In 2006, the graffiti artist who signed his stencilled images with the tag Banksy staged his first art exhibition in the United States. Called Barely Legal, it drew Hollywood’s glitterati, hungry to see and buy paintings by the already-famous British artist.
The exhibition was a huge success, a kind of art carnival that counted among its participants a live elephant painted in bright colours. Some media picked up on the complaints of animal-rights activists about the treatment of the animal (the paints were non-toxic), but the elephant in the room wasn’t the problem. The problem was the room.
By taking his art off the street and situating it in a gallery, Banksy simultaneously confirmed his reputation as a global art star and abandoned his claim to street credibility. Banksy’s art market apotheosis was also the signal that he had compromised his reputation as a serious graffiti artist. He had scornfully called the art world “a rest home for the overprivileged, the pretentious and the weak.” Now, he’d made his own bed in the rest home.
In Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, British journalist Will Ellsworth-Jones (author previously of We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of World War One’s Conscientious Objectors) set out to explain Banksy’s meteoric trajectory from street rebel with many causes to champagne vandal and ultimate art-market insider. In 2008, a collaborative work with Damien Hirst sold at a charity auction for $1.8-million, and later that year, Simple Intelligence Testing, a five-part work by Banksy of a monkey outwitting and escaping his human captors, sold for £636,500. The career path traced here is from anarchist to A-list.
Bansky’s images and style are instantly recognizable; the kissing bobbies; Mona Lisa with a rocket launcher and headphones; a young girl hugging a bomb with the affection normally afforded a stuffed toy; Queen Victoria sitting on the face of a gartered female subject; a policeman in riot gear with a smiley face; and his signature rats, role models for graffiti artists themselves, and always up to no good. The humour was direct and a bit drastic; the politics consistently hinted at subversion.
But while the work is known, the man remains a mystery. Ellsworth-Jones would have loved to play Boswell to Banksy’s Johnson, but he finds himself in the unfortunate position of writing about a subject who insists upon absolute anonymity. He never gets to meet or interview Banksy, and is obliged to rely on quotes from the infrequent e-mails the artist selectively releases into the world. Even when Banksy directed and appeared in Exit Through the Gift Shop, his 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary film about Thierry Guetta, an obsessed documentary filmmaker-turned-graffiti artist, Banksy appears hooded and with his voice distorted. It’s an ongoing cat-and-mouse game: He decides to be in the film, but he won’t let the film blow his cover.
The effect of this uncompromising inaccessibility is that Ellsworth-Jones is left with the world of graffiti art and not the graffiti artist in his world. As compensation, there are lengthy sections on the history of graffiti art in Bristol, where Bansky began tagging when he was only 15, and there are numerous interviews with a cast of contemporary street artists in England, Europe and the United States, who are not reluctant to let us know what they think of Bansky. (The range is not subtle: He is either a sell-out with no integrity, or the saviour and gold standard of the art form.) As a result, Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall is less biography than social history, and in this respect it is both informative and entertaining.
Banksy’s place in that history is meticulously recorded in the book, from his early involvement with Bristol’s tight community of graffiti artists through to his continuing war with an artist called Robbo and the Splashers, artists who paint over Banksy images wherever they find them. The world of graffiti art is sometimes less a brotherhood (there are very few women street artists) than a series of ongoing skirmishes, where “going over” (putting your tag over someone else’s) and “buffing” (erasing by hand or by machine) are the rules of engagement.
Ellsworth-Jones is himself both suspicious of and fascinated by his subject. Mostly, though, his skepticism evaporates and he moves from the graffiti side of the street onto Banksy Boulevard, and finds qualities there that push beyond aesthetics to devotion, even approaching hagiolatry. He becomes a member of the Banksy-inspired Church of the Latter-Day Paints.
Sometimes, though, his comparisons seem badly conceived. He links the “large black books” in which graffiti writers keep preparatory sketches to the “little black book” where the madam of a brothel “keeps the details of her finest clients.” Graffiti artists have been called many things in the past, but my guess is that Heidi Fleiss wannabe is not one of them.
At other times, he tries too hard to make the case for Banksy’s reputation. A father and daughter who go into business together decide to name their bagel business in honour of a Banksy stencil that the father, a builder, had restored. Ellsworth-Jones writes that the piece “illustrates once again just how far Banksy’s appeal stretches, for no one has ever cared to name their shop Seurat’s Sandwiches, Kahlo’s Coffe Bar, Picasso’s Pizza, or Hopper’s Hamburgers. Just Banksy’s Bagels.” What this really indicates is a simple and, as it turned out, not very successful marketing ploy. Less than a year after opening, Banksy’s Bagels was sold, and is now a dry-cleaning business.
Banksy’s stencils function best when he makes figures of authority look ridiculous. Their economy, wit and rawness carry an undeniably potent visual charge. The location where that charge is most felt is on the walls, rooftops and overpasses of cities around the world where Banksy has left his mark. In galleries and in the homes of wealthy collectors, they look domesticated and slightly anemic. Their blood is in the streets.
Late in the book, Banksy reflects on his legacy in the complicated history of the art form that has made him famous. In the New York edition of Time Out, in 2010, he said he “wouldn’t want to be remembered as the guy who contaminated a perfectly legitimate form of protest art with money and celebrities. I do sometimes question whether I’m part of the solution or part of the problem.” What makes Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall such a rewarding read is that it gives its readers all the information necessary to answer that question on their own.
Robert Enright is the University Research Professor in Art Criticism at the University of Guelph and the senior contributing editor to Border Crossings magazine.