Who is Banksy? The U.K.’s best-known-yet-unknown street artist/conceptual prankster was in the news again this month after researchers at Queen Mary University of London analyzed maps of Banksy’s wall works in London and Bristol to pinpoint a possible suspect. Excited headlines shouted as though Batman’s alter ego had been revealed, although any suspect remains just an educated guess.
Who Banksy is, however, seems far less important than his rejection of the spotlight. In an age where artists are forever told to “build their brand” through an endless public stream of virtual intimacy, Banksy has instead chosen personal anonymity. It does give him greater freedom to work; graffiti is technically still a crime in most places, even if collectors will pay a quarter-million dollars for a bit of wall adorned with one of his spray-painted stencils. Yet far more evident is his disdain for celebrity status itself.
The documentary “Banksy Does New York,” which is not connected with the artist, focuses on the reactions provoked by his one-month “residency” in New York City in October 2013. Director Chris Moukarbel mixes his own roving reporting with media and fan videos, and the cryptic, museum tour-like commentary from Banksy’s website. Instead of “whodunnit,” the film examines the city’s obsession with “wheredunnit.” Every day Banksy would post a teaser on the web, but with no clue as to where the actual work was. It could be a monochrome wall stencil in the Lower East Side, a skull-like sphinx in a Willets Point junkyard or an “ant-hill vagina” on a Staten Island sidewalk.
Fans not only had to find the art, they had to get there quickly, before it was defaced by rival taggers, painted over by angry business owners, or cordoned off by a bunch of street hustlers in the Bronx. “If you wanna take a picture,” shouts one enterprising local at the gathering crowds, “it’s gonna cost something, or that s—- could just get broke.”
On one level, this was merely a “hipster scavenger hunt,” the chance to be the first one on your Instagram feed to pose with the latest Banksy. For the critics (those precious few Pharisees who didn’t already loathe Banksy’s anti-art-world stance), it was a clever conceptual integration of street and social media. More than anything, though, it was the world’s most successful street artist visiting the Mecca of his art form and making a bold declaration of public art in a city where nearly everything has been privatized. As the film points out, the NYC subway may no longer be covered in spray-can art as it was in the ’70s and ’80s, but it sure is covered head-to-toe in advertising.
Banksy — like most ruffians who took to scrawling on public property and fleeing the police — has a strong anti-establishment tone running through his work, and his best NYC work is reliably cheeky: One day it’s a slaughterhouse truck doing laps around the Meatpacking District, packed to bursting with cute stuffed-doll piglets and lambs squealing in fear; the next it’s a pair of paintings hung under a Chelsea bridge, complete with viewing bench and a cooler of wine — a free alternative to the upscale galleries located nearby.
A career-best stunt comes when Banksy hires some old geezer in a sweater vest to set up a stall in Central Park selling Banksy originals labeled merely as “spray art” for $60 a pop. The joke is that almost nobody buys them; the next day when it’s revealed what he did, everyone’s kicking themselves for not having spent $60 on something that’s valued at more than 100 times that price.
The point, of course, is that if you take away the art-world hype and the commodification, what have you got? The Chicago tourist who buys a couple of prints because he “needs something for the walls” was seen by most as a lucky rube, but in Banksy’s eyes, I suspect, it’s the most honest reaction.