When the U.K.-based graffiti artist known as Banksy began a month-long “residency on the streets of New York” at the start of October, I was less than enthusiastic. New York has a long history with graffiti, after all, and the memories are not altogether pleasant. In the 1970s and ’80s, as gangs competed to vandalize every square inch of streetscape and subway line with “tags,” graffiti became the symbol of a dying metropolis. “A neighborhood that has succumbed to graffiti,” the urban critic Heather Mac Donald recently wrote in City Journal, “telegraphs to the world that social and parental control there has broken down.”
Similarly, New York’s newly scrubbed appearance over the past two decades reflects its urban renaissance. So the prospect of welcoming an out-of-town graffiti artist, even the one behind “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the Oscar-nominated graffiti documentary, irked those who see street art as a form of vandalism. “Nobody’s a bigger supporter of the arts than I am,” said New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, at a press conference when asked about the celebrity visitor. “You running up to somebody’s property or public property and defacing it is not my definition of art.”
But throughout the past month, Banksy hatred proved to be even more elusive than the artist himself, who despite repeated efforts could neither be tracked down nor caught in the act of creation. With each passing day, as he deployed a new wall stencil or performance piece somewhere in the five boroughs, it became harder not to see his residency as a New York love-bombing run. With his exploits spread through every form of mass and social media, he dominated the news—even during a busy election season—to become a topic of discussion, an object of fascination and a cause célèbre.
Certainly Banksy’s residency, which he called “Better Out Than In,” will be studied for the brilliance of its marketing strategy, with a guerrilla campaign that was well-attuned to the new economy. As each work became authenticated through his own website and Instagram account, which announced their general locations, his creations turned into an urban scavenger hunt. Crowds attracted even more crowds, cameraphones in hand. Sometimes the assemblies became so dense that all you could see was a cascade of selfies around an otherwise neglected brick wall.
And even as he managed to remain unseen, Banksy revealed himself to be an artist with a particularly effective voice. With the cleverness of Marcel Duchamp, the humor of Henny Youngman and the precision of Walter White, he transcended his medium, elevating the genre of street art while at the same time questioning the scourge of tags.
Banksy’s first order of business was to confront the notion that street art must blight other people’s property. Unlike those taggers who derive their significance from repetition—being “all city” was the goal of the graffiti artists in the 1983 documentary “Style Wars”—Banksy’s work was minimally invasive. Taggers want to be everywhere. Banksy was almost nowhere. While traditional graffiti sets out to be unavoidable, Banksy would have been unlocatable—a couple inches of paint on the base of a wall in Bedford-Stuyvesant—were it not for his online clues.
He also created work that property owners largely embraced. Rather than call the cops, most saw the art as a gift on their doorstep, either protecting it with fences, guards, ropes or plexiglass, or removing it and bringing it inside, as the Hustler Club did for the portrait of a lonely-hearted man painted on its roller gate. Banksy turned the graffiti aesthetic on its head while throwing into relief the commodification of art. He transformed a $50 thrift-store landscape into a $615,000 canvas by inserting a satirical Nazi figure, which he returned as a donation to Housing Works.
In an email interview published in the Village Voice last month, Banksy distanced himself from “vandalism made by part-timers and trust-fund kids.” In addition to the mayor, graffiti taggers came to be Banksy’s most ardent detractors, angling to deface his work as soon as it went up. “I used to think other graffiti writers hated me because I used stencils,” Banksy wrote, “but they just hate me.”
Rather than cover the city in paint, Banksy’s imaginative choice of locations and use of negative space brought out the wonders of the urban landscape. On the Upper West Side, the silhouette of a boy with a mallet converted a red standpipe and fire bell into a carnival amusement. In Williamsburg, two stenciled figures re-envisioned a bricked-over archway as the moon bridge of a Japanese tea garden. In East New York, a broken signpost became the work of a busy beaver.
Thirty works in 30 days is a tall order for any artist, especially an undercover one without apparent institutional support. The performance pieces that he arranged—a meat truck of squeaking stuffed animals or a Grim Reaper riding a bumper car—generally lacked the restrained simplicity of his stencil work.
Nevertheless, Banksy succeeded in elevating the discussion of street art through his New York run. It was an outcome that was far from accidental for a methodical technician well-versed in art history. As an artist whose website begins with a quote from Cézanne—”all pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as those done outside”—Banksy sees himself as an extension of a larger modernist tradition. The self-deprecating “audio guide” he created for his website put his work in a museum context even as he mocked its institutional trappings, all the time quoting from John Keats, John Steinbeck and the English poet William Ernest Henley (whom the announcer describes as “the great poet Wikipedia”).
“Outside is where art should live, amongst us,” Banksy asserted in the final day’s audio guide. “Don’t we want to live in a world made of art, not just decorated by it?” With free art that proved to be as resonant as a museum blockbuster, he made it hard for me to say no.
By James Panero, The Wall Street Journal