Arts Faceless Fire Brand H e’s a public schoolboy who grew up in a leafy suburb; or he is a former butcher with a gold tooth For a start, the work of a street artist is, by definition, ephemeral. Yet as the Banksy bandwagon has gained and a penchant for stout. Or he doesn’t exist at all. momentum he has created more lasting work in an He is simply an alias for Steve Lazarides – owner of attempt to secure his legacy. Also street artists are the gallery which sells his work – or comedian Simon outsiders whose purpose is to challenge the hegemony. Munnery, who sometimes speaks for him. Or he is a Yet Banksy has been embraced by many of those who collective of graffiti artists who have banded together are the butt of his scathing social comment. to perpetrate a giant hoax. Feted by celebrities, including Brangelina and Damien His anonymity – a pre-requisite for a graffiti artist sought Hirst, his works now change hands for tens of thousands by the police – is at the heart of a phenomenon that of pounds. Banksy gets the irony and exploits it, satirising has taken the art world by storm. A Scarlet Pimpernel the incongruity of his own celebrity status. When one figure, Banksy lurks in the shadows. His paintings of his paintings sold for £102,000 at Sotheby’s last appear in the most unlikely places and are witty and year, he posted an image, showing people bidding for subversive: two policemen kissing; a helicopter with a painting of the words: “I Can’t Believe You Morons a pink bow on top; an insect with air-to-air missiles Actually Buy This Shit” on his website. The accusations beneath its wings. of hypocrisy, however, he counters by insisting he gives away much of what he earns. It was days before anyone realised his latest project – A Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill on 7th Avenue, Although little is known for certain about Banksy, it is New York – was anything other than it purported to believed he was born in Bristol in 1974. By the time be. Several passers-by complained about the lack of he was in his teens he was part of the city’s flourishing space for leopard and monkey in the front window graffiti scene – probably as one of the DryBreadZ Crew. before it emerged the creatures – including a mother He developed a distinctive style, which often featured hen watching over baby chicken McNuggets – were anarchic rats or other animals. But it wasn’t until he animatronic and “a statement on our relationship with swapped freehand for quicker and less risky stencilling animals and ethics”. that Banksy came to wider public attention. “ “ His anonymity – A pre-requisite for a graffiti artist sought by the police is at the heart of a phenomenon that has taken the art world by storm. “ I n the years that followed, his guerrilla art began appearing in Bristol, London and the U.S. Sometimes, it would consist of one To some, he is a genius whose underground art works provide “ sentence – such as the time he broke into London Zoo and wrote visual Stimulation and valuable social “We’re Bored of Fish” in the penguin enclosure. On other occasions, it involved full-blown paintings. His most iconic works include one of Pulp commentary; to others he is a facile Fiction stars Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta wielding bananas prankster and glorified vandal. instead of guns, and a naked man hanging from a window, which T he painted on the wall of a sexual health clinic in his home town. He took his work abroad – controversially painting he question of Banksy’s ability is, however, of little note a mural of children digging a hole to a paradise compared to the question of his identity. So great is the public’s beach on the Palestinian side of the West Bank curiosity about him that when he threw a pizza box into a bin at wall, and placing an inflatable doll dressed as a Los Angeles someone put it on eBay, suggesting the remnants might Guantanamo Bay prisoner on a rollercoaster ride yield traces of DNA. Of course, Banksy feeds this frenzy. He doesn’t in California. He also started selling his work, attend his own exhibitions and for many years refused all interviews. through the Lazarides Gallery in Soho and at In 2003, he – or someone claiming to be him – did meet Guardian exhibitions in the U.K. and the U.S. writer Simon Hattenstone. The journalist described him as “a cross between Jimmy Nail and Mike Skinner of The Streets. Opinion is fiercely divided on the quality and worth of Banksy’s work. To some, he And then, earlier this year, the Mail on Sunday announced Banksy is a genius whose underground art works was Robin Gunningham, an ex-public schoolboy from Bristol, with a provide visual stimulation flair for art, who disappeared after leaving home under something of and valuable social a cloud. Enigmatic as ever, the artist refused to comment, remarking commentary; to others he only that, “anyone described as good at drawing doesn’t sound like is a facile prankster and Banksy. “ glorified vandal. “How would he feel if someone Then someone else discovered a death notice for a Robin Gunningham sprayed graffiti all over his from Bristol – though the ages didn’t tally – and confusion reigned house?” a spokesman for the again. Which suits Banksy, whose place in the pantheon of art Keep Britain Tidy campaign depends on the mystery that surrounds him. The day we discover has said. In the same spirit, Tower his identity the bubble will burst. How could the real person live up Hamlets Council pledged to paint to the myth? over any murals.
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