that he’s achieved that “pathetic kind of fame” I wonder if he’d make that statement again.
It’s no surprise that Banksy’s work appeals to Hollywood glitterati; despite their deep pockets, a-list actors overwhelmingly support liberal agendas. The last Democratic Debate between Clinton and Obama took place in the Kodak Theatre—the home of the Academy Awards—with Spielberg and his fellow moguls applauding national health care. But Banksy’s work isn’t just liberal, it borders on anarchistic. He hurls calumnies at the capitalist machine that allows Brangelina to plunk down a few hundred grand on a piece of art. Maybe these are the “cool” celebrities with a sense of humor about their extravagant wealth. Maybe they think adding a Banksy to their collection will keep them in touch with reality. Or maybe they just don’t get it.
But Banksy does. When one of his paintings, Bombing Middle England, sold for over £100,000 at a 2007 Sotheby’s auction, Banksy thanked his patrons with a message on his website: “I can’t believe you buy this shit.” I only wonder why he hasn’t made a snarky remark regarding Wall and Piece’s inclusion among the smattering of hipster-friendly books at Urban Outfitters.
Since his art has attracted the attention of celebrities, his work has become inextricably tied to the idea of “celebrity”. It is precisely this inflated and disingenuous type of fame that Banksy actively avoids. He doesn’t want to show up at exhibitions and explain the meaning of his work; it speaks for itself. But, if the Internet photo outs his identity he will be hounded by the press. They will deride him if he shows up to schmooze at art shows; they will call him ungrateful if he continues to eschew the public eye. Celebrity is the nimble thief of power, and Banksy has a healthy paranoia of it. It seems unlikely that he’ll surrender to status, but if he does, he’ll lose the credibility that allows him to make radical and oppositional statements.
Banksy needs the concealment of graffiti and will undoubtedly find new ways to work in this medium. The Internet, in its vastness, seems a likely safe house. In an email to Lauren Collins, the author of the New Yorker profile, he attached a file that, when opened, filled the screen with, “a black-and-white image. An artist – shown in profile, with proud posture and Vandyke whiskers – sits in the shade of a parasol. Next to him, propped on an easel stands a canvas covered with graffiti. The artist’s fingers are gnarled, like a rat.” Banksy is committed to graffiti and to his position as a voice of the people.
Though the world from this perspective is often bleak, there is also a sense of crass humor pulsing underneath. A painting of the Queen shows her sitting on another woman’s face, her dress pulled up to reveal stiletto calf-high boots and a garter belt. He has created numerous “graffiti walls”, claiming a clean public wall with an official looking stencil that reads, “Metropolitan Authority Highways Agency/ This wall is a designated/ Grafitti Area/ Please take your litter home.” He misspells graffiti intentionally and uses a crest taken from a cigarette pack as an official image, teasing both the graffiti writers who tag there and the officials who don’t notice they’ve been duped. He’s a cunning satirist who finds humor in the details.
And it is his humor that will save him from the pitfalls of success. Look again at that camera-phone photo of him at work. He squats in profile, with a sunshine-yellow soaked paint brush in hand. And what’s that pushed up on his forehead? His white painter’s mask, its thin elastic band cutting behind the ears, conjures crisp fall nights peopled with mass produced, purchased Halloween costumes. The completed painting depicts a grown man crouched on his can of paint, his long-handled roller resting on its end, the sponge soaked in sunshine-yellow. Who’s caught now?
Katharine Rolnick is a freelance writer and graduate student at New York University.