Banksy’s “Elephant,” 2006
A wall mural worth £200,000 came under threat in England recently when municipal workers apparently arrived in a graffiti removal van to get rid of it. Great art mistaken as graffiti? No, just the work of “quality vandal” Banksy, mistaken as great art. It was two years ago when I first became aware of this British graffiti artist and I’ve been following his career ever since. Why? Because he’s passionate, apparently sincere, maybe gifted, and certainly never boring. You’ve got to admire an artist who’s got it in for Paris Hilton. Last August in London several copies of Hilton’s new CD surfaced, apparently altered by this self-described “career graffiti writer.” The doctored version includes a topless image of Hilton, as well as a picture in which she sports the head of a dog. A sticker advertises the album’s “hits”—”Why am I Famous?” “What Have I Done?” and “What Am I For?”
Banksy, who manages to remain anonymous despite his growing renown, combines graffiti with a distinctive stenciling technique. He began his artistic career by scattering stenciled images, often humorous and sometimes overtly political, across British cities, and has moved on to books and gallery shows. Banksy’s first American exhibition opened in Los Angeles last September where Brad Pitt purchased some of Banksy’s creations, along with Angelina Jolie, Jude Law and Keanu Reeves. According to Pitt, “He does all this and he stays anonymous. I think that’s great. These days everyone is trying to be famous. But he has anonymity.” (Banksy hits the big time,The Times On Line, September 20, 2006)
But is it art? According to Banksy, “That word has a lot of negative connotations and it alienates people, so no, I don’t like to use the word ‘art’ at all.” Many years ago, the American pop artist, Andy Warhol, famously said that art is whatever the artist can get away with. And Banksy has certainly gotten away with a lot. Banksy—who prefers to be called not an artist, but a “quality vandal”— has secretly hung artworks in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum. He even snuck into the elephant pen at the London Zoo and scrawled a graffiti message from the point of view of an elephant: “I want out. This place is too cold. Keeper smells. Boring, boring, boring.” Check out Banksy’s works at his website.
Is he important? You tell me. But he does capture the imagination. And one thing is for certain: He’s smart as a fox and laughing all the way to the bank.