Banksy: The Man Behind the Wallby Will Ellsworth-Jones
While hiding from the limelight, Banksy has made himself into one of the world's best-known living artists. His pieces have fetched millions of dollars at prestigious auction houses. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his film Exit Through the Gift Shop. Once viewed as vandalism, his work is now venerated; fans have gone so far as to dismantle the/i>
While hiding from the limelight, Banksy has made himself into one of the world's best-known living artists. His pieces have fetched millions of dollars at prestigious auction houses. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his film Exit Through the Gift Shop. Once viewed as vandalism, his work is now venerated; fans have gone so far as to dismantle the walls that he has painted on for collection and sale.
But as famous as Banksy is, he is also utterly unknownhe conceals his real name, hides his face, distorts his voice, and reveals his identity to only a select few. Who is this man that has captivated millions? How did a graffiti artist from Bristol, England, find himself at the center of an artistic movement? How has someone who goes to such great lengths to keep himself hidden achieved such great notoriety? And is his anonymity a necessity to continue his vandalismor a marketing tool to make him ever more famous?
Now, in the first ever full-scale investigation of the artist, reporter Will Ellsworth-Jones pieces together the story of Banksy, building up a picture of the man and the world in which he operates. He talks to his friends and enemies, those who knew him in his early, unnoticed days, and those who have watched him try to come to terms with his newfound fame and success. And he explores the contradictions of a champion of renegade art going to greater and greater lengths to control his image and his work.
Banksy offers a revealing glimpse at an enigmatic figure and a riveting account of how a self-professed vandal became an international iconand turned the art world upside down in the process.
“Provides an intriguing account of the making of the acclaimed Banksy film ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop'. . . and efforts by Banksy and his team to control and shape the mythology around him. . . . 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.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“[A] thought-provoking, irony-steeped, unauthorized investigation into how a regular guy from Bristol elevated graffiti to a fine art only to find himself trapped in the paradox of becoming a commercially successful, anticapitalist guerrilla artist…. A thoroughly ensnaring, eye-popping account of the paradigm-shifting innovations of a bold and brilliant masked artist.” Booklist
“A fluent, enjoyable discussion of an important contemporary cultural phenomenon; this book will appeal especially to readers who are fans of Banksy's world and is an essential title for devotees of pop culture and outsider art… Ellsworth-Jones does a superb job.” Library Journal
“Whether a Banksy follower or not, a reader will find this excellent contemporary art story speaks volumes about celebrity.” Publishers Weekly
“Entertaining.” Kirkus Reviews
“A fascinating portrait that elicits admiration for a man who, despite his increasingly unconvincing efforts to retain some shreds of his vandal status, has had an undeniable impact on art.” The Times (UK)
“A credible and intelligent portrait of a unique artist, reluctant capitalist, and control freak.” The Independent (UK)
“An accomplished investigative reporter, [Ellsworth-Jones] casts a detailed and enthusiastic eye over all aspects of Banksy's career.” London Evening Standard
“Ellsworth-Jones writes perceptively about the ‘ethical dilemmas' created by Banksy's marketing techniques, yet still communicates the excitement of a ‘treasure hunt' for traces of his work in the scruffier purlieus of London.” The Observer (UK)
“What makes [this book] intriguing is a relentless following of the money, and the exploration of the tortured interface between art and commerce.” The Guardian (UK)
“A fascinating history of a wholly likeable art phenomenon.” The Sunday Times (UK)
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The Man Behind The Wall
By Will Ellsworth-Jones
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Will Ellsworth-Jones
All rights reserved.
The Art of Infiltration
One Wednesday in mid-October 2003 a tall, bearded man, looking slightly scruffy in a dark overcoat, scarf and the sort of floppy hat that cricketers used to wear, walked into Tate Britain clutching quite a large paper carrier bag.
Banksy, for it was he, walked straight past the security guards, who were probably more worried about what visitors might be taking out than what they were bringing in, and made his way unchecked up to Room 7 on the second level. It was a well-chosen spot that he must have researched beforehand. For it is not a gallery you simply stumble into: there is no direct entry from a main corridor, you have to go through another gallery to reach it. It is usually quite quiet there, which allows the museum attendant to move in and out between galleries rather than having to sit covering just the one room.
Having chosen his gallery, next he had to choose his spot on the wall. He found enough room between a bucolic eighteenth-century landscape and the doorway leading to Room 8 and claimed it for his own. He placed his paper carrier bag on the floor, dug out his own picture from the bag and then simply stuck it up. It was a pretty ballsy thing to do; the Tate would not have been too happy to find a man stealing not their pictures but their space. But perhaps his earlier years spray-painting the streets of Bristol helped steady his nerve, for he showed no signs of panic as he reached down into his bag for a second time and pulled out an impressive white stiff board on which was mounted the picture's caption. This he stuck neatly beside his picture. And then he was off.
Banksy was once asked by an American radio interviewer if he carried out this sort of incursion alone. He answered, 'I do, yeah, you don't want to bring other people into that.' And strictly speaking he was right – he was the only man sticking the painting to the wall. But others were involved in the planning. One of them remembers sitting with Banksy in a café going through the options: 'We said to each other, "It's like planning a bank robbery."' He had at least one accomplice and possibly more in the gallery, for we only know precisely how he achieved this coup because someone was filming him do it. Once the film had been mildly doctored so as to obscure his face, it went out on the web. Eventually a set of stills were to find their way into his best-selling book Wall and Piece.
As for the painting itself, Banksy said it was an unsigned oil painting he had found in a London street market. He claimed he found it 'genuinely good' but he was being kind; it was an uninspiring countryside scene with sunlight just managing to filter through the trees on to a meadow and what looked vaguely like a chapel. Across the foreground of the picture he stencilled the sort of blue and white police incident tapes that you usually see keeping gawpers away from an accident. The picture was titled Crimewatch UK Has Ruined the Countryside for All of Us and the caption he stuck up alongside it was one of the first of Banksy's many pronouncements:
It can be argued that defacing such an idyllic scene reflects the way our nation has been vandalised by its obsession with crime and paedophilia, where any visit to a secluded beauty spot now feels like it may result in being molested or finding discarded body parts.
(Originally the caption was rather more jokey, adding: 'Little is known about Banksy whose work is inspired by cannabis resin and daytime television', but interestingly, as Banksy became more mainstream, this was edited out of the caption when it eventually appeared in Wall and Piece.)
The idea of converting the old into the new is not an original one, although Banksy said that when he first thought of it, 'I was completely convinced it was a genius idea nobody had had before, and I thought, how do I stop people from stealing this idea? And I thought the best thing to do was to get it hanging up in the Tate with my name next to it.' In the 1960s, Asger Jorn, a Danish artist who was a key member of the Situationists, a small group with their base in Paris who argued that advanced capitalism had reduced us all to passive spectators in life, détourned paintings he bought in the Paris flea markets with his own swirls and splatters. In the catalogue to his exhibition in Paris he gave collectors and museums advice they were very unlikely to take: 'Be modern. If you have old paintings, do not despair. Retain your memories but detourn them so that they correspond with your era. Why reject the old if one can modernise it with a few strokes of the brush?'
In a more recent example, in 1980 Peter Kennard, an anti-war artist who was to become a friend of Banksy's, painted Haywain with Cruise Missiles. This is John Constable's famous painting detourned by Kennard, in a rather more startling manner than Banksy achieved, by the addition of three Cruise missiles on the back of Constable's hay cart. The Tate bought this work from Kennard in 2007. But it did not matter that the idea of adding something to an old painting was not an original one, nor did it matter that Banksy's picture only lasted on the wall for three hours before the glue failed. (An art student who was there at the time said: 'When it fell to the floor a security guard went over to it in a bit of a panic. He then realised something was up and other security guards were called.') What mattered was that Banksy had stuck it up in the Tate and he had been filmed doing it.
Although remaining incognito, Banksy was happy to declare to newspapers reporting the story: 'People often ask whether graffiti is art. Well it must be, now it's hanging in the fucking Tate.' He suggested: 'To actually go through the process of having a painting selected must be quite boring. It's a lot more fun to go and put your own one up. It's all about cutting out the middle man, or the curator in the case of the Tate.' But it was actually about much, much more than that – it was a publicity stunt that had gone wonderfully right. And if it worked at the Tate, why not try it elsewhere?
Over the course of the next seventeen months he played the same sort of trick in seven more galleries in Paris, New York and London. It was fun; it was done with style and considerable cool; it hurt nobody; on the whole the museums took it in good heart; and it helped transform Banksy into an international name. The recognition that other artists spend years trying to achieve, he achieved in months.
He did not just stroll into these galleries and put up a painting on the first wall he could find. He did the reconnaissance first: 'It was funny. I was going to all these galleries and I wasn't looking at the art, I was looking at the blank spaces between the art,' he said. In 2004 he hit two targets. In April he installed in the Natural History Museum in London a rather complicated piece, a stuffed rat enclosed in a glass case along with a spray can, microphone, torch, backpack, sunglasses and a sign scrawled on the background in graffiti style announcing 'Our time will come.' Banksy's then manager, Steve Lazarides, claimed at the time, 'I saw a member of staff walk up to it, check it was attached properly, read the text and walk away.'
Recently the Natural History Museum were kind enough to try to discover what happened to the rat. A spokeswoman said, 'It wasn't long before museum staff noticed it and removed it and as far as we're aware it was returned to Banksy.' In fact it was Steve Lazarides who very swiftly asked for it back, in the hope that a photograph of the rat that had been in and out of the museum would generate even more publicity. But he was told he would have to wait, since the boxed rat was being kept in the museum's ice room to ensure that there was no contamination of any of the museum's permanent exhibits. When the rat was finally released and Lazarides was interviewed by the museum's security staff, he pointed out that there must be something wrong with security if a man could walk in with a rat enclosed in a substantial box and screw the box on to the wall of the museum without anyone raising an alarm.
Banksy also visited the Louvre in Paris. It is difficult to say just how successful he was here. Documented in his book there is a rather blurry picture of his own version of the Mona Lisa, transformed by a smiley face, hanging on a wall in the gallery. All does not look well in this photograph. We can see the back of a man, probably Banksy since his head has been deliberately blurred. He looks in a hurry, pressing a caption on to the wall below his Mona Lisa with one hand while he continues to keep moving past. That's it. The video shows very little more than the photograph. As for how long it lasted, Banksy's book only says 'Duration Unknown.' But it was the Louvre, it was there for however short a time – it counts.
But he wasn't quite there yet; the Tate had won enough headlines but the Natural History Museum and the Louvre had not really taken him much further. It was next year that he really upped his game in both New York and London. Being a Sunday, 13 March 2005 was a busy day for galleries; nevertheless he managed to infiltrate four museums in New York without being stopped once. At the Brooklyn Museum he put up another doctored painting, this time of a bewigged and rather ridiculous-looking aristocrat, all ruffles, frills and sword. One hand is resting limply on the back of a chair, the other is holding a can of spray paint just as limply. All this is in bright colours, while the dark background behind him is covered in graffiti including a CND sign and a simple demand for 'No War'. At 61 cm × 46 cm it is the largest of Banksy's incursion paintings, and the video of him doing it is the clearest of them all.
The coat he used at the Tate had been replaced by an equally inconspicuous raincoat and the hat by a rather sturdier model, but the false beard looks as though it was still there and the carrier bag with his painting inside was almost laughably noticeable. Again he had chosen a gallery, the American Identities Gallery on the fifth floor, where there were not many visitors. We see him saunter into the gallery with a nerveless deliberation, put his bag down against one wall, extract the painting, turn and press it up against the opposite wall, pushing down on it with a manic intensity – determined that it was going to last longer than the three hours Crimewatch UK had survived at the Tate. Then he is off. The whole operation takes exactly thirty-three seconds. According to Banksy's book, the painting stayed there for eight days before being discovered. Reports at the time say it was three days. But even if it was only three days, it is still a slightly depressing comment on how much interest we take in some of the paintings on display as we trail around galleries. Explaining how he got away with it, Banksy said that the galleries 'do get pretty full but not if you put the pictures in the boring bits'.
In Brooklyn he had chosen a boring bit, but in Manhattan itself he risked the crowds and still got away with it. How? He explained that the accomplices who were filming him also provided distractions where necessary: 'They staged a gay tiff, shouting very loudly and obnoxiously.' But, more thoughtfully, he told another interviewer: 'I think it is a testament to the frame of mind most people are in when they are in a museum really. Most people let the world go past them and don't pay a lot of attention to most things. Not even apparently to people with big beards wielding around pieces of art and glueing them up.'
(All this talk of interviews makes it sound as though he was chatting to all and sundry, but of course he wasn't. He chose the people he would talk to as carefully as he chose the galleries: the New York Times, National Public Radio – the nearest thing America has to Radio Four – and Reuters. The interviews were conducted by phone or email and since no one got to meet him they had to take on trust the fact that they were talking to or reading an email from the real Banksy.)
He claimed that he had set a target of hanging his piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for at least forty-seven days. Why such a specific number? Because it was the time a work by Matisse, Le Bateau, hung upside down before it was spotted by a visitor who informed a guard of the mistake. (He had actually got his museums muddled – an easy thing to do. The mistake was made in the Museum of Modern Art, not the Met.) But Banksy's piece only lasted two hours and it is easy enough to see why. In the Great American Painting wing his modified portrait of a very proper society lady stared out at you; the gold frame fitted in well enough with the paintings around her, but she was wearing an antique gas mask. She was impossible not to spot. A spokeswoman for the gallery said that no damage had been done to the wall or to other artworks. She added, a little sniffily, 'I think it's fair to say that it would take more than a piece of Scotch tape to get a work of art into the Met.'
At the Museum of Natural History he hung an intriguing glass-encased beetle to which he had attached Airfix fighter plane wings with missiles slung beneath them. The caption declared it was a 'Withus Oragainstus' beetle (you may have to read the caption for a second time to get the joke). On the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), home of Andy Warhol's 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, he placed his own painting Discount Soup Can – depicting a tin of Tesco Value cream of tomato soup. He says in Wall and Piece that having placed the picture on the wall he took five minutes to see what happened next. 'A sea of people walked up, stared and left looking confused and slightly cheated. I felt like a true modern artist.'
Most of these successful incursions came with slightly irritating faux-naïf thoughts from Banksy. After his success in New York he emailed the New York Times to say he had thought about trying the Guggenheim as well but he was too intimidated: 'I would have had to appear between two Picassos and I'm not good enough to get away with that.' He said he preferred to be known as a 'quality vandal' rather than an artist and he went on: 'I've wandered around a lot of art galleries thinking "I could have done that", so it seemed only right that I should try. These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.'
Having finished with New York, Banksy was back in London. In May he hit Gallery 49 of the British Museum, a busy gallery full of artefacts from Roman Britain. Below a statue of Atys (youthful lover of the mother goddess Cybele, in case you were wondering) and partially hidden by a first-century tombstone, he managed to stick up a convincingly rough piece of rock. Drawn across it, in the style of early caveman art, was a picture of 'early man' pushing a shopping trolley. The caption, which was almost identical in design to the British Museum's captions, read:
The artist responsible is known to have created a substantial body of work across the South East of England under the moniker Banksymus Maximus but little else is known about him. Most art of this type has unfortunately not survived. The majority is destroyed by zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of daubing on walls.
On his website Banksy announced a treasure hunt with a prize for the first person who could find the caveman's art and send him a photograph of themselves standing beside it; but the British Museum got there first, taking the caveman down before anyone could claim the prize. A spokeswoman for the British Museum said they were 'seeing the lighter side of it' and were 'still in the process of deciding what to do with it'. Since then it has become part of internet folklore, reinforced by a statement in Banksy's book, that the caveman was taken into the museum's permanent collection. However, a search of the permanent collection using key words such as 'Banksy Maximus', 'Early Man goes to Market', 'Post Catatonic' and, of course, 'Banksy', yielded no results. It seems a pity to spoil the fun but the museum responded to my request for information by saying, 'It wasn't acquired by the museum and isn't in the collection.' (In contrast, Riikka Kuittinen, then a curator in the print department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, says she was really hoping that the V&A would get one. She says she would have marked it 'accession into the collection', stuck a number on it and put it into store. But the artist never obliged and later the V&A had to buy its Banksy prints.)
Excerpted from Banksy by Will Ellsworth-Jones. Copyright © 2012 Will Ellsworth-Jones. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Will Ellsworth-Jones was chief reporter and New York correspondent for The Sunday Times. He has written for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The San Francisco Examiner, and The Anniston Star. His last book, We Will Not Fight, was a history of conscientious objectors in the First World War. He lives in London.
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I loved this book, purchased it while on my trip in NYC at the MoMA, I definitely recommend it! Great book!