Guerrilla graffiti artist keeps identity a secret while mocking the establishment

[4 December 2007]

By Tom Hundley

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

LONDON—We don’t know his real name, or what he looks like, or where he will strike next.

But recent sales figures from London galleries and auction houses give new meaning to his chosen moniker: Banksy.

As in laughing all the way to the bank.

A painting by Banksy called “The Rude Lord” sold for $670,000 at a Sotheby’s sale in October. A few days later, six more Banksies went for a total of almost $1 million.

Banksy is a graffiti artist who once described his style as “neo post-idiotic.” He is also a prankster who last year managed to sneak a blow-up doll dressed as a Guantanamo prisoner into Disneyland.

The art world, however, is beginning to take him seriously. Critics have likened his style to Andy Warhol’s.

But Banksy doesn’t take the art world seriously.

Not long after his work began fetching huge prices at auction houses, Banksy whipped off a painting of an art auction. It shows an auctioneer standing before an audience that is bidding on a framed canvas that says “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this (expletive).”

So Banksy continues to do his best stuff in public spaces. For free. And this only seems to feed the international art market’s Banksy frenzy.

“We’ve taken a multimillion dollar position in Banksy, and that is not something I do lightly,” said Acoris Andipa, a gallery owner in London’s exclusive Knightsbridge district.

Andipa is staging an exhibition of drawings by Picasso and Matisse, but a Banksy show he put on earlier this year drew far more interest.

“It was across the spectrum; from young actors to the chief executives of major corporations, from school kids to the noble families (of the European art establishment),” said Andipa. “It would be hard to find another artist who appeals to such a broad audience.”

The Banksies in Andipa’s gallery start at $15,000 and go up to $500,000.

One of the keys to Banksy’s cachet is his anonymity, and he has taken great care to maintain it in the face of his growing celebrity and a ravenously curious British press pack. Not to mention the long arm (and numerous surveillance cameras) of the law, which considers a lot of what he does to be criminal vandalism.

He doesn’t give face-to-face interviews, although he sometimes answers e-mail queries.

His London dealer, a photographer named Steve Lazarides, operates out of a small storefront gallery that used to be a sex shop. Lazarides has known Banksy for years, but he isn’t giving interviews either. Banksy’s own mother is said to believe that her son works as a painter and decorator.

Banksy’s tag first appeared in the early 1990s in Bristol, his hometown, a gritty port on the Severn estuary. By 2000, admirers began spotting his work in London, mainly in the city’s industrial East End, long a haven for immigrants, revolutionaries and graffiti artists.

His style is easy to recognize. His usual tools are spray-paint and stencils, which enable him to work quickly and stealthily and to make a fast getaway.

Banksy’s best stuff combines wit and tart social commentary with simple, distinctive images. Like any reputable graffiti artist, he has a strong anti-establishment streak.

On an East London wall already scarred with graffiti, he painted a sinister-looking youth in a hooded sweat shirt loitering beneath a sign that says “Tourist Information.” Another that appeared in fashionable Notting Hill showed a British soldier in full dress uniform in the act of furtively scribbling his own graffito on the wall: “God Save the Quee ...”

One of his most famous images is a trompe l’oeil of a window painted on the side of a building in Bristol. A naked man hangs by his fingertips from the ledge; the partially clad woman whose bed he has just fled looks on while her fully dressed husband leans out the window scanning the street for the other man.

Banksy once observed that “people either love me or they hate me, or they don’t really care.”

Some of his detractors include a few art critics, along with the people from the “Keep England Tidy” campaign, and various municipal anti-graffiti brigades.

“Keep Britain Tidy is not concerned with whether graffiti is art or not. When graffiti is sprayed on other people’s property without their permission—no matter who it is by—then it is vandalism and is illegal,” said Rebecca Joinson, a spokeswoman for the group.

“Leaving graffiti up because it was done by Banksy encourages others to do it and sends out the wrong message to all graffiti vandals,” she added.

The local council for Tower Hamlets, one of London’s poorest areas and a rich venue for many graffiti artists, including Banksy, created a stir recently when it announced a plan to remove all graffiti.

“Whilst some graffiti is considered to be art, we know that many of our residents think graffiti in areas where they live, such as local housing estates, is an eyesore,” the council explained in a statement.

Banksy’s hometown took a similar hard line until residents protested. They argued that his street art gave their drab city a nice lift. The city government reconsidered and now Bristol touts Banksy’s wall art as a tourist draw.

Network Rail, the company that owns and maintains Britain’s railroad infrastructure, did a similar about-face after it was criticized when one of its anti-graffiti crews painted over a popular Banksy near London’s Waterloo station.

“We have now issued our maintenance crews with photographs of Banksy’s work, so if they come across it, they’ll recognize it for what it is. We will then try and remove it if at all possible and auction it for charity,” a Network Rail spokesman told The Evening Standard newspaper.

In October, after Tower Hamlets announced its crackdown, Banksy replied with a fresh piece of work for the borough. He took the double yellow lines that indicate a no-parking zone and diverted them up the side of a building where they blossom into a flower. The mural also includes what appears to be a rare self-portrait of the artist at work. Word of this new Banksy spread quickly.

“I really like it. I hope it stays,” said Fredrika Lokholm, a picture editor for a book company. She was part of a steady stream of Banksy admirers who made the pilgrimage to Tower Hamlets on a recent morning.

“It’s not really graffiti, it’s proper street art. It’s not mindless; there’s a method to it,” said Scott Baxter, a video technician who drove in from the suburbs to have a look.

“Better to see it here than hanging in the Tate and having to pay money,” added his friend, Adam Booth.

Given the skyrocketing prices of Banksy’s work and the simplicity of his technique, it is hardly surprising that forgeries and fakes have found their way onto eBay.

What did come as a surprise was that some bogus Banksies have been traced to the company owned by Lazarides, Banksy’s only authorized dealer.

According to the Art Newspaper, which broke the story in October, three “junior employees” of the company placed unauthorized prints with forged signatures for sale on eBay, and then artificially drove up the price by bidding against each other.

Lazarides declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement issued by his lawyer to the Art Newspaper, he lamented that he, Banksy and “some members of the public have been victims of criminal behavior.”

He promised a “full investigation” into the scam.

Banksy added his written apologies to the statement, noting sardonically that “this is particularly unfortunate for the people who buy my work to flip it for a quick profit on eBay, as I wouldn’t want to affect their mark-up.”

Published at: