By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Banksy typically shuns galleries and traditional venues, displaying his work instead in skid row alleys and various off-the-map locales. He has, however, profited handsomely from his art in the past. Celebrities—most notably Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—have paid millions for it, a fact that's at odds with the creator's guerrilla ethos. (Before launching "Better Out Than In," Banksy's website featured an FAQ with the question "Why are you such a sell out?" followed by the answer "I wish I had a pound for every time someone asked me that.") His works are generally intended for public display, but they have occasionally been carved out of entire concrete walls and sold at auction.
The disconnect isn't lost on the artist. He says he "made a mistake" during his last show in New York, a 2008 installation at a storefront in the West Village that featured a variety of satirical animal creations, including hot dogs lounging under heat lamps in glass cages near a phony cash register. He hired a billboard company to paint four murals to promote the fake store.
"I totally overlooked how important it was to do it myself," the artist says. "Graffiti is an art form where the gesture is at least as important as the result, if not more so. I read how a critic described Jackson Pollock as a performance artist who happened to use paint, and the same could be said for graffiti writers—performance artists who happen to use paint. And trespass."
Banksy also reveals concerns about his ongoing struggle to strike a balance between commercial success and artistic integrity. He hints at the possibility of abandoning galleries entirely and permanently returning to his roots as a street artist.
"I started painting on the street because it was the only venue that would give me a show," he writes. "Now I have to keep painting on the street to prove to myself it wasn't a cynical plan. Plus it saves money on having to buy canvases.
"But there's no way round it—commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist. We're not supposed to be embraced in that way. When you look at how society rewards so many of the wrong people, it's hard not to view financial reimbursement as a badge of self-serving mediocrity."
He realizes, though, that his early triumphs and the resulting bounty put him in a unique position to dictate how his work is displayed. Starving artists aren't afforded the same luxury.
"Obviously people need to get paid—otherwise you'd only get vandalism made by part-timers and trust-fund kids," Banksy says. "But it's complicated, it feels like as soon as you profit from an image you've put on the street, it magically transforms that piece into advertising. When graffiti isn't criminal, it loses most of its innocence."
"It seems to me the best way to make money out of art is not to even try," he adds in a subsequent exchange. "It doesn't take much to be a successful artist—all you need to do is dedicate your entire life to it. The thing people most admired about Picasso wasn't his work/life balance."
Of course, for Banksy, the concept of devoting one's entire life to his art takes on an added layer of meaning.
Does the burden of all the cloak-and-dagger shit ever seem like too much to carry?
Did you ever envision it going on this long without cracking somewhere?
Has it gotten easier to operate this way, or harder?
How many people can you trust?
How do you decide?
At press time, the Voice was still waiting for answers to those questions (to name just a few).
A secretive persona and self-perpetuated anonymity are now part of the package—an element that has become increasingly improbable with the passage of time, especially in light of recent National Security Administration spying revelations and the ongoing debate over online privacy. Trumpeting his presence in New York and producing new works daily on the streets poses a daunting challenge to Banksy's incognito act, but, he says, the prospect of cementing his legacy in the city proved too tempting to resist.
"New York calls to graffiti writers like a dirty old lighthouse. We all want to prove ourselves here," Banksy writes. "I chose it for the high foot traffic and the amount of hiding places. Maybe I should be somewhere more relevant, like Beijing or Moscow, but the pizza isn't as good."