Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Review: Banksy: the Man Behind the Wall

Banksy: the Man Behind the Wall
Will Ellsworth-Jones

Banksy, Baby!

In 2012 Will Ellsworth-Jones (formerly of the Sunday Times of London) produced the first full account of the street artist/cult icon known as Banksy. This is irresistibly intriguing and welcome given the fact that the wildly famous Banksy proudly conceals his identity and has not given a face-to-face interview since 2003. Time magazine showcased the most influential people of 2010 (including Banksy, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Lady Gaga, among others). Banksy supplied the magazine with a photograph of himself with a paper bag over his head. Given these conditions the author, in order to research this account, had to rely on interviews with gallery owners, street artists and members of the Pest Control. (Banksy created the agency, Pest Control, to authenticate his works and to serve as his representatives in his commercial pursuits while shielding his own identity.) 

Banksy was born in 1974 and spent his early years in Bristol, England before “invading” and “bombing” London. “Bombing” is argot for painting graffiti in public places. Much of his work, especially his early work, involves stencils.

“As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there. I also liked the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They have been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.”

Banksy’s early work consists almost exclusively of stencils applied to gritty walls in public places in locales including London, Vienna, San Francisco, Barcelona, Paris, Detroit, and even Birmingham, Alabama. The image in Birmingham was a stencil of a Klansman that was promptly removed.

Banksy moved on in his career to paint on canvas and his works began to fetch six figure profits around 2006. Some street artists claim that Banksy has “sold out” and refer to him as a “Champagne Socialist.” (Is this true concern or merely jealousy?) Another point of concern to the politically correct is addressed as Ellsworth-Jones offers a discussion on the ethics of vandalizing public property with graffiti versus the exalted reputation of this artist. While opinions may vary, many of his fans or art lovers in general would love to have an example of his work in their neighborhood regardless of the issues of public defacement. His images, often political or otherwise ironic, are always compelling whether or not they are universally admired. Imagine Winston Churchill sporting a Mohawk or Queen Elizabeth II as a chimpanzee. Consider Claude Monet’s Water Lilies reworked to include trash and shopping carts floating among the lilies or the Mona Lisa plastered with smiley faces.

Banksy once said, “Art comes alive in the arguments you have about it.”

Banksy is often compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Andy Warhol. If you like any of these artists or street art or naïve art, in general; or (obviously) if you are a fan of Banksy, this book is for you.

Once you finish it, be sure to exit through the gift shop. That is to say, also check out Banksy’s Academy Award nominated documentary film titled Exit Through the Gift Shop.

If you cannot afford an original Banksy, take heart. Both the book and film referred to in this post are absolutely free at the Birmingham Public Library.

Enjoy.

Submitted by David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

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