Stalking a Most Prolific Phantom
‘Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall,’
by Will Ellsworth-Jones
By Michiko Kakutani
The New York Times
February 17, 2013
The graffiti artist Banksy’s work is immediately recognizable: clever, funny, sometimes political stencils and artworks that have popped up on walls (and occasionally in museums and galleries) in cities around the world — giant rats clutching paint brushes or umbrellas or boom boxes; chimps wearing placards (“Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge”); trompe l’oeil windows/holes (opening out onto a mountain vista or a picturesque beach or a pretty cloudscape) on barrier walls in the West Bank; children wearing gas masks or chasing after balloons that are floating away.
Some are out-and-out sight gags — giant scissors with cut-here dotted lines stenciled on a wall. Some are doctored works, replacing the Mona Lisa’s famous visage with a yellow smiley face or flinging some shopping carts into one of Monet’s tranquil water gardens. And some are oddly philosophical meditations: showing a leopard escaping from a bar-code zoo cage, or a woman hanging up a zebra’s stripes to dry on a laundry line. What they have in common is a coy playfulness — a desire to goad viewers into rethinking their surroundings, to acknowledge the absurdities of closely held preconceptions.
Over the years Banksy has tried to maintain his anonymity. He has argued that he needs to hide his real identity because of the illegal nature of graffiti — that he “has issues with the cops,” that authenticating a street piece could be like “a signed confession.” But as obscurity has given way to fame and his works have become coveted — and costly — collectors’ pieces, critics have increasingly pointed out that Banksy has used anonymity as a marketing device, as another tool in his arsenal of publicity high jinks to burnish his own mystique.
The journalist Will Ellsworth-Jones’s new book, “Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall,” examines the conundrums behind Banksy and the growing Banksy brand, the paradoxes involved in an outsider trying to hold onto his street cred while becoming an art world insider, and artworks that question the capitalist ethos becoming highly coveted commodities themselves.
Mr. Ellsworth-Jones, who was chief reporter and New York correspondent for The Sunday Times in Britain, writes as a reporter, not an art critic. Although his book does not do a terribly fluent job of conveying the magic of Banksy’s work (or an understanding of its iconography, its references or its place in a historical context of engagé art), it does pull together a lot of information about Banksy and his work from interviews with colleagues and former associates, from earlier books and from various online and print articles. It also provides an intriguing account of the making of the acclaimed Banksy film “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (which some regard as a documentary and others see as another Banksy stunt) and efforts by Banksy and his team to control and shape the mythology around him.
There are some peculiar lacunae in this volume, however. While Mr. Ellsworth-Jones quotes from earlier interviews (mainly via e-mail) that Banksy has dispensed over the years to others, he did not bother to submit his own e-mail questions (after failed negotiations with Banksy’s publicity agent actually to talk with him) because, he says, “the usual pattern has been for some questions to be answered and other key ones simply ignored.”
As for Banksy’s real identity, Mr. Ellsworth-Jones writes that “this book does not attempt to unmask him” and declines to give the name cited in a 2008 article from The Mail on Sunday, even though he describes that article as a “detailed, thorough investigation complete with photographs” and appears to draw heavily on it for information about Banksy’s early years.
Banksy, according to both this book and the Mail article, grew up in a middle-class suburb in Bristol and attended the fee-paying Bristol Cathedral School — a far cry from the sort of working-class background intimated by his handlers.
Mr. Ellsworth-Jones says that the young Banksy joined the burgeoning graffiti scene in Bristol in the 1980s, centered on a youth club that provided “a second family for teenagers in their rebellious years” and was “buzzing with ideas, alliances, rivalries.” Banksy experimented with names and styles in his formative years, Mr. Ellsworth-Jones says, sometimes signing himself Robin Banx, which “soon evolved into Banksy, which had less of the gangster ‘robbing banks’ ring to it but was much more memorable — and easier to write.”
Why did Banksy switch from freehand drawing to his distinctive stencils? Mr. Ellsworth-Jones says the artist has given different answers over the years, ranging from not being fast enough (after a near escape from the police, he said he realized he had to cut his painting time in half “or give up altogether”) to preferring the efficiency and crispness of a stencil. “I also like the political edge,” Banksy is quoted saying. “All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars. Even a picture of a rabbit playing a piano looks hard as a stencil.”
Among the big influences on Banksy in his formative years were Robert Del Naja, known as 3D, who used a stencil in 1986 for the face of the Mona Lisa, and Blek le Rat, who had been stenciling life-size rats on Paris walls since 1981 and whose impact on the young Banksy remains extremely evident.
“Right from the start of Banksy’s switch to stencils the humor, which was almost nonexistent in his early freehand pieces, started to appear in his work,” Mr. Ellsworth-Jones writes. “At Bristol harbor a sweet but startling-looking girl appeared on the wall hugging a large bomb instead of a Barbie doll. He repeated the image in years to come, but the stencil work got cleaner, and she got younger and grew a neatly plaited pigtail in place of her rather wild ponytail. The changes made the image even more arresting.”
If his friend Inkie, a pioneering graffiti artist (who went on to become a successful graphic designer in the video games industry), lent the young Banksy credibility in the hard-core graffiti world, his onetime manager Steve Lazarides (they broke with one another in 2008) used his showmanship and marketing abilities to help make the artist a global star, not only selling prints of his work but also staging elaborate shows (like “Barely Legal” in Los Angeles in 2006, which featured a painted elephant) that attracted Hollywood stars and news media attention.
Mr. Ellsworth-Jones’s book is at its most fascinating in tracing Banksy’s evolution from outsider, spraying walls in Bristol like dozens of other young graffiti practitioners, to international artist with work that “commands hundreds of thousands of pounds in the auction houses of Britain and America.” He is adept at examining some of the existential dilemmas this success created for Banksy — dilemmas shared by many outsider and counterculture artists, who suddenly find their work embraced by the very mainstream they’d once scorned.
He also looks at the eclectic new fans (including kids and street toughs) that Banksy’s art has attracted to museums and galleries, and the debates over whether wall art by Banksy and other graffiti artists should be left on the streets, where it runs the danger of being written over, defaced, scrubbed clean by city cleaning crews or filched by opportunists eager to make a fast buck. Some argue that such pieces should be liberated, so that they can be preserved and exhibited in museums and other places. Others argue that context is everything, that these works were made for specific sites and need to be seen in their original environment. If they vanish, so be it; ephemerality is part of what street art is. (And besides, photographs posted on the Web, which has hugely accelerated his fame, can always provide a pictorial record.)
In one interview, Banksy observed: “I’ve learnt from experience that a painting isn’t finished when you put down your brush — that’s when it starts. The public reaction is what supplies meaning and value. Art comes alive in the arguments you have about it.”
The Man Behind the Wall
By Will Ellsworth-Jones
Illustrated. 322 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.