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May 21, 2008

South Banksy: A S H Smyth on "urban art"

Posted by A S H Smyth

A S H Smyth is lost for something to do on a May Bank Holiday and ponders on whether Bansky is a good thing.

Going to see a graffiti exhibition by Banksy (et al.) at Waterloo seemed as good a way as any to waste part of the Bank Holiday weekend while getting the taxman to cover my return ticket to London. So I pitched up at the Cans Festival - you see what they did there… - to find myself confronted by about half a million other folk who also either a). had nothing much to do, or b). are self-employed writers with a half-formed understanding of their tax obligations.

Anyway, I had no interest in standing in a queue in order, eventually, to find myself crammed into a piss-smelling tunnel on a hot day, so I went to the pub instead (so much for the tax write-off). Thanks to the wonders of the internet, though - namely, a couple of friends' Facebook photo albums, and pictures on the BBC - my absence from the event doesn't preclude discussion.

Specifically the Cans Festival was a stencilling exhibition: though public participation was encouraged, there was absolutely not an open invitation to any old railway vandal to turn up and "tag" the wall. And so, in amongst all the usual semi-political slogans and weird alien creatures, there was some reasonable stuff:

- A complicated cityscape that looked like it might have been Stanley Donwood (Radiohead's illustrator) trying out new things.

- A "page" from a comic, with a graffiti artist in the process of writing Fuck The Police when a copper shows up: title – It's Always Worth Running.

- An image of a woman's face replete with a sign reading Warning: Tampering With This Faculty Is A Federal Offense! (this inversion of security/authority signs is a regular feature).

- A stencil of Carol Vorderman beside a rack of letters which read Hey Banksy Why Don't You Return My Emails

All good enough for any disused tunnel, and indicative of the higher reaches of graffiti-artist humour, with self-reference and self-deprecation ever to the fore.

For what it’s worth, there was a fair scattering of the stencils left around, too: it's hardly the same as having a great poet's notebooks, but it's something (I wouldn't say no to seeing Da Vinci's brushes). And there were lots of folks taking photos, of course - an enjoyably paradoxical comment on the principle of urban art being ephemeral.

I couldn't tell you who the other 29 named artists were, and frankly it doesn't matter. It was the prospect of some fresh Banksys that had brought the crowds. And, I suspect, a curiosity about what he was doing in a legitimate (or legitimised) exhibition, under the auspices of the Borough of Lambeth.

Banksy, though, seemed to have anticipated this particular query. One of his more prominent offerings depicted an orange-gileted council worker vacuuming away a cave painting…

Artistically speaking, Banksy is fine by me
In 2005, Time referred to street art as "ingenious", and Esquire called Banksy "the next Andy Warhol". (Presumably they meant this as a compliment.)

Street art certainly can be ingenious - or at least quite witty. The other week's Times Books section included the revelation that someone has sprayed 486-28495-6 onto the Humber Bay Arch bridge in Toronto - which turns out to be part of the ISBN for an edition of Thoreau's Walden. Alright, it's not Oscar Wilde (it's not even Thoreau); but it's several levels above whichever A-grade intellectual has been scrawling "dirty cunts" on the railway arches outside Battersea.

Amongst other things, Banksy can't spell "wizened", "millennium" or indeed "graffiti" with any reliability. The second of these, admittedly, doesn't exactly distinguish him from the other 999 anums in every thousand.

But his work is precise, clever, and full of good humour, especially when it comes to art and artists. He has a good innate sense of the established ludicrous, and a healthy disrespect for corporations and the advertising industry, and for encroaching Big Brother culture - as in CCTV, not crap telly; though probably that, too - as well as its inevitable offshoot, hysteria culture (one of his best stencils is of a flasher confronting a child. Behind the child's back is a sickle…)

It's not really politics, though
Certainly Banksy's art is rooted in social observation, but mostly it's just amusing. Which certainly adds to the artistic appeal, but rather detracts from the notion that his is some kind of social crusade.

Bo-Peep levers coins out of a pay-phone with her crook. A cash machine reaches out and grabs a small girl. A collection of grey-haired chaps hang out with their Zimmers and a stereo. Rats breaks into Jamie Oliver's restaurant in Shoreditch. Kids stand patriotically by a flag pole as a TESCO carrier bag is run up.

And then there are the references to graffiti and its practitioners. A small child paints "Take This - Society!" in orange wonky letters. A graffiti artist sits guiltily by as the double yellow lines from the gutter run up the wall of a house and form a huge flower.

And a kid on a ladder, painting One Nation Under CCTV while a security guard (with dog) takes a picture with his phone-camera (this last taking place right under a set of CCTV cameras: real ones).

Good or bad, Banksy encourages graffiti
Banksy calls graffiti "the voice of people who aren't listened to". Except that he is listened to - or at least looked at. So while he can't be blamed for graffiti per se, he is, as it were, the market leader: what is true of Banksy will inevitably (sooner or later) be true of other graffiti artists. Where he goes, others follow. Not least when he puts up one of his Designated Graffiti Area stencils.

Banksy's work is so ubiquitous now that there's even a guidebook to get you round London. And the almost universal toleration of this is, obviously, encouraging other graffiti artists. Hell, flicking through his Wall and Piece I found myself wondering what I could achieve with a spray-can. (Incidentally, the ISBN of that book is 1-8441-3787-2. I'm just saying, there's scope here for an amusing in-joke…)

What's more, Banksy knows his success is encouraging others. Wall and Piece contains a legal disclaimer:

This book contains the creative/artistic element of graffiti art and is not meant to encourage or induce graffiti where it is illegal or inappropriate.
But it also contains an "advice on painting with stencils" section (NB: "crime against property is not a crime"), and pages charting the day-by-day effect of the Designated Graffiti Area signs.

Banksy's wit isn't always synonymous with light-heartedness:

Graffiti is only dangerous in the minds of three types of people: politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers.
He really does appear to believe that we're all entitled to brighten up our cityscapes with what, in 99% of cases, will turn out to be naff slogans and monochrome irrelevances. His advocacy of renegade public art is like the Loose Women telling fat girls to be proud of their bodies: terribly emancipating for the individual, no doubt, but it's the rest of us who suffer the consequences.

In The Pirate's Dilemma, Matt Mason argues that:

today's Banksy stencils… work within the urban environment, not against it.
Artistically, that may be true; legally, though, it isn't. Graffiti, street art, urban art - whatever you want to call it - is, obviously, just vandalism by another name.

Brandalism
Many of Banksy's fellow graffiti artists are now regularly employed (in a, like, totally Bohemian and un-institutionalised way, of course) by advertising agencies. With whom, Mason reminds us, they share origins in the brothel signs of Pompeii and other ancient daubs.

Normally these guys work their urban art skills into traditional ad-campaigns. But IBM and Sony (totally chilled international mega-corporations, mind; in no way like working for The Man) both took this a step further by employing graffiti artists to promote them at, literally, street level. This is clever advertising, but also illegal, and IBM and Sony were rightly censured for their sub-contracted acts of vandalism.

Mason argues that advertising and graffiti are basically the same thing, but I don't see it. And neither does Banksy:

Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It belongs to you. It's yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.
This is his spiel on "brandalism", and basically I agree. Knowingly tuning in to commercial TV channels is one thing; having the moon turned into a Burger King advert quite another. In the freshly re-papered hiatus between adverts, Banksy scrawled on one billboard "The Joy Of Not Being Sold Anything". I like that.

But if he thinks that advertising defiles public space, then what about his own work? Now that his stuff is being auctioned at Bonham's, for a couple of hundred grand a throw, doesn't his own graffiti constitute a form of advertising, too?

Inexorably, we come to the grubby issue of money.

"Copyright is for losers©™"
It's not just the detail of Banksy's work (or its canvas) but also the principle which is supposed to be anti-establishment. This is a pretty difficult message to put over while auctioning your stuff to Angelina Jolie.

A few years back System of a Down released a record called Please Steal This Album. Though I do not have access to HMV security tapes at this time, I think we can safely assume that they'd have changed their tune - if only! - and their title if profits had actually dipped as a result of shoplifting.

The boring details page of Wall and Piece, likewise, tells you that copyright is for losers, and then promptly notes that "against his better judgement Banksy has asserted his right" blah blah blah Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Which I think more or less wraps up the debate about the ownership issue in "anarchic" art.

While many Banksy pieces have been sold by the people on whose walls he generously stencilled, many more have been sold by the artist himself, through galleries, auctions and bookshops. Banksy has become established, and wealthy… the dirty, secret dream of all rebels.

Speaking of copyright…
Despite the fact that some smart chap sold the Banksified wall of his office for £200,000+ on eBay (cost of removal and making good the wall not incl.), get this: if your local vandal does over your garage door, you can probably have him arrested; but you can't, with any certainty, rip the door out and burn it. Nor can you sell it as is, or paint over it, or remake it in the Tate Modern with any of the panels missing. If you do, you're infringing the little tosser's copyright and his moral rights as author of the work. (Sometimes, the law really is an ass.)

Needless to say, this has never been tested… and it would take an artist with serious balls to attempt to establish precedent. I have no doubt, though, that Banksy is smart (and ballsy) enough to recognise the publicity value of trying such a case.

What's worse, vandalism, destruction of property, and so on, all rely on the assumption that one's possessions have been devalued by the kid with the spray-can. But Banksy is now so famous that his doodle on your garden wall without question actually adds value - albeit not value you are strictly entitled to cash in: see above. Which makes it difficult to classify as vandalism in the strictest sense. (You have to wonder what the Vandals would have made of the conundrum.)

Alas, Banksy is not unaware of this. On one occasion he received an e-mail from someone in Hackney, complaining that his graffiti were

undoubtedly part of what makes these [yuppie] wankers think our area is cool…. After you've driven up the house prices you'll probably just move on. Do us all a favour and go do you stuff somewhere else, like Brixton.
Vandalism driving up house prices: every estate agent's dream.

Not every target of his attentions objects quite so vociferously, though. When he painted his name on the side of a floating night club in Bristol, the harbour master dutifully painted over it and was rewarded for his efforts by the club owner threatening to sue. Banksy tacitly compensated the club owner with a fresh stencil, of Death in a row-boat…

in the hope that I could lure the harbour master out for a full custodial sentence this time.
The writing is (going to be) on the wall
In Brighton there is a stencil of two coppers kissing, next to one of George Best in the legendary No.7 Man. Utd. shirt. The two coppers has/have been perspexed over… by the council. Apparently this was in response to two middle-aged men who were caught trying to whitewash the image. They were arrested.

George Best, meanwhile, has not been protected. Hm. I make no judgements about Brighton; but there's more than one double standard operating here, surely?

In another example, however, a local authority painted over Banksy's "portrait of the artist as a knob", but only over the knob part, and only after complaints about it. Ditto the images of Queen Victoria sitting on a hooker's face:

these got cleaned off really quickly... [and then, with evident delight] all except one on the roller shutter of a gift shop. This meant you could only see it after nine o'clock at night, when they shut. A watershed which the boss enforced more strictly than any TV executive.
The reality is that councils have been unable to decide what to do about Banksy. They seem engaged in some kind of quality-control or vetting process, but without having given any thought to the criteria, thereby giving the impression that they don't really mind graffiti as long as it's relatively competent and not too rude.

In the pseudo-notes to the painted chunk of masonry he wangled into the British Museum (an act rewarded with a place in their permanent collection), Banksy writes:

Most art of this type has unfortunately not survived. The majority is destroyed by zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of daubing on walls.
This is overstating the case. In most places, it seems, the municipal officials have no fixed view of "daubing on walls" (as least in Banksy's case) and many are just worried about looking out of touch with their own citizens. Being the councillor who ordered the whitewashing of ten grand's worth of contemporary art is, presumably, on a par with being the Scouse publican who threw the ("savage young") Beatles out of his bar.

In 2006, a piece Banksy did in Bristol - of a woman's naked lover hanging from a window ledge while the woman and her husband stand talking by the window - got 97% support from locals in a council poll. Question is, of course: why were the locals being polled? (Can we be polled on whether we want traffic wardens, too?). In Liverpool a big Banksy mural was actually declared protected as a Capital of Culture attraction. (The council has a project on to cover eyesore buildings with "artwork".) The "story" only broke when the image was partially obscured.

This confusion peaks in the trendy areas, too. Tower Hamlets emphatically said they'd paint over any graffiti, Banksy included. But Islington have instituted a blanket exemption for Banksy pieces. And - how's this for irony? - their council workers have repaired one of Banksy's works five times "after targeting by vandals".

The blurb on the back cover of Wall and Piece reads:

"There's no way you're going to get a quote from us to use on your book cover."
Metropolitan Police spokesperson
You have to feel a little sorry for the Met. Oddly enough, they view graffiti as an issue of law and order, and see no reason why they should help the world’s most famous perpetrator profit by his deeds. In the circs, it is hard to see how the Cans Festival is helping.

The authorities, of course, are on a hiding to nothing. The more they protest, the more "rebel" cachet is granted to the work of Banksy and others like him. But it was Banksy, after all, who sprayed a 10-foot BORING on the side of the National Theatre (not the subtlest review, though there's often some truth in it: perhaps he could do a temporary instalment?). So what the hell is Lambeth council doing, allowing him to host a show not 500 yards away? It basically says "Thank you for defacing public property: please come again".

Perhaps they see legitimising the practice as a way to draw the fangs of graffiti artists. Somehow, though, that's not the message I see being carried away by the 10-year-old with the spray-can, who signs himself Lil' Vandal.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa. He is writing a book about the Danish cartoon controversy.


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This is a really great article, the first decent evaluation piece on Banksy i have read in fact. Not going for the fawning wank nor the contrived controversiality of denouncing or 'exposing' the man.

Fawning over him is actually fine though in my book - he is the nation's favourite artist and for the first time (to my knowledge) this title falls to a person whose work people genuinely like and understand. My age and younger has a designated 'artist' in the public eye who makes 'art' which we actually fucking get! Not only do we like to look at it but we think about it and then we see what the artist meant. We like this, its very satisfying, and furthermore he got into the public eye by sneaking up and putting his art in front of it - no medium involved. I can remember before even his first books came out 'collecting' Banksys in my head as i travelled about my city, noting where they were and looking out for new ones, then swapping notes with mates. People on buses would actually shout 'banksy!' when they saw one and everyone would peer eagerly, like turning to the cartoon strip first when you open your paper.

With reference to Banksy being the current Warhol or not, bollocks. Pop Art? Pop? Art? Popular with WHO for WHAT REASONS and most importantly can anyone without a degree or a book on the fucking subject tell me what any of it meant? Banksy micturates from a vast height on that era and all artificially popular art. Bringing my vitriol up to date, what made the YBA 'popular'? People writing blogs, collecting photo's and buying books about Damien Hirst's amateur taxidermy or Tracey Emins frightening claim to have actually had sex? No. They were popular because some rich tory cunt decide they were, and laid them on in his gallery. And we, the plebs, and even the art critics are also plebs in this situation, wandered in gormlessly to viddy the crap cos Saatchi said it was worth millions, so it must have been good.

To defend Bansky to the current charge that he now charges currency - i'll say yes he does - but in a totally different scenario. Banksys are like an early copy of the Beano or a vintage trainer - worth money because normal people have decide for themselves that they want them. Of course normal people can't fork out £10000+ to own one, but that applies to the other examples too. At no point has any self annointed junta of critics or rich people decided old comics and trainers are valuable, and like Banksy, they wrote such things off at their time of production. And Banksy's recent exhibitions have been free, just like his other exhibitions on the walls outside the galleries. Interestingly, the fact he is selling his canvases for millions does not actually exclude people on normal incomes, who can buy prints of his on the net for less than £30 on the affordable art projects he does exclusive work for like Pictures on Walls, or pirate ones bought on the street. This is just a case of enterprising printers taking snaps of his walls and selling the result, something that no artist exhibited in galleries would be faced with - and again, its only worth the printers while BECAUSE IT IS POPULAR.

And herein lies the final and most important point about Banksy. Whether they saw him in a book, in a gallery of whatever kind, on the net or indeed, on a wall - an incredible number of people liked what they saw. They weren't buying into a rebel yell, they weren't trying to be edgy and political, and they don't feel betrayed by the fact he is the UK's number one artist and makes a packet out of it - they put him there after all. Because purely on the first-sight basis, they liked the art. They liked what the image said, or they liked the way it looked, or in most cases both. The debate on graffiti be fucked and so too to the politics. This is the story of an artist who made us smile inside and think about a concept of art that included us in it, who gained our attention by taking the time to ask for it in an honest manner. And we appreciate that.

Posted by: Tacks at August 23, 2008 06:23 PM
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