Genius or Scam Artist?
Artist and provocateur Banksy is a walking, breathing oxymoron. Depending on who you ask, he is either a genius or an overhyped vandal, a talented documentary filmmaker or a brilliant scam artist. As a self-described art terrorist, he is both a lefty and a critic of liberal piety. He flips off the art world establishment, and yet courts the very art world he claims to detest. He is a street artist who sells his work for high sums in galleries and auction houses, and “an anarchist environmentalist who travels by chauffeured S.U.V.”1
The Banksy Mythology
The identity of Banksy is one of the best-kept secrets in the art world, though there has been plenty of speculation about who is behind the spray-painted rats, policemen, soldiers, apes, and children appearing in the streets of London, Bristol, Toronto, Los Angeles, Berlin, and Detroit.
According to the BBC, Banksy “was born in 1974 and raised in Bristol, England.” In his book Stencil Graffiti, author and graphic designer Tristan Manco says that Banksy is “the son of a photocopier technician” who “trained as a butcher but became involved in graffiti during the great Bristol aerosol boom of the late 1980s.” The pseudonym “Banksy” is most likely a shortened version of “Bankside,” a district of London on the South Bank of the river Thames. Bankside is dominated by the former Bankside Power Station, which now houses the Tate Modern.
Banksy’s unique style relies on the use of stencils, a method he began using widely in 2000 due to its precision and efficiency (efficiency being key if one hopes to avoid the cops). Like Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, stencils give Banksy’s work a cohesive style and allow him to produce variations on a theme.
Banksy’s fan base is enormous, and growing by the day. There are websites devoted to tracking the locations of his street paintings. One fan named Simon Hassett recently released a new iPhone app that maps the location of Banksy’s art around the globe and lets viewers peruse a gallery of his work. Banksy’s 2009 solo show at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery was attended by over 300,000 people and his work currently sells for astronomical prices at auction houses. Brad Pitt, Damien Hirst, Angelina Jolie, and Dennis Hopper are some of his collectors. As the Guardian reported, a recent poll of 18- to 25-year-olds named Banksy an “arts hero” in third place behind Walt Disney and Peter Kay, and ahead of Leonardo da Vinci.
Arch Prankster or Art Genius?
“Despite what they say graffiti is not the lowest form of art,” Banksy says in his bestselling book Wall and Piece. “Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission.”
Claims like these are part of Banksy’s populist mythology. He gives the impression that he’s just some average, working-class guy who’s managed to make a name for himself in the high-class art world, in part because of his own cleverness, but also because of the art world’s stupidity.