When the notorious British street artist Banksy invades L.A. on September 15, watch out. No, seriously. Watch out. You might just catch one of his altered thrift-store classical paintings hanging in one of the city’s art museums — hung by the artist himself — or one of his sardonic stencils mingling among the vapid billboards and gang graffiti. And you should especially keep your eyes open since the artist wouldn’t want you stepping on any of the precious livestock he might or might not coop up at his “three-day vandalized-warehouse extravaganza,” titled “Barely Legal,” at a location that won’t be revealed until the day of the opening, via his Web site (www.banksy.co.uk). More important, stay vigilant: Already this week, he’s rumored to have placed a Guantanamo Bay prisoner look-alike in the Thunder Mountain ride at Disneyland.
The first thing you may notice about Banksy’s work is that the man has no qualms about dousing the mainstream with a stream of his own. He’s not afraid to call out society’s elitists, aggressors and abusive authority figures, and he regularly uses rats to depict graffiti writers and other youth-culture undesirables, often accompanying them with slogans like “Our time will come.” He has circumvented museum curators by stealthily planting his own work in art and natural-history museums around the world, including the Louvre and the British Museum. Just recently, he smuggled 500 doctored versions of Paris Hilton’s new CD into stores across Britain. The CDs feature Banksy remixes with titles like “Why Am I Famous?” “What Have I Done?” and “What Am I For?”
In 2001, he traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, to paint murals and show his support for the Zapatistas, and in 2005 he visited the West Bank to paint Israel’s separation wall. And he’s dropped into L.A. before, leaving a couple of rats in his wake — on Melrose at Orange Drive. His paintings regularly go for upward of $40,000, with proceeds financing his street work and globetrotting. His identity, for the most part, remains a mystery, but Banksy never finds himself lacking attention.
L.A. WEEKLY:This show isn’t in a traditional gallery. You opted to go out and find a space on your own. Why?
BANKSY: I haven’t come to L.A. to sell you shoes. Setting up a show in the backroom of a clothes store was never an option.
Your openings in the U.K. have been pretty amazing, I’ve heard. What are some things you have done in the past?
I’ve unveiled fake statues, held treasure hunts and had street parties where we dumped painted cars to form roadblocks. I never actually go myself, but apparently we get a good crowd. One time, I walked past the opening of a warehouse we filled with painted live cows and sheep, and I saw a load of local yoots, some famous people in a Mercedes, two pimps shouting, four broadcast units from TV stations, and two Koreans selling food from the back of their car to the people waiting in line to get in. I guess it was what you’d call cosmopolitan.
Last year, I put 200 live brown rats in a shop in one of the most exclusive streets in London. On the opening night, the neighbors showed up with some cops and six different health-and-safety inspectors, but they never managed to shut us down.
So you never show up at your openings?
The last time I did a show, I thought I’d got a four-star review, then I realized they said, “This is absolute ****.”
As a graffiti artist, do you feel compelled to be as nontraditional as possible when stepping into the traditional world of art shows?
I’ve always felt that if you paint graffiti, you’re first and foremost in the entertainment business. You’re in public space, so what’s the point in thinking you only do it to amuse yourself? It’s all about entertainment. It’s about entertaining the crowd while the pickpockets go ’round the back.
Your work is very smart, witty and edgy. Much of it seems to incorporate things you’ve seen and learned from being a graffiti writer for many years. Now your gallery work has become quite collectible the past few years, and has been bought by many famous people and well-known collectors. These people seem to be the opposite of who you were originally spreading your message to on the streets, yet they’ve become some of your biggest supporters.
I will say this: I get support from people I would least expect, and hate from people who I considered to be on my side. When someone buys my work, they know that they’re indirectly funding street damage, and you’d be surprised who’s cool with that.
While you’ve had some great press in the U.S. in the past and done a few shows here and there, this is pretty much the “Banksy has arrived” show. What can we expect? Any surprises?
This show has been quite a big undertaking for me; it represents nearly a month of getting up early in the morning. Some of the paintings have taken literally days to make. Essentially, it’s about what a horrible place the world is, how unjust and cruel and pointless life is, and ways to avoid thinking about all that. One of the best ways turned out to be sitting in a warehouse making 50 paintings about cruelty, pain and pointlessness. You get immune. I painted one picture of a Western family eating a picnic in a village of starving African children called I HATE EATING MY DINNER IN FRONT OF THE NEWS, and got so obsessed with painting each and every fly on those kids’ faces, I never once thought about a starving kid for a second.
I guess the show is about wanting to make the world a better place whilst not wanting to come across like a jerk. Imagine what would happen if we took all the money we spent on weapons and gave it to the poor. Then I’d have to grow my own cocaine; my manicurist would kill me.
The show is titled “Barely Legal.” Will there be dancing girls?
Although it’s called “Barely Legal,” there’s actually very little nudity in the show; it just seemed like a good name to bring in the punters. I mean, porn is a lot more popular than art, right? Someone once said modern art is what happened when people stopped looking at naked women and thought they had a better idea, and I’ve never had a better idea.
For more information, go to www.banksy.co.uk.