Article from Sunday Times Magazine
Feb 28th 2010
Banksy woz' ere
He’s the most successful graffitist ever, the elusive outsider who has become our unlikeliest national treasure. Now we are about to glimpse him in ‘the world’s first street-art disaster movie’
Whether it is snogging policemen, a House of Commons full of chimpanzees, Princess Diana on a £10 note, or I Don’t Believe in Global Warming half-submerged in a canal, a Banksy makes you smile, but it also forces you to take a second look, to think a little deeper.
It’s funny how this anonymous graffiti artist evokes such strong affection in people, particularly those who don’t usually reckon that art has much to say to them.
“Banksy, love ’im,” says a mate who wouldn’t be seen dead at Tate Modern. Another friend, who met him at a crusty travellers’ party in Bristol, says: “He’s very quiet, sweet though, very Bristol, scruffy and funny, but you’d never know if you didn’t know, if you know what I mean.”
So why does everyone have a favourite Banksy? Perhaps because he catches us unawares, shows us a clever take on our culture from a topsy-turvy angle on a scruffy bit of wall, or bridge, or hoarding we’ve looked at a million times but never noticed before.
My commute takes me through Shoreditch and Hoxton in east London, and I’ve learnt where to look for them. Recently he has been painting in Camden Town, north London, where he has had a running spat with a fellow graffiti artist called Robbo. On a freezing day I went down to have a peek. Past the lock, along a grotty towpath in the snow, under a most insalubrious bridge, and there on a bit of concrete on the far side of the muddy canal is a stencil of a workman painting a wall. The workman was added by Banksy to the original Robbo tag. Since then, a vengeful Robbo has revisited the work to daub “King Robbo” in giant silver letters over it.
Back towards Regent’s Park there is a charming stencil of a little boy fishing in the canal, which now bears the aggressive slogan “Did you think it was over? Team Robbo”, and the words “street cred” where the fish should be, implying that Banksy has lost his.
Has he? If my work sold for $1,870,000 at Sotheby’s in New York, or £636,500 at Sotheby’s in London, as Banksy’s did in February 2008, and if collectors such as Brad Pitt and Christina Aguilera were falling over themselves to buy them, would I row across a scummy canal to stencil a wall only a handful of people will see? Would you? So why the cold trips to Camden to paint illegally on a hidden wall?
“I still paint graffiti because I genuinely think the side of a canal is a more interesting place to have art than a museum,” he counters. “And the fact of the matter is, if you exhibit in a gallery you have to compete against Rembrandt, but if you paint down an alley you only have to compete against a dustbin. I guess it’s the art equivalent of hanging around with fat people to make yourself look thin.”
He’s funny, isn’t he? But interviewing Banksy is a rather weird process. Because he insists on remaining anonymous, he doesn’t “do” interviews in the sense of sitting down and talking face to face, but he has agreed to make a rare foray out of the shadows. What follows are the highlights of a lengthy exchange we have had by email, although, true to form, what really fired him up throughout the process was not so much my endless questions as the artwork he made exclusively for The Sunday Times Magazine.
“It’s all about the image, he doesn’t like this word lark,” as his assistant put it. Nevertheless, he diligently answered my questions and re-questions, writing: “Please feel free to mail back further questions that arise from my shoddy answers.” And the result feels like he has really thought about what he wants to say.
So here goes. And if you don’t believe it really is him, he was filmed making the cover of this magazine, so you can see Banksy at work on the internet: a first. CCTV cameras are one of his obsessions at the moment; they are, he says, one of the worst things about modern Britain.
“The amount of security cameras gets on my nerves. Obviously from a professional point of view, but also on a more philosophical level. I don’t understand why Britain has embraced cameras more than anywhere else — is it because we’re desperate to feel we still matter and we quite enjoy the idea someone is always watching us? I hate it when they say, ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong then you’ve got nothing to hide.’ Everyone’s got something to hide, otherwise there’s something really wrong with them.”
Talking of having something to hide, why does he insist on operating in the shadows, refusing to divulge his identity? “Sometimes it might seem like an elaborate public-relations stunt, but the anonymity is completely vital to my work, without it I couldn’t paint,” he replies.
It’s true that most of his works appear in illegal spots, so coming out publicly would open him up to a string of vandalism charges. But it’s not just the practicalities that keep him in hiding. “There’s a problem with being in the public eye — you have to become very tough, to grow a thick skin and ignore other people’s opinions. It’s unfortunate because those are the traits you actually least want in your public figures or artists. ‘He who goes to bed in a suit of armour doesn’t get much sleep’ is an old Chinese proverb. People might ask — how can you demand anonymity while doing a six-page spread in The Sunday Times Magazine?” he continues. “But the answer to that is simple — you just have to be a massive hypocrite.”
The weird thing is that he has probably already been unmasked. After a long investigation, one tabloid discovered that Banksy is really “a former public schoolboy brought up in middle-class suburbia” called Robin Gunningham, who attended Bristol Cathedral School in the 1980s. Schoolmates remember Robin as an extremely talented artist. Banksy has often been linked with the Bristol band Massive Attack and did artwork for the Hombré record label; Gunningham’s flatmate Jamie Eastman worked for the same label. This all came out a while ago. Yet, strangely enough, nobody seems to care very much that he might be Robin Gunningham. Perhaps we don’t want to know exactly who the Banksy is who comes down to breakfast. Is it possible that Banksy’s greatest creation is the air of mystery he has created around himself? I think the public responds to his Scarlet Pimpernel quality, the frisson that he might be sitting next to you at any time.
You might have met Banksy (or seen him in action) and never known it. He is an anti-celebrity celebrity of a kind that is never going to pop up in OK! magazine. Mercifully, we will never see inside his lovely home. I did put some questions to him about his identity, which, unsurprisingly perhaps, he ignored. But contrary to suggestions that he might be a bit posh, his friend and publicist Jo Brooks promised me faithfully that he is “very working-class”.
What Banksy did divulge, for the first time, is the existence of a Mrs Banksy: “I have a lady who’s pretty understanding, or a Wall Widow as I refer to her.” What about his wider family? “When my mum found out I was Banksy she called up and said, ‘I’m very disappointed in you.’ I asked her why. And she said, ‘Well, if you’re a graffiti painter why haven’t you ever messed up that big van they always park in front of my windows?’ ” Perhaps that’s a clue that his family really are from suburbia after all.
There has been much speculation as to whether or not Banksy had any formal art training (he is certainly familiar with the greats, remaking such paintings as Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe with starving Africans looking on, or putting a big grin on the Mona Lisa).
So did he train formally?
“I did art at school but I never pursued it any further. I have a large collection of famous art at home, but they’re all fakes. I make them myself. If I like a picture I grab a photo, project it up and paint it. Sometimes I change the colours to fit with the curtains. I do it partly because I’m tight and partly because if the Basquiats and Picassos in the sitting room were real I’d be too scared to ever leave the house.
“I recommend graffiti to anyone, for no other reason than a trip across town is never boring — you’re always on the lookout for new spots and what you can do on them. Likewise, if you ever get bored going round a museum, the interest level ramps up substantially when you smuggle in your own piece under a coat and glue it up somewhere.”
His official encounters with the art world, it seems, have definitely not made him want to be part of it. Despite the huge success of his show in the Bristol City Museum last summer, which was attended by 300,000 people, from toddlers and bolshy youth to grannies, he says: “I won’t be doing any more big gallery shows for a while, it’s all a bit dodgy. I’ve come into contact with a lot more villains since I moved from vandalism into selling paintings. The art world is full of shady people peddling bright colours. Anti-graffiti groups like to say tagging intimidates people, but not as much as modern art. That stuff is deliberately designed to make normal people feel stupid. I could try and get more legitimate mural work, but scaling a drainpipe is still probably a lot easier than getting an original idea past a committee.”
Banksy’s fury at the phoniness and hype of the art world is the subject of his first film, Exit through the Gift Shop, which was the hottest ticket at the super-groovy Sundance Film Festival in Utah last month. In true Banksy style, he went there incognito and announced his presence with 10 impromptu bits of graffiti, which appeared around Park City and Salt Lake City while his fans queued in the snow to get into the screening. Is he a sellout, living a limo lifestyle while promoting his movie in the States?
“I don’t have a lavish lifestyle,” he protests. “When I went to Sundance I rented a minivan so I could drive around and make some paintings. Me and a friend slept in it for a week at a trailer park covered in snow and full of rottweilers. I was huddled over a tiny electric heater, cutting stencils on a fold-down bed surrounded by dog shit. A week later the local paper described my visit as a ruthlessly orchestrated marketing campaign, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.”
The film has an air of Man on Wire, the extraordinary 2008 documentary about a French tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, who danced on a wire suspended between the twin towers in New York in 1974 (a tale that seemed even more poignant for being told after 9/11). As in Man on Wire, the most thrilling moments come from the documentary footage. In Banksy’s film the sequences are of top graffiti artists at work painting or stencilling their images on vertiginously high billboards in Paris, or suspended high above the traffic in Los Angeles. Much of this was shot by a bonkers Frenchman called Thierry Guetta, a compulsive filmmaker (think of a Japanese tourist on speed) who obsessively recorded everything on his video camera. Guetta became interested in street art through his cousin, a famous French street artist called Invader, whose stencils, inspired by the Space Invaders video game, have popped up all over the globe. Because of Invader, Guetta became accepted by the graffiti community and, through a mixture of charm, insanity and persistence, managed to persuade them he was making a documentary about them. The danger, daring and sheer anarchic joy of making street art is captured magnificently in a series of terrifying real sequences, complete with police busts and death-defying exploits. Guetta’s most elusive prey, of course, was Banksy. And eventually, he got him.
Unfortunately, Guetta turned out to be a terrible filmmaker. When he brought the footage of his “documentary” round to show Banksy it was a joke; a jumble of sequences with no links, no narrative, no structure — it was “like a crazy person had got hold of the remote control”. Banksy, realising the worth of Guetta’s raw material, decided to use it to make his own film. His reason? Simple really. Graffiti is by its very nature ephemeral; as soon as an image is painted or glued onto a wall or a bus it is often removed by the authorities. The only immortality for street art is on film.
It is a strange premise for a movie, granted. After the Sundance screening some critics accused Banksy of making a “mockumentary” —they didn’t believe Guetta was for real. (I’ve seen the film, and I’d say he was so mad you couldn’t make him up.) Can Banksy put his hand on his heart and promise that this film is all true?
“It’s ironic that some people think the film is a spoof, because this is one of the most honest films you’re ever likely to see,” he responds. “There was no plan, no agenda; we didn’t even realise we were making a film until halfway through. With most documentaries they plan in advance what’s going to happen so they can get funding. We just had some cameras rolling as things started to unravel. Actually, maybe you shouldn’t print that last bit — our distributor told me that if I call it a documentary nobody will come.
“Originally I wanted to call the film How to Sell Sh*t to C**ts, which he was fine about, but he said never call it a documentary. I hadn’t ever wanted to make a film, but in the end I didn’t have much choice. This bloke had been filming me painting for a few months when I noticed that every time we’d go on an adventure the stories I’d tell when I got home were about the cameraman. No matter what bridge we’d been hanging off or who’d chased us, it was always stories about the madman with the camera that got the laughs. So it made sense to turn the camera back on him [Guetta]. I think it’s an interesting story, but I want people to come and see it with low expectations. It’s not exactly Avatar with spray cans.”
Well, it may not have the technological gloss of Avatar, but it is a powerful critique of the art world. Banksy’s cynicism and anger about how it operates provides the intellectual thrust to the film. The denouement is an elaborate — and terrifyingly successful — hoax on the LA art establishment, in which Guetta (with a little help from a Banksy endorsement) makes $1m out of an art show.
In some ways, it is a rerun of Banksy’s own visit to Los Angeles in 2006. He put on a highly successful show, Barely Legal, in a rundown part of the city. The prize exhibit was There’s an Elephant in the Room, for which a live elephant was covered in industrial quantities of red paint and decorated to match the wallpaper in the gallery. American animal lovers were appalled. The furore put the exhibition on all the television news bulletins. Result? Queues to get in were so long that the show was even talked about on the travel news. Banksy was a sensation. The joke, however, was that prior to the exhibition some of LA’s art cognoscenti obviously did not know who or what Banksy was. In retrospect they looked spectacularly stupid when his show was packed with Hollywood A-listers desperate to buy his art.
I can’t help wondering if the end of Exit through the Gift Shop is Banksy’s revenge. He is elusive about this, saying to me only: “I don’t want to answer questions directly relating to the film plot. I want to keep as much mystery about the film as possible.”
People have made a lot of money out of Banksy, Guetta included. (In the movie itself Banksy says of Guetta: “I used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I don’t do that so much any more.”) There is a veritable industry of people churning out his images on T-shirts, mugs and posters. He doesn’t see a profit from any of it, but has he made money from his phenomenal success? Is he now a millionaire?
“I don’t make as much money as people think. The commercial galleries that have held exhibitions of my paintings are nothing to do with me. And I certainly don’t see money from the T-shirts, mugs and greeting cards. My lawyer calls me ‘the most infringed artist alive’ and wants me to do something about it. But if you’ve built a reputation on having a casual attitude towards property ownership, it seems a bit bad-mannered to kick off about copyright law.”
This sums up Banksy’s predicament. His images are now so popular they are endlessly ripped off for the enrichment of others, but his foray into the world of art dealers and galleries has convinced him that his future does not lie in that direction either. His entire existence is a paradox: anonymous but world-famous; selling for millions, but making little money from his work; packing out galleries, but choosing to graffiti obscure sites under canal bridges.
What will he do next?
“A good question. I was planning on making some huge paintings about sleepwalking our way towards the apocalypse, but I ended up going to the pub and getting some crisps.”
That is pure Banksy. Faced with the epic scale of the challenge confronting us, we are all tempted to say, what the heck? Perhaps people feel so fond of Banksy, so proprietorial almost, because he tackles the disconnect between what we know we should worry about and what we actually do. A Banksy is a little bit of irreverent stardust plonked down in the most everyday but intimate places. That’s why he has become a most unlikely national treasures
Exit through the Gift Shop will be in UK cinemas from March 5; www.banksyfilm.com
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