People love him—or loathe him. One British critic sneered that his street art “looks dazzlingly clever to idiots.” Ouch! In some locations around Britain—towns Banksy has targeted regularly—public-safety officials consider him a vandal whose work should be stopped for the public good.
TODAY, we’re honoring the Robin Hood of street art—a.k.a. Banksy—on the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop on Blu-ray, the documentary about street artists that earned Banksy an Oscar nomination. Of course, he didn’t win the Oscar, but Justin Timberlake did joke about Banksy during the live broadcast, claiming that he is the mysterious artist. It’s safe to say that millions of Banksy fans were watching to see if the graffiti artist might somehow splash a bit of his satire onto our TV screens. Other than the Timberlake joke, however, Banksy was absent from the theater.
Banksy did travel to Los Angeles and he did, indeed, “paint the town” in the days leading up to the Oscar telecast. Unfortunately, his plan to protect his identity by wearing a gorilla mask with his tuxedo was nixed by Oscar producers. Bruce Davis, executive director of the program, told journalists that Banksy’s idea made it far too easy for imposters to try to crash the telecast. “The fun but disquieting scenario is that if the film wins and five guys in monkey masks come to the stage all saying, ‘I’m Banksy,’ who the hell do we give it to?” Davis said.
Since the Oscar broadcast, further speculation has poured across the Internet about Banksy’s identity. Some people claim they’ve snapped his photograph recently; others scoff at that idea. We do know that he’s from Bristol, England, was born around 1974 and apparently did not grow up in poverty, according to most reports. He had a flair for art, but he regularly jokes in public statements that his artistic technique is rudimentary. Of course, he also points out that he has to complete his artworks before police can nab him, so mostly he spray paints through carefully cut stencils—or installs pre-printed images. Because of his years of hide-and-seek, Banksy has the distinction of amassing one of the world’s most bizarre archives of news coverage, including stories that talk about his “alleged parents” and news reports that tend to steer clear of accepting anything about the artist as fact.
Why should we care about Banksy?
One truth seems solid: Banksy is furious with divisions that artificially separate people. In 2005, according to the Guardian newspaper, he risked arrest in the West Bank. He even risked Israeli guns pointed in his direction more than once—so that he could complete his campaign to draw attention to the concrete wall that now separates Palestinians from Israel.
Google up images of that infamous wall, to this day, and you’re likely to see some of Banksy’s nine works, which he applied to the wall with paint, stencils and some pre-printed images. The Guardian called the images “surreal” and “poignant.” According to the Guardian: “One of the pictures shows two gleeful children with bucket and spade standing beneath a hole in the wall that opens on to a vista of a tropical paradise. In another, he has transformed the wall into a cosy sitting room complete with two enormous armchairs and a window that frames an alpine landscape. Other pictures show a little boy kneeling at the foot of a rope ladder that snakes to the top of the wall and the silhouette of a girl rising through the air clutching balloons.”
Beyond that crowning social commentary in the Middle East, Banksy’s images continue to blow holes in what passes for social conventions and especially what passes for government authority.
THE MOVIE: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
Even this documentary is not what you’d expect—whatever that might be with such a trickster behind the project. Banksy does appear in the film—concealed under a hooded sweatshirt and with his voice manipulated like a government witness against organized crime. But, most of the movie is about other street artists. In fact, most of the movie was produced by a would-be street artist who eventually turned over a vast quantity of video cassettes to Banksy. From those boxes and boxes of hand-held video tapes, Banksy fashioned this documentary.
The documentary is a lot of fun—it earned an Oscar nomination, after all—and we hope you’ll consider ordering either Exit Through the Gift Shop on Blu-ray or the less-expensive Exit Through the Gift Shop on DVD. The photo at top today shows everything you get in the unusual package that comes with the movie disk—well, not the spray can of Kilz-white out. We added that to our photo, because—if you have young people in your home—you may need it after they get a taste of Banksy.
WANT MORE BANKSY NOW?
BANKSY’S HOME ONLINE: Based in the UK, Banksy’s website opens with a black-and-white spash of paint. Then, you can explore both outdoor and indoor images from his recent work. The outdoor images include some of the “paint the town” campaign in Los Angeles before the Oscars. You’ll find a gift shop on his website but, in true Banksy fashion, the instructions say: “You’re welcome to download whatever you wish from this site.”
BANKSY on ART of the STATE: Banksy’s own website is pretty much a friendly showcase laid out by Banksy’s team for the convenience of online tourists. If you’re getting hooked on this guy’s work, then you may want to dig into the bigger (and slower on some Internet connections) Banksy on Art of the State, which is packed with images of his work in the UK. The folks who have amassed that website also have another special website collecting blog posts updating Banksy news items—and those blog archives go back to 2003, so it’s a substantial overview of his career.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com.)