With two weeks left in Banksy’s New York residency, his whimsical hit pieces on Ronald McDonald, war and factory farming have exposed long-standing divisions among the Big Apple residents who don’t know what is a Banksy, the people who cheer the Banksy and the forces that wish to condemn and destroy it.
Since the early 90s, the individual or collective known as Banksy has both delighted and irked fans and detractors with his (their?) subversive graffiti, sculptures and messaging. The “Anonymous” of the street art world broke into the mainstream in March 2005 when he accomplished a brilliant reverse heist by smuggling four of his own pieces into collections on display at the MOMA, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History over the course of two weeks and then posted images of the coup on the web. In August 2005, Banksy repeatedly defaced one of the most heavily patrolled walls in the world between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. In August 2006, he stole Paris Hilton’s thunder when he modified 500 copies of her debut CD Paris with alternate artwork, titles like "Why Am I Famous?", "What Have I Done?" and "What Am I For?" and remixes by Danger Mouse and placed them in record stores across the UK. In September 2006, he secretly installed a Guantanamo Bay-themed inflatable doll alongside Disneyland’s Thunder Mountain Ride. Also in September he staged a three-day art exhibition in Los Angeles titled Barely Legal which featured an actual elephant in the room painted pink which was supposed to represent global poverty.
Despite the air of mystery surrounding Banksy’s actual identity, he managed to pull off one of his greatest feats in 2011 when he earned an Academy Award nomination for “the world’s first street art disaster movie” Exit Through the Gift Shop, a behind the scenes look at the street art world, interviews and distorted footage of Banksy himself and the creation of the pop-art Frankenstein, Mr. Brainwash.
Src: 2010 © Banksy's Exit Through The Gift Shop via YouTube.com
Who Bankrolls Banksy?
In all fairness it appears that Banksy bankrolls himself through the sale of books of his artwork and the actual pieces themselves which have sold for upwards of a million dollars at auction. Even if Banksy self-publishes, this presupposes that he has a distributor, agents, accountants, lawyers and some labyrinthine means of acquiring his earnings, but so do pirates. Maybe one day Banksy’s operations will become a publicly traded endeavor with investors and stock options.
Banksy’s real world hacks go beyond mere vandalism to open windows literally and figuratively on the cities where his work is displayed. New York’s more autocratic and extortionist tendencies have already been on full display alongside his most recent exhibit. In addition to outright destruction of his latest work, some enterprising New Yorkers have tried to forcibly remove it from its physical property in the hopes of selling it while others have attempted to charge fees for photographs.
Src: 2013 © via YouTube.com
One East Williamsburg building owner hired security guards to protect an image that appeared on her property. Keenly aware of the inflated value of his street art, Banksy rented a stall in Central Park and hired a vendor to sell some of his original paintings for the bargain basement price of $60.
Src: 2013 © via YouTube.com
Past exhibitions have met with mixed reactions from the cities being addressed. Banksy’s alleged hometown of Bristol celebrated his work in a 2009 gallery exhibit that resulted in a $15 million lift to the local economy. Other unauthorized works have been removed at the behest of various governing organizations. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared Banksy’s recent run “a sign of decay and loss of control” and added that the more clandestine art of graffiti isn’t included in his definition of art. Despite the fact that anyone accepting the mayor’s definition of art is undertaking a self-inflicted lobotomy, the NYPD has initiated a city-wide manhunt for the perpetrator in an attempt to charge him with vandalism.
Banksy’s well-concealed identity has to date protected him from other forms of prosecution that have dogged similar artists of his stature like Shepard Fairey, whose unauthorized appropriation of an AP photo for the iconic Obama “HOPE” poster and subsequent contempt of court landed him a $25,000 federal fine. Fairey has been arrested at least 15 times and was once apprehended while on the way to his own art opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
It’s not often that someone takes the opportunity while being watched to deliver a message. Perhaps one day a truth commission will grant Banksy amnesty from prosecution for his sly social commentary and Robin Hood-like ability to reappropriate imagery from the market to provide lulz for the masses. In the meantime, we hope that the citizens of New York, like the townies who secretly get a glimpse of Spider-Man or Batman’s secret identities, will maintain honor among thieves.