All the way to the Banksy

September 16, 2012

Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place. Banksy, Wall and Piece

Here’s a mystery for you. Renegade urban graffiti artist Banksy is clearly a guffhead of massive proportions, yet he’s often feted as a genius straddling the bleeding edge of now. Why? Because his work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots. And apparently that’ll do. Charlie Brooker in the Guardian.

Banksy makes a crap picture about how people pay a lot of money for crap pictures, which someone then ends up paying a lot of money for. A portion of irony eating itself, anyone? Comment by blogger about Banksy’s Moron.


Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani saw graffiti as a symptom of urban decay, and set about eradicating it – especially on New York’s subway system. But his distaste is not universal. In 1974 Norman Mailer wrote The Faith of Graffiti, which argued that graffiti was not a blight, and that there was continuity with Matisse Picasso and Pollock. I have to say I am more in the Giuliani camp but I suppose there is graffiti and graffiti.

First it is necessary to give some linguistic and historical background. Graffiti comes from the Italian word graffiato (“scratched”). In art it refers to works produced by scratching a design onto a surface. On a pedantic note graffiti takes a plural verb, although in less formal contexts it may be considered a mass noun and thus be used with a singular verb.

The earliest forms of graffiti date go back to 30,000 BC, but the first known example of graffiti as we understand it comes from the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey). Graffiti was also discovered in Ancient Rome. The eruption of Vesuvius preserved thousands of examples in Pompeii and Herculaneum, including ads, curses, magic spells, gossip, famous literary quotes declarations of love, jokes, political slogans and a lot of bawdy stuff. Studying graffiti has contributed to our understanding of life in Pompeii and Herculaneum and provided invaluable insights into the way citizens thought.

Now let’s fast forward to the twenty-first century. Without doubt the most famous street artist in the world is Banksy. Despite this fame, very little is known about who he really is. In 2008 he was outed by the Daily Mail. One Mail source named him as Robin Gunningham. He is not the product of a conflictive inner-city slum, but had a comfortable middle class childhood in a Bristol suburb. He attended Bristol Cathedral School, a public school with a pedigree of 1.000 years.

He began as a freehand graffiti artist in the 1990s in Bristol. In 2000 he had an epiphany and began using stencils after he realised how much less time it took to complete a piece. Banksy’s stencils feature striking and humorous images occasionally combined with slogans with a vaguely left-wing agenda – anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment. He is famous for his stunts:

  • In August 2004 produced a quantity of spoof British £10 notes substituting the picture of the Queen’s head with Diana, Princess of Wales’s head and replacing “Bank of England” with “Banksy of England.”
  • In August 2005 on a trip to the Palestinian territories, he created nine images on the Israeli West Bank wall. The images depicted a ladder going up and over the wall and children digging a hole.
  • In September 2006, he dressed an inflatable doll like a Guantanamo Bay detainee, in an orange jumpsuit, black hood, and handcuffs, He then placed the figure within the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, where it is said to have remained for 90 minutes before the ride was shut down and the effigy removed.

This publicity led to Banksy becoming a sought-after artist, his works going for tens of thousands of pounds. The journalist Max Foster coined the phrase “the Banksy effect” to illustrate how interest in other street artists was growing in the slipstream of Banksy’s success. The Banksy brand has colonised galleries, auctions, bookshops and the cinema. In 2010  the artist directed a very entertaining documentary called Exit Through the Gift Shop, which introduced us to a new artist Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash. When you are watching it you are never quite sure what is supposed to be real and what is a hoax. Indeed New York Times movie reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis coined a new term for this kind of film: prankumentary. I can certainly recommend it.

Despite “the Banksy effect”, many street artists do not appreciate him very much. This is reflected in another documentary, Graffiti Wars, which I saw the other day. His use of stencils is seen as cheating. And he has been accused of ripping off the work of Blek le Rat, creator of the life-sized stencil technique in early 1980s Paris.  However, it is his battle with King Robbo which gives the film its title. Robbo, a working class lad from the East end of London, is said to have tagged almost every single train in the city with his colourful tags in the 90s. Their feud began when Banksy painted over one of Robbo’s pieces. This is a cardinal sin in the world of graffiti artists, leading to a series of tit-for-tat incidents which have been going on since 2009. Robbo claims that in the nineties he had slapped Banksy for disrespecting him. Banksy denies this ever happened. The funny thing is that Banksy has now become an almost establishment figure with his works being protected by Perspex put up by councils to stop any graffiti vandals defacing them. Now this is an example of irony, Alanis Morissette.

And art critics chide Banksy for his conservatism. They seem to disapprove of his accessibility. The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones is typical of these critics of Banksy:

He appeals to people who hate the Turner prize. It’s art for people who think that artists are charlatans. This is what most people think, so Banksy is truly a popular creation: a great British commonsense antidote to all that snobby pretentious art that real people can’t understand. Yet to put your painting in a public place and make this demand on attention while putting so little thought into it reveals a laziness in the roots of your being. After wallowing in this stuff for a while, I almost found myself hating Banksy’s fans. But actually, it’s fine to like him so long as you don’t kid yourself that this is ‘art’ … in Banksy the philistines are getting their revenge

I beg to differ. I do enjoy Banksy’s provocations and I think that he does bring art to a wider public. This is not art to last for centuries but I think the world would be an uglier place without the work of this enigmatic artist from Bristol.

QI: A selection #11

September 16, 2012

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

Deserts make up about a third of the Earth’s land surface but only about 20 per cent of these deserts are covered in sand. Sandy deserts are known as ergs. The word desert is now usually used in a climatic sense, but it was originally used to describe a place with a sparse population, from the Latin word desertus, meaning “abandoned”. Today, 13 per cent of the world’s population live in deserts. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, desert hunter-gatherers need 500sq miles of land per person to survive.

All the numbers on a roulette wheel added together make 666.

Ninety-nine per cent of American prunes, and 70 per cent of all the prunes in the world, are produced in California. Rising labour costs in the early 20th century resulted in one grower importing 500 monkeys to the Santa Clara Valley from Panama. Organised into gangs of 50, each with a human foreman, the monkeys were set loose into the orchards. They scampered up the trees, harvested all the plums, and ate the lot.

The invention of spectacles towards the end of the 13th century added at least 15 years to the academic and scientific careers of men whose work depended on reading. In the 17th century, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza made his living as a lens-grinder; this enabled him to do his philosophy independently of patronage, but may have led to his early death from a lung illness in 1677. By the 17th century, European glass had become cheap enough for ordinary people to use it for window panes. This not only protected them from the elements, but also flooded their houses with light, initiating a great leap forward in hygiene. Dirt and vermin became visible, and living spaces clean and disease free. Partly as a result, plague was eliminated from most of Europe by the early 18th century.

The hand-held wireless BlackBerry got its name because the small keys looked like seeds.

The Japanese runner Shizo Kanakuri began the marathon at the 1912 Stockholm Games but, being exhausted after his 18-day journey to Sweden, stopped for a rest after nearly 19 miles and asked at a local house for a glass of water. Having drunk it, he fell asleep on the sofa and woke up the next morning. In 1967, aged 76, he was invited to return to the city and complete his run. His finishing time was therefore 54 years, eight months, six days, 32min and 20.3sec.

Communicating in water is a challenge. Smell is useless, sight limited and touch is tricky when you have fins rather than fingers. But sound waves travel four times faster under water, and whales have turned the ocean itself into a sophisticated communication system. Whale song is the loudest noise made by any single animal: some calls are so low in frequency they can be felt thousands of miles away. The half-hour songs of the humpback whale contain grammatical rules: sounds are combined into syntax, packing the song with millions of discrete units of information. Whales sing in different dialects depending on where they’re from, and sing different songs in different places at different time of the year. Whether these songs are satnav readouts, shipping forecasts, personal ads or epic poetry, we will never know. What we do know is that military sonar and general noise pollution in the sea has reduced their carrying range by 80 per cent – and many stranded whales are found to have severe inner ear damage.

There are about 14,000 racing camels in the UAE and until recently, the sport depended on the use of child jockeys, often taken from their parents and kept in dreadful living conditions. In 2005, the UAE and Qatar started using robot jockeys. They have two hands to control the reins and whip, GPS, and can monitor the camel’s heart rate. They are also dressed up with hats and sunglasses and given proper human-shaped heads, because in early experiments the inhuman robots spooked the camels.

It is often claimed that the cultures of the Americas didn’t invent the wheel. This isn’t quite true as there are wheeled children’s toys that date back to 1,500BC. The lack of wheeled vehicles in the archaeological record is usually explained by the lack of domesticated animals to pull them. They had no horses and the nearest thing to an ox (the bison) was never tamed. Llamas were – but they lived in the Andes, not a great area for moving carts and barrows.

Sandcastles are more dangerous than sharks. Since 1990, sandcastles have caused 16 fatalities, compared with the 12 killed in shark attacks. The main hazard is people falling into the holes they’ve dug. Myrtle Beach, Florida, holds the record for the longest sand sculpture and the tallest sand castle. The tallest sculpture towered almost 50ft in height, contained 4,800 cubic yards of sand and took 10 days to build; the longest stretched for over 16 miles.

If you want to supersize your beach experience, the world’s longest beaches are in Brazil and Texas. Praia do Cassino stretches from the southern Brazilian city of Rio Grande to the border with Uruguay, some 1,581 miles (2,545 km) or about as far as London to Moscow. Padre Island is the second largest island in the US (after Long Island) and is essentially a sandbar, 1 13 miles (182km) long, off the southern Texan coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Ninety Mile Beach in the North Island of New Zealand turns out to be only 55 miles (88km) long. This miscalculation probably dates back to the early missionaries who reckoned to travel 30 miles a day on horseback. Because the beach took three days to traverse, they assumed it was 90 miles long, but horses walk much more slowly in sand.

Domestic life isn’t good for cats: milk gives them diarrhoea, cat food rots their gums and central heating causes them to moult all year round, causing their fur to clog up their digestive system. Nevertheless, 35 per cent of American cat owners never allow their cat to go outside. Only a quarter of American cat “owners” say they deliberately went out to acquire a cat: in 75 per cent of cases, it was the cat that acquired them. Studies show that many more people claim to own a cat than there are cats. The British government makes itself responsible for feeding 100,000 cats to keep down mice on government property.