twenty – banksy by will ellsworth-jones
Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones
Review available in ArtGaze magazine December 2012
‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.’ – Banksy.
A bit of a misleading book title; what made you think you were going to meet the real Banksy, see what he looks like, read about his childhood? This book is not shelved in the biography section, and yet it is one of the most interesting unauthorised biographies I have read. Arguably the most recognisable name in graffiti, Banksy appears to have grown up rough in Bristol and early on chose the anonymity for which he is known (or not known). It’s an ironic ploy that has worked for and against him ever since.
Ellsworth-Jones asked, ‘how important is Banksy in the whole urban art world?’ and discovered that Banksy ‘kick-started the market. He’s a household name. Everyone’s grandma knows Banksy.’
This book reveals that everyone’s grandma actually knows Banksy’s art. If you disregard the mystery surrounding him; the interviews in shadow, the disguised voice, the loyalty and closed-shop of his team Pest Control, and the fact that nobody’s saying who Banksy really is, what you have left is the art. The pictures on walls; the stencils, the wry social comment – it all works well with an artist not desperate for his fifteen minutes. Without a preconceived perception of the artist as a man, the art can speak for itself.
I found myself relating to the author while reading. He’s not involved in the art world except for having an artistic appreciation for location-based art. He didn’t meet Banksy, and only owns a knock-off stencil image despite waiting patiently online while others queued overnight. Whatever your knowledge of or interest in Banksy being labelled a street artist, a vandal, a national treasure or a sell-out, you’ll find this the strongest biography of Banksy you’re going to get to read unless his mother writes an exposé of his early years. Does he even have a mother? Yes, there’s a little about her and a revealing incident from Banksy’s pre-teen years, but no happy family photographs. There are few photographs of any of the pieces referred to in the book, but it’s easy enough to go online to find them. Or go on a cross-country trek as the author did using a guide book to find the Banksy image in its natural habitat.
This contextual element of urban art is explored intelligently by the author. Although Banksy graffities on surfaces that he does not own as is the nature of the art, his celebrity drives people to protect his pieces with perspex or have the wall for their own. Meanwhile his contemporaries are fined or jailed and their pieces whitewashed. Contradictory viewpoints are explored with Banksy saying that ‘public reaction is what supplies meaning and value’, and @ashlee arguing that ‘the point of street art is for it to exist in its natural environment. It is by nature temporary.’ Without the urban desolation of its Detroit factory yard environment, does his ‘I remember when all this was trees’ piece have as much impact sitting in a gallery?
Banksy has an uneasy relationship with galleries. After having snuck some detourned paintings into The Tate, he has now exhibited at Bristol’s Gallery and created a high-price market for street art. Banksy squared this with the audience and himself with Pest Control verifications and posting online ‘For the sake of keeping street art where it belongs I’d encourage people not to buy anything by anybody unless it was created for sale in the first place’. When celebrities and millionaires collect Banksy’s ‘for sale’ artwork, both his personal wealth and popularity increase. Banksy may have been feeling a little hypocritical but felt like he had an important message to convey about the absurdity of paying large sums of money for street art taken out of its context. His ‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit’ print may have referenced the 25 million pound sale of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, but it is also confronting (or amusing depending on your viewpoint). A commenter on his website noted this piece was the ultimate ‘portion of irony eating itself’. Whether street art should only be accessible to those who can appreciate it in situ, or however Banksy makes his money, I am grateful to him for opening my heart to street art.
Street art images below by me on instagram