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“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost wrote in the first line of his oft-quoted poem “Mending Wall.” He seemed to understand something about physical barriers—that when placed in front of the wrong person they can induce a physical reaction. Banksy agrees. The anonymously world-famous British graffiti artist/sculptor/painter has spent two decades painting over them with his trademarked stenciled graffiti, making both irreverent jokes and political statements, and proving again and again that good fences don’t just make good neighbors, they make good canvases.

A decent journalist would at this point normally digress into a quick biography of Banksy, but he makes it difficult to do so. Mainly because no one really knows anything about him. To some, Banksy is the pseudonym for a man by the name of Robin Banks, who was raised in Bristol, England. To others, he may be Robert, Robin, or Robden Gunningham, depending on the region of England you’re  in, or how many beers the person you’re asking has had. As you dig deeper—or try to at least—you find that there is no hope of getting an absolute truth about him. Banksy takes pride in keeping himself shrouded in mystery, deflecting any inquiries into his identity with feigned ignorance and self-deprecation. “I am unable to comment on who may or may not be Banksy,” he wrote on his website, “but anyone described as being ‘good at drawing’ doesn’t sound like Banksy to me.”

With Banksy, who is so keen on making statements through art, anonymity itself is a statement. In a world where celebrity awards mythic qualities to individuals, and people hang on their every word, and every detail of their lives, it becomes easy to sell a product based on their endorsement alone. Like Paris Hilton, who rose seemingly out of nowhere (thanks to the scandal surrounding her sex tape) and was given her own reality TV show on FOX and then put out a pop album in 2006. Banksy didn’t fail to comment on that. Collaborating with Dangermouse, he replaced five hundred copies of it in British retailers with album artwork that he designed. The cover art featured a doctored picture of her topless, while another showed her with the head of a dog, and another her walking out of a luxury vehicle onto a street of homeless people and the quote, “90% of success is just showing up.” “The time of getting fame for your name on its own is over,” Banksy writes in Wall and Piece, a 2005 compilation of his work. “Artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Fame is a by-product of doing something else. You don’t go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.”

But remaining anonymous amidst growing fame is the irony that Banksy is now running into. More and more, he is being called the Andy Warhol of our generation. His pieces are being sold at auction houses for upwards of $500,000, and not to nameless millionaires, but to the celebrity elite. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie purchased a piece entitled “Picnic” depicting a family of four eating lunch while fifteen starving Africans stand around them. Christina Aguilera purchased a painting of Queen Victoria portrayed as a lesbian, and two other prints. In general, his artwork fetches double, triple, and even quadruple the reserve prices, a fact he later criticized with a painting that depicted people at an auction house bidding on a painting that said, “I can’t believe you morons buy this shit.” Banksy has even influenced property prices. A house in which he painted a mural on was advertised by the sellers as “a mural with a house attached” and was taken off the market when the buyers wanted to paint over it.

The question remains as to whether or not he’ll be able to maintain the anonymity. An exhibition of his work at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery last summer drew in 300,000 visitors. Then in 2010, a documentary titled Exit Through the Gift Shop was released, and was not only about Banksy, but starred him. The latter move seems antithetical to his claimed disdain for fame. But maybe that’s apart of his game. His art. Because as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Life imitates art.” Banksy isn’t famous because he wants to be, he’s only taking his life a step further. So that someday when he dies, he doesn’t just leave behind a biography, but a statement.

Banksy on Banksy. If you really want to get to know Banksy, just read what he has to say. The following are excerpts from the aforementioned compilation of his works, Wall and Piece.
On Graffiti. Graffiti is not the lowest form of art…The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit…They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline of society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the mind of three types of people: politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers.

On His Technique. When I was eighteen I spent one night trying to paint “LATE AGAIN” in big silver bubble letters on the side of a train. British transport police showed up and I got ripped to shreds running through a thorny bush…I spent an hour hidden under a dumper truck with engine oil leaking all over me. As I lay there listening to the cops on the tracks I realized I had to cut my painting time in half or give up altogether. I was staring straight up at the stenciled plate on the bottom of a fuel tank when I realized I could just copy that style and make each letter three feet high.

On Painting Rats, and the Glorification of Them. They exist without permission. They are hated, hunted and persecuted. They live in quiet desperation amongst the filth. And yet they are capable of bringing entire civilizations to their knees. If you are dirty, insignificant, and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model.
On Placing Vandalized Oil Paintings in Museums. If you want to survive as a graffiti writer when you go indoors your only option is to carry on painting over things that don’t belong to you there, either. Art is not like other culture because its success is not made by its audience…The Art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit and decide the success of Art…When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.

On “Brandalism.” People abuse you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you then disappear…They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. However, you are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with impunity. Screw that…You owe the companies nothing…They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t ever start asking for theirs.

On Capitalism. We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.
www.Dishmag.com / Issue 115 - November 2017
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