All the way to the Banksy

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.

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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.

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