Banksy Revealed? 

The Zorro of street art talks about his new film, Los Angeles and, of course, Mr. Brainwash

Thursday, Apr 8 2010

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"But now I've thought about it. I love that guy — he's prepared to give anything a shot, to try something new. Cities like New York and London might pride themselves on being more hard-bitten and cynical than Tinseltown, but you have to ask yourself: What's actually so great about that?"

In Exit, Shepard Fairey, art-world icon and Echo Park resident, is less generous with regard to Guetta's celebrity. Fairey tells the Weekly, "Mr. Brainwash is all public perception, and that's what gets him off the hook. He couldn't get away with what he does if the public didn't buy into it, and that says a lot about popular culture, new technology and perhaps the art world in general, which is what Banksy's getting at. If it wasn't for Thierry's glorious lack of self-awareness — and his public's for that matter — he wouldn't be where he is today. How can you begrudge him?

"Yet it was an injustice that the only street-art cover story the Weekly ever chose to do was the one on his show. Pop art was never a bad word to me until I saw Thierry's show in L.A. It was then I found the line between what looks cool but has no meaning and a piece that maybe continues a deeper conversation. It's helped me not to make those mistakes in my own work, the cheap shots, ever again. That being said, Thierry's my friend. He's a nice person and a hard worker. Don't be annoyed by him. Make him irrelevant, make something better."

click to flip through (11) ORIGINAL ART FOR L.A. WEEKLY BY BANKSY

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Parallel to the entertaining story line of the unnatural rise of Mr. Brainwash, and notwithstanding its tag, "The World's First Street Art Disaster Movie," Exit is an invaluable celluloid retrospective of Banksy's prolific career, including his greatest hits: iconic rat stencils, the uninvited interjection of paintings into institutional collections, a Guantanamo prisoner placed in a diorama at Disneyland and, of course, the painted elephant that raised so many eyebrows here during his 2006 blockbuster show, "Barely Legal." Despite the auction price for his original work hitting a record high of more than $1.8 million in 2008 (for a charity collaboration with Damien Hirst titled "Keep It Spotless"), Banksy may still wrestle with some of the same "is it art?" questions that a personality like Mr. Brainwash faces. But he remains unconcerned.

"I'm not so interested in convincing people in the art world that what I do is 'art,' " Banksy says. "I'm more bothered about convincing people in the graffiti community that what I do is really vandalism."

Now that he can add filmmaking to his repertoire, Banksy is modest yet proud of his celluloid accomplishment. "I think the film is unique. Every decent counterculture gets turned into a commodity and served back over the counter. This film shows that process unfolding in real time, told in the words of someone partly responsible for screwing it up in the first place."

Despite the veil of mandatory secrecy that surrounds Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop enjoyed hugely successful, albeit last-minute screenings at both Sundance and the Berlinale. Audiences hoping to finally catch a glimpse of the artist on the red carpet were treated only to a seat in the theaters, some new art (on the streets of Telluride, since preserved with Plexiglas) and, in Berlin, a video comment by the director shrouded in a black hoodie, as he appears in the film. What's in store for L.A.?

"Normally I like to take over a run-down warehouse and do something on my own terms," Banksy says, "but the plan for the American premiere is to surprise everyone by not doing anything very surprising. Controversially, I'll be screening the film in a movie theater with proper seats and a popcorn stall. I've found that asking people to sit in the dark for 90 minutes on salvaged old couches that smell of pee can be a bit too 'authentic.' The one thing you have going for you when you paint graffiti is complete control over the means of distribution. With a film, you have none. Movie theaters are very conservative institutions, but they're a hard thing to bypass when you've made a feature film."

Why is it still important to remain anonymous at this point?

"Charlie Chaplin used to say, 'Once I talk, I'm like any other comic.' I figure I'd follow this lead. I walk like him anyway."

Exit Through the Gift Shop is an extraordinary, tongue-in-cheek glimpse at an art culture, an anomalous love letter to Los Angeles (a city with "heat, beautiful teeth and fresh food, everything we English hate," says Banksy), and the compelling journey of an enigmatic artist — maybe two. Is the film to be viewed as a straight documentary? Or is it, as many believe, some kind of elaborate joke?

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