Several weeks ago, the Internet exploded with stories about a Banksy piece removed straight from a wall and later found at a Miami auction. As the story unfurled, more and more people from around the world got involved, from Banksy fans to fellow street artists.
The story indicates how, in the last decade, one man who never reveals his face has managed to get as famous as the most recognized celebrities. The controversial antics that have shaped Banksy's persona include: hilarious, sometimes-inappropriate stencil art in London; 2006's “Barely Legal” show in an L.A. warehouse featuring a painted elephant; and his 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, about the street artist Mr. Brainwash, in which Banksy narrates the film but doesn't appear in it.
Now, London-based writer Williams Ellsworth-Jones explores Banksy's rise to fame in Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, an unauthorized biography that doesn't want to figure out who the hell Banksy is but instead how the hell he got so big.
“People enjoy his anonymity. Why spoil the fun?” says Ellsworth-Jones in an interview.
Banksy's badass persona actually influenced the biography; at one point, Ellsworth-Jones brazenly writes, “This is Banksy and none of the usual rules apply.”
“Usually with a biography, what do you do? You interview the mom and dad, the brother and sister, childhood friends,” he says of the process. “Well, I interviewed some friends but not childhood friends… It wasn't the usual type of biography. Banksy doesn't want that side of him written about.”
Ellsworth-Jones quickly discovered that Banksy is “quite an operation.” Banksy's PR department asked for a copy of the manuscript in exchange for an interview; the author didn't want to share his unauthorized biography — so he never spoke with the artist. “I had to start out writing the book on the assumption that he wouldn't talk to me. Otherwise I would have [had] a nervous breakdown,” says Ellsworth-Jones. “I had to persuade friends of his that I was going to do a decent job.”
A few years in the making, Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall also includes quirky details like email exchanges between Ellsworth-Jones and his sources. Readers can follow his process from knowing “very little” about Banksy to appreciating the artist's journey. Although the author personally saw Slave Labor (Bunting Boy), a scene that depicts a boy at work on a sewing machine with two British flags near him — the piece removed from a wall and recently withdrawn from the Miami auction — he didn't know much about the street art world until researching for the book.
As a journalist, Ellsworth-Jones has written for various publications, among them the Sunday Times in the U.K., and previously published a book entitled We Will Not Fight: the Untold Story of the First World War's Conscientious Objectors. Street art was not his area of expertise. He confesses he's not “a worshipper of all graffiti” but that in speaking with certain characters, he realized why some people take to the walls and illegally create.
“I am thankful for Banksy in a way because it [the book] opened me to a world I didn't know,” says Ellsworth-Jones. “He knew where he wanted to be. He wanted to make a big bang and he's done it. And he's done it without the gallery circuit. He's done it by painting on walls, for heaven's sake.”
To Ellsworth-Jones, the most fascinating part about investigating Banksy's trajectory was really just realizing “how determined he was.”
“The biggest surprise to me was that Banksy was not so much a vandal, more an organisation,” says Ellsworth-Jones. “I thought of him originally as a sort of happy go lucky bloke, dodging the cops, putting up his art in the middle of the night and having a lot of fun. Well he might be some of that but he is also much more. He has an agent, a PR, a gallery where he sells work — usually by other artists he has chosen because his work sells so quickly there is none to sell — and a website where he sells his prints on occasions. He makes good money, not Jeff Koons-type money but still good money. And he has had to tread a difficult path between being both a law-breaker and a money maker.”
The author hopes to leave readers with one salient question that would perhaps draw a chuckle from Banksy: “How can you be a rich vandal?”
Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall is now available.