Last year at Pentecôte I visted Bristol England for the 2nd time in 6 months, taking advantage of super cheap Ryan Air flights from Béziers. An old Victorian industrial city that was heavily bombed during World War II, Bristol is now famous for Wallace and Grommit, for indie rock bands like Portishead, Massive Attack, Blur, Tricky, Wild Bunch…and most of all, for Street Art. That’s because Banksy, the most famous street artist in the world, is from Bristol.
Dominic Wade, who I was staying with in Bristol, has recently done a documentary about Banksy, but even without his guidance I would have immediately noticed the difference between Bristol’s street art and the bubble-lettered NYC-style tags I grew up with in the States and which you still see around Montpellier. The new style is simpler but more sophisticated.
Subversive urban humor
Banksy and his contemporaries (Nick Walker and Inkie in Bristol, Blek le Rat and Levalet in Paris) use figurative symbolism in humorous and thought-provoking ways that are completely original and new.
In fact, the murals in Bristol take you by suprise. You’re confronted by art in unexpected places and you engage with it immedately, in a visceral way. It’s as if the street were talking directly to you. The art becomes part of your urban experience.
You also begin to see other street-level images in a new way: after 3 days in Bristol, when I saw the KFC logo, I thought for a split second it was street art. It looked like a Bansky stencil. Life seemed to be imitating art without meaning to. Funny stuff.
Confound and confuse
Last winter, Bansky was in my former city, New York. He made one wall painting every day for a month, without getting caught.
Fans, police and journalists were all in hot pursuit of Banksy during his monthlong residency. During this time, he posted and painted without being seen, in every borough of the city: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island.
Everyone was going crazy. This is almost impossible to do, especially in the age of videosurveilance.
His boldest move was to create an Ephemeral Art Stand: it existed for one day, selling his artworks on the street, near Central Park. Everyone thought the works were merely reproductions because they cost only 50 or 60 dollars (original Banksy art sells for tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars). But the artworks were real: they were signed, original Banksy stencils.
In the end, the Ephemeral Art Stand was just another subversive act by the artist, mocking the artworld’s obsession with money and fame.
One of Banksy’s latest surprises happened on an English commuter train. Apparently some paints fell out of Banksy’s open backpack while he was talking on the phone.
The 14 year old passenger sitting across from Banksy helped him pick up the paints off the floor. In recompense, the artist handed the boy, who had no idea who Banksy was of course, a signed print of “Flower Chucker” (shown above) one the artist’s most iconic images, saying “This will be worth about £20,000 – have a good life.”
Another one of his recent surprises happened in Bristol while I was there in May. A new work called Mobile Lovers appeared overnight on the door of Bristol neighborhood association, The Bristol Boys’ Club. It shows two lovers embracing, looking over each others’ shoulders to check their mobile phones, their faces bathed in an eerie electronic glow.
Valued at £400,000, Mobile Lovers was removed by the city within hours and put in the Bristol Museum. Since all museums in Britain are free– which is very cool– public access to Banksy’s art was not restricted. However, Banksy did not want his work in the Bristol Museum.
He delivered a signed letter (without being seen of course) to the Bristol Boys’ Club saying the work belonged to them. He said they could do what they wanted with it, including sell it.
I agree with Banksy: his art belongs in the street, where people can confront it or stumble upon it without warning– and a museum kills that possibility. And you ? What do you think of Banksy ? Of street art ? (Visit Bristol or New York, or see one of these Banksy films and tell me what you think!)
Beyond the street: Cinematic Banksy.
If you’re interested in Banksy, you won’t actually see him on film, but there are movies both by him and about him:
- Exit Through the Gift Shop (in French, Faites le Mur !) is a a film by Banksy that tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant in Los Angeles, and his obsession with street art.
- Banksy Does New York is a ‘user generated chronicle’ of Banksy’s 31 days in New York by Chris Moukarbel for HBO.
- DocoBanksy is a documentary by Bristol resident Dominic Wade Wade for Britflicks.