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That was the beguiling subject of an e-mail seemingly randomly addressed to the Village Voice in mid-September.
“I represent the artist Banksy,” the message began, “and I would like to talk to you at your earliest convenience.” The name and phone number of a British publicist followed. There were no further details or explanation. It was mysterious and intriguing. The secretive graffiti artist had been silent since last year, when his distinctive stencils appeared in London during the Olympics. Because Banksy rarely grants interviews, the cryptic message also felt like the prelude to an elaborate practical joke.
A few minutes of sleuthing confirmed the identity of the publicist, Jo Brooks, who represents several British artists (not to mention Fatboy Slim), and turned up evidence of her professional relationship with the elusive stencil master. A subsequent message from Brooks revealed more: a draft of a press release announcing that Banksy was on the verge of unveiling an audacious new project: The artist intended to create one new piece on the streets of New York each day in October, a “unique kind of art show” titled “Better Out Than In.” Billed with the tagline “an artists [sic] residency on the streets of New York,” the show was to include “elaborate graffiti, large scale street sculpture, video installations, and substandard performance art.”
Brooks promised the Voice an exclusive interview with Banksy, who “feels an affinity with people who provide quality content for free on street corners.”
But, as others have found over the nearly two decades since Banksy’s aerosol first decorated urban landscapes from Britain to the West Bank, New York, and Los Angeles, communicating with the undercover art icon is no simple feat. Through Brooks, he declined requests to speak on the phone or via Skype, presumably on the grounds that anything approaching direct contact risks blowing his meticulously maintained cover. (For the unacquainted, Banksy’s real name has never been confirmed, despite his pop culture stardom; he has said previously that the illegal nature of graffiti demands secrecy and likened unmasking himself to leaving “a signed confession” for his art crimes.) The publicist requested a list of questions to ask Banksy via e-mail—with the caveat that her client would likely ignore several topics entirely.
Several days later, Banksy’s website was scrubbed and replaced with a teaser for “Better Out Than In”: a stenciled image depicting a graffiti tagger placed to look like he’s vomiting a torrent of pink flowers and green foliage sprouting from between two concrete walls. (The title itself is a British colloquialism, a “Gesundheit”-like response to an audible eructation.) When the image began making the rounds on street art forums, commenters pointed out that the silhouette looked similar to an image in the music video for the song “Yonkers” by Tyler, The Creator, leader of the Los Angeles–based hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.
Ignoring the New York reference, Banksyphiles assumed the piece was somewhere in Los Angeles (its actual location has yet to be disclosed) and speculated that Banksy was plotting a sequel to his 2006 exhibit at an L.A. warehouse, in which he famously displayed a live elephant painted to look like pink wallpaper.
Then, on October 1, just as the publicist foretold, Banksy debuted his first work on the streets of New York: a stencil on a building in Chinatown, titled prophetically The Street Is in Play. The work shows two old-fashioned paperboys in overalls and flat caps reaching for a can of spray paint contained in a “Graffiti Is a Crime ” warning sign that had previously been affixed to the wall.
The sign was promptly stolen and the piece painted over—defaced, then erased in less than 24 hours.
How does Banksy feel about his work disappearing almost instantly? Who owns the pieces from “Better Out Than In” once they’re on the street? Does the artist stand to profit from his New York “residency”? The Voice asked those questions and many more in a series of e-mails relayed through Brooks. After more than a week of silence, he wrote back, ignoring (as Brooks predicted) many of the questions we’d posed, including the one that asked, “How do we know this is really Banksy responding to these questions and not some Nigerian prince or a teenage hacker in the Syrian Electronic Army?”
On other topics, he was more forthcoming. In answer to our inquiry about his vision for “Better Out Than In,” and how and why the project was conceived, he writes, “There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There’s no gallery show or book or film. It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.”
Asked what he has been doing since his Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, was released in 2010, Banksy says he has “been learning to make big sculptures out of clay—partly because it’s a challenge and partly because after a year in an editing studio I wanted to do something standing up.”
Banksy says he visited New York “a couple of months ago” to scout locations for the October show, but he “returned to find most of the empty lots I planned to use have got condos built on them already.” He is now living in the city—not surprisingly, he won’t reveal where he’s holed up or how long he plans to stay—and he hints at a lack of a formal plan for when and where new pieces will be installed this month.
“The plan is to live here, react to things, see the sights—and paint on them,” he writes. “Some of it will be pretty elaborate, and some will just be a scrawl on a toilet wall.”
Early pieces were scattered across Lower Manhattan. Following The Street Is in Play, he scrawled a squiggly white tag on a steel shutter door in Chelsea that read, “This is my New York accent,” with the words “. . . Normally I write like this” underneath in plainer text. On October 3 in midtown, he stenciled a dog pissing on a fire hydrant, the latter emitting a thought balloon reading, “You complete me . . .” The following day saw a triptych of sorts: existing tags in Brooklyn that read “Playground Mob,” “Occupy,” and “Dirty Underwear,” to which Banksy added the identical script-stenciled tagline “The Musical.”
The Chelsea piece was defaced within hours, and the hydrant stencil painted over with a small silver tag. “Occupy” didn’t eclipse the 90-minute mark before it was eclipsed.
Conspiracy theorists have speculated that Banksy himself is intentionally spoiling the pieces after the fact. The artist flatly dismisses the rumor. “I’m not defacing my own pictures, no,” he says. “I used to think other graffiti writers hated me because I used stencils, but they just hate me.”
The fleeting nature of Banksy’s art is part of its appeal. Brooks says a new piece each day in New York “turns the city into a giant game of treasure hunt.” Each work is a precious commodity that can disappear overnight. He wants them to be discovered in alleys next to dumpsters, not displayed in a sterile museum.
The more permanent element of the works—and the part that helps to confirm their authenticity—is an accompanying toll-free phone number that dials an “audio guide” created by Banksy. The first recording features cheesy elevator music and a stoned-sounding narrator welcoming listeners to Lower Manhattan. The male voice casually warns that the work has “probably been painted over,” and informs listeners, “You’re looking at a type of picture called ‘graffiti,’ from the Latin ‘graffito,’ which means ‘graffiti’ with an O.”
“What exactly is the artist trying to say here?” Banksy’s narrator asks. “Is this a response to the primal urge to take the tools of our oppression and turn them into mere playthings? Or perhaps it is a postmodern comment on how the signifiers of objects have become as real as the objects themselves. Are you kidding me? Who writes this stuff? Anyway . . . you decide. Please do. I have no idea.”
The audio clip continues Banksy’s tradition of wagging a playful middle finger at the mainstream art world, in this case even slyly mocking fans who care to track down his work. Listeners are presumably hearing the spiel while standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk, rather than a wing of MOMA or the Met.
“The audio guide started as a cheap joke, and to be honest that’s how it’s continued, but I’m starting to see more potential in it now,” Banksy explains. “I like how it controls the time you spend looking at an image. I read that researchers at a big museum in London found the average person looked at a painting for eight seconds. So if you put your art at a stoplight you’re already getting better numbers than Rembrandt.”
Asked to elaborate on the two paintings reproduced on this week’s Voice cover—specifically, about how he intends to display the works, both collaborations with the Brazilian graffiti twosome Os Gêmeos (aka identical twins Otávio and Gustavo Pandolfo)—Banksy responds, “To be honest, I’m not sure. I’m figuring a lot of this out as I go along. Which is one way to keep it fresh, I suppose. The idea to make a stencil saying ‘The Musical’ only came up when I saw the ‘Occupy’ graffiti.”
Banksy’s repertoire is not limited to graffiti in the traditional sense of the term. On October 5 in the East Village, he rolled out a grimy, tagged-up 1992 GMC delivery truck with a sculpture installed inside. A virtual paradise, the piece included (as the audio guide describes over the tinkling sound of Hawaiian steel guitar) “a digitally remastered sunset that never sets, a waterfall pumping over 22 gallons of water a minute, and some plastic butterflies duct-taped over a fan that move around a bit.”
The following day, Sunday, Banksy posted a video to his website that shows a pair of insurgents wearing turbans firing a surface-to-air missile from a bazooka-like tube. Their rocket launches into the sky with a streak of gray smoke. The fighters shout, “Allahu Akbar!” as their target plummets toward the ground: Dumbo the flying elephant. The animated Disney character crumples into a smoking heap. A child appears, approaches the dying cartoon, contemplates the scene, then turns and kicks the man with the rocket launcher in the shin.
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.”