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Street Art

Village Voice Exclusive: An Interview With Banksy, Street Art Cult Hero, International Man of Mystery

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Thu, Oct 10, 2013 at 5:00 AM

[Our friends at the Village Voice landed an exclusive interview with elusive street artist Banksy, who despite rumors of a show in L.A., has taken up residency in New York. Here's what went down.]

"Confidential."

That was the beguiling subject of an e-mail seemingly randomly addressed to the Village Voice in mid-September.

"I represent the artist Banksy," the message began, "and I would like to talk to you at your earliest convenience." The name and phone number of a British publicist followed. There were no further details or explanation. It was mysterious and intriguing. The secretive graffiti artist had been silent since last year, when his distinctive stencils appeared in London during the Olympics. Because Banksy rarely grants interviews, the cryptic message also felt like the prelude to an elaborate practical joke.

click to enlarge All I Ever Wanted Was a Shoulder to Crayon (midtown Manhattan, October 3, 2013) - COURTESY INSTAGRAM.COM/BANKSYNY
  • Courtesy instagram.com/banksyny
  • All I Ever Wanted Was a Shoulder to Crayon (midtown Manhattan, October 3, 2013)
A few minutes of sleuthing confirmed the identity of the publicist, Jo Brooks, who represents several British artists (not to mention Fatboy Slim), and turned up evidence of her professional relationship with the elusive stencil master. A subsequent message from Brooks revealed more: a draft of a press release announcing that Banksy was on the verge of unveiling an audacious new project: The artist intended to create one new piece on the streets of New York each day in October, a "unique kind of art show" titled "Better Out Than In." Billed with the tagline "an artists [sic] residency on the streets of New York," the show was to include "elaborate graffiti, large scale street sculpture, video installations, and substandard performance art."

Brooks promised the Voice an exclusive interview with Banksy, who "feels an affinity with people who provide quality content for free on street corners."

But, as others have found over the nearly two decades since Banksy's aerosol first decorated urban landscapes from Britain to the West Bank, New York, and Los Angeles, communicating with the undercover art icon is no simple feat. Through Brooks, he declined requests to speak on the phone or via Skype, presumably on the grounds that anything approaching direct contact risks blowing his meticulously maintained cover. (For the unacquainted, Banksy's real name has never been confirmed, despite his pop culture stardom; he has said previously that the illegal nature of graffiti demands secrecy and likened unmasking himself to leaving "a signed confession" for his art crimes.) The publicist requested a list of questions to ask Banksy via e-mail—with the caveat that her client would likely ignore several topics entirely.

Several days later, Banksy's website was scrubbed and replaced with a teaser for "Better Out Than In": a stenciled image depicting a graffiti tagger placed to look like the he's vomiting a torrent of pink flowers and green foliage sprouting from between two concrete walls. (The title itself is a British colloquialism, a "Gesundheit"-like response to an audible eructation.) When the image began making the rounds on street art forums, commenters pointed out that the silhouette looked similar to an image in the music video for the song "Yonkers" by Tyler, The Creator, leader of the Los Angeles–based hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.

Ignoring the New York reference, Banksyphiles assumed the piece was somewhere in Los Angeles (its actual location has yet to be disclosed) and speculated that Banksy was plotting a sequel to his 2006 exhibit at an L.A. warehouse, in which he famously displayed a live elephant painted to look like pink wallpaper.

Then, on October 1, just as the publicist foretold, Banksy debuted his first work on the streets of New York: a stencil on a building in Chinatown, titled prophetically The Street Is in Play. The work shows two old-fashioned paperboys in overalls and flat caps reaching for a can of spray paint contained in a "Graffiti Is a Crime " warning sign that had previously been affixed to the wall.

The sign was promptly stolen and the piece painted over—defaced, then erased in less than 24 hours.

How does Banksy feel about his work disappearing almost instantly? Who owns the pieces from "Better Out Than In" once they're on the street? Does the artist stand to profit from his New York "residency"? The Voice asked those questions and many more in a series of e-mails relayed through Brooks. After more than a week of silence, he wrote back, ignoring (as Brooks predicted) many of the questions we'd posed, including the one that asked, "How do we know this is really Banksy responding to these questions and not some Nigerian prince or a teenage hacker in the Syrian Electronic Army?"

On other topics, he was more forthcoming. In answer to our inquiry about his vision for "Better Out Than In," and how and why the project was conceived, he writes, "There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There's no gallery show or book or film. It's pointless. Which hopefully means something."

Asked what he has been doing since his Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, was released in 2010, Banksy says he has "been learning to make big sculptures out of clay—partly because it's a challenge and partly because after a year in an editing studio I wanted to do something standing up."

Banksy says he visited New York "a couple of months ago" to scout locations for the October show, but he "returned to find most of the empty lots I planned to use have got condos built on them already." He is now living in the city—not surprisingly, he won't reveal where he's holed up or how long he plans to stay—and he hints at a lack of a formal plan for when and where new pieces will be installed this month.

"The plan is to live here, react to things, see the sights—and paint on them," he writes. "Some of it will be pretty elaborate, and some will just be a scrawl on a toilet wall."

Early pieces were scattered across Lower Manhattan. Following The Street Is in Play, he scrawled a squiggly white tag on a steel shutter door in Chelsea that read, "This is my New York accent," with the words ". . . Normally I write like this" underneath in plainer text. On October 3 in midtown, he stenciled a dog pissing on a fire hydrant, the latter emitting a thought balloon reading, "You complete me . . ." The following day saw a triptych of sorts: existing tags in Brooklyn that read "Playground Mob," "Occupy," and "Dirty Underwear," to which Banksy added the identical script-stenciled tagline "The Musical."

The Chelsea piece was defaced within hours, and the hydrant stencil painted over with a small silver tag. "Occupy" didn't eclipse the 90-minute mark before it was eclipsed.

Conspiracy theorists have speculated that Banksy himself is intentionally spoiling the pieces after the fact. The artist flatly dismisses the rumor. "I'm not defacing my own pictures, no," he says. "I used to think other graffiti writers hated me because I used stencils, but they just hate me."

See also: Banksy Revealed?

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