The Contradiction of Contradiction: A Conversation with Banksy

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“The thing I hate most about advertising is that it attracts all the young, bright, creative people, leaving us with only the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”

– Banksy

For those who don’t know Banksy’s work, he is a graffiti artist, and so much more. He is an anti-hero, the working class’s comic messenger. His images are a response to one-sided conversations, screaming back at the forces he feels scream at us. His aim is to offer free art to the every-man, or, at the very least, bring a smile to the downtrodden middle-class commuters, those who work in an office box, shuffling papers, who go home to microwave dinners and bad TV crime dramas, sleep alone and repeat the process.  For them, he traipses on bridge ledges and city rooftops at night, giving them a voice of dissent and making them laugh at the same time. Yet, as Banksy’s images have grown famous, the subject of his work can be seen as a topic of potential contradiction. When Angelina Jolie drops close to half a million on your art show’s opening night in an obscure Los Angeles warehouse, and in London you’re represented at Sotheby’s auction house at their Contemporary Evening Sale (the Holy Grail for a living artist), how does someone whose reputation was built on being a street urchin graffiti artist maintain integrity?

In April 2009, I was fortunate enough to have a brief telephone conversation with Banksy. A friend of mine who runs a New York and Los Angeles gallery dubbed in the press as “alternative” put me through to him. Banksy would speak to me only on the condition that the call go through the gallery. Even though I trusted my friend, I was dubious that I would get the real Banksy. In the past, English weeklies like NME (New Music Express, a paper showcasing contemporary Britpop) or glossy magazines like The Face have had two hour interviews with someone claiming to be the elusive street artist allegedly from Bristol, only to eventually discover they were actually talking to Q-Bert from Leeds or the tagger Spilly from Liverpool. I was pretty sure I got the right guy, though, when during the three-way conversation my gallery friend accidentally referred to Banksy by his birth name and Banksy became severely irate. “You fookin’ ping-pong piddly tosser!” he said. “Think man, Think! Use yer fookin’ melon!”

I asked Banksy what he thought about his work being bought up en masse by the likes of Brad Pitt, and after a pause he said, “Nahh, it’s alright, I liked Fight Club.” And said he had no problem with sales to celebrities, as they generally can afford premium sums, and that gets him back on the road. Banksy is not building a nest egg per se to get a big country house; the lion’s share of his earnings from original paintings, prints, and stencil works go to his true passion: creating outdoor street art. Money allows him to travel to cultural hot spots that he feels could use a visual face-lift, such as post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans, the Barcelona Zoo, or the segregation wall separating Palestine from Israel.

Banksy says his greatest fear was being picked up by Iraqi-born advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Mr. Saatchi formed an advertising firm that was the largest in the world for over a decade, and has built up a massive collection of modern and contemporary British art. Banksy referred to him as a sham of a collector who pretends to benefit young British artists (dubbed ‘YBA’s), and is nothing more than a “moneyed twat.” The root of his loathing is the fact Saatchi is an incredibly successful advertiser. Banksy feels the real visual poison, the true defacement of urban areas or neighborhoods is not executed by graffiti artists, rather large corporations that thrust their products upon you unsolicited, via billboards, television, etc. That these are one-way conversations where organizations use media to make the average public viewer feel insignificant without possessing their products, feeding on feelings such as the smugness an Escalade owner gets at a red light looking to the Ford Focus in the next lane.

At the same time, he feels that art galleries and museums are no different. He dubs modern art “a disaster area.” In the art world there are essentially two schools of thought about representational works: that presenting an image realistically is a talented shortcut to thinking, or that abstract art is for those who can’t draw. There’s also the separation of high and low art; graffiti versus oil painting, for example, and very few have crossed the barriers. Banksy, however, is one of those few. Still, he believes that contemporary art galleries distance themselves from the everyday “ill-arterate” viewer, and that there is a feeling when you come off the street into a gallery with a quaffed model-ish receptionist, if you’re to be at all a somebody, you had better understand the current jargon that goeas along with what you’re looking at, and he is disgusted with this notion. In the 2005 collection of his work Wall and Piece, Banksy writes:

Art is not like other culture because its success is not made by its audience. The public fill concert halls and cinemas every day, we read novels by the millions and buy records by the billions. We the people, affect the making and the quality of most of our culture, but not our art.

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. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.

So in March of 2005, Banksy entered the museum world—literally. Disguised in beard and hat, he hung his own parodied works in four New York museums as surreptitiously as he would paint a bridge. Often in museum-appropriate gilded frames, his exquisitely altered pieces lasted in public view for various amounts of time ranging from 2 hours to twelve days. One piece, a faux primitive drawing on stone accompanied by a didactic panel noting its origins from the “Post-Catatonic Era” is now in the permanent collection of the British Museum in London.

His anonymity could be considered a Robin Hood sensibility; while it makes perfect sense to remain veritably unknown for legal reasons, it adds to the romanticism surrounding this person known as Banksy. I mused about this, wondering what, with his success and skyrocketing fame, an officer of the law would do today seeing Banksy putting up a piece in the middle of the night. Would he make the arrest and expose a national icon? Move on for the sake of the arts? Or keep moving and come back at dawn with a chisel, and sell the piece at auction? In one case, in February of 2007, the owners of a house in Bristol with a Banksy mural on an outside wall refused an offer because the potential buyers might remove the mural. The owners withdrew the original sale description and changed the market listing to “A Banksy mural with a house attached to it.”

Debating whether Banksy would be charged today as a criminal if revealed to the general public, I asked an obvious question: Had he ever been arrested? “Yes,” he said. “Multiple times.” Apparently, in the early 1990’s, he used to be the bane of Bristol. Beyond being wanted by the local Constable, he was on file with Scotland Yard, an acknowledgment not generally given to street artists. But now that he’s reached financial success, he said, spotters can help him elude police, whereas in the early days when he was alone or with just a few friends, he would have to use creative methods of not being identified as Banksy if he was caught by the police. Since he was equated with a certain style of stencil works on walls, he would have an alternate backpack stashed away from where he was working that he could switch in a foot pursuit. This second backpack would be filled with stencils that looked like they were cut out by “an alcoholic with Down’s syndrome.” So if he were taken to the police station with his materials from the second pack, he’d be booked as a pathetic kid, a wannabe of his notorious pseudonym.

I asked if he was ever planning on revealing himself. “No,” he said. “Absolutely not. Never if I can help it.” I went on to say that was mighty virtuous of him to stay away from the limelight. He said virtue had little to do with it, he knows a lot of street artists look up to him, and he’d “hate for them to find out he was just a scrawny guy with shitty teeth.” I told him a sociology professor of mine told me the most important thing a citizen can do is to participate in their society, and asked him if he thought that was what he was doing. He said, “Yeah, I participate in society, I just happen to do it in dark clothing at 3:30 in the morning.” Opinion seems genuinely irrelevant to him as he is, like all great artists, primarily concerned with the process over the outcome of his work. The planning to climb through a drain pipe or along a thin bridge ledge above a highway is as much a part of the work as the finished image. That his work is now embraced by the celebrity class and the self-important high art world, as well as the middle-class everybodies, has more to do with faulty assertions that art should fall into current fad-like definitions than it does any ideological contradiction. On his reputation, Banksy has been quoted as saying, “People either love me or they hate me, or they don’t really care.” And, really, isn’t that the sum of any passionate endeavor?

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Edited by our own Paul Madonna.


Billy Bliss worked at Bonhams and Butterfields selling paintings and books and has taught art history at Lake Tahoe College, the University of Montana, through the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the University of Iowa, where he is currently pursuing a PhD in art history. More from this author →