Saturday, March 26, 2011

One Man's Graffiti is Another Man's Art

Would you consider this art?

How about this?

Plenty of people do, because the guy responsible for the above images is in high demand. People stand in line for hours to get into his exhibits, and they pay tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars for his work.

The guy’s name is Banksy, and he considers himself an artist. (For the record, I do too.)

Never heard of Banksy? That’s okay.  He’d probably prefer it that way. Mostly because this British artist’s anonymity isn’t just a part of his non-identity, it’s a part of his plan to protect himself from government authorities who want to prosecute him for vandalism.   

So far, no one’s been successful in identifying him, let alone arresting him.

I’d like to think that it has less to do with the fact that he’s so good at concealing his identity and fabulously stealthy at plying his trade, and more to do with the fact that said authorities secretly like Banky’s work.

Yes, his art is decidedly anti-government and anti-establishment, and he’s never shied away from being satirical and edgy and irreverent. And some of his stuff is just downright funny—albeit darkly humorous.

Like this:

And this:

(Go ahead. Think about the message Bansky is trying to send. I’ll give you a minute.)

But is it vandalism?

To all the various local governments around the world who have paid cleaning crews to scrub his work away from the sides of buildings and bridges, yes. Banksy is a graffiti vandal, pure and simple. He’s cutting into the government’s budget, and he’s an expensive nuisance trying to cash in on his notoriety. But to art lovers and romantics and anti-government bleeding hearts, he’s an artistic sensation, a (silent) voice of a nation, a blue-collar kid like so many other blue-collar kids with talented hands and a message to tell.

And, perhaps, a message to sell.

Which is part of the problem, I suspect. Back when he was first starting out, hanging out with other artists and musicians as part of the “Bristol underground scene” in urban England, he was just a talented kid trying to express himself and improve the aesthetic quality of his urban surroundings. There was no money being made, no art deals to speak of, no Sotheby’s agent banging down his door to auction his stuff.

But as the years went by and he traveled the world leaving his mark in cities as far flung as New York City, Barcelona, London and the West Bank, and as his fame grew, he did start getting paid. Art auctioneers starting selling his street graffiti. Banksy himself starting having exhibitions in warehouses and galleries in New York and Los Angeles and Sydney to sell oil paintings and silk-screen prints.  He was contracted to create art and album covers.

He never lost site of his original love, though: street art. So while Banksy was banking hundreds of thousands of dollars, local governments were paying just as much to scrub their streets clean of his artwork. Which is, I think, part of the allure of street art in Banksy’s mind. His contempt for governments that label his graffiti as vandalism will keep him painting—and keep government workers busy scrubbing their buildings and scraping their coffers.

And now, one city government has had enough and is seemingly trying to set an example. Los Angeles’ city attorney sued Cristian Gheorghiu and nine other local graffiti artists last year. The suit is still pending and seeks $1 million in penalties as a result of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of graffiti vandalism and damage done to city property by these artists. The city is also trying to bar them from making money from their artwork. (Because, you know, how dare artists try to make a living from their art…)

If anything, Los Angeles and other cities around the world should be thanking the likes of Gheorghiu and Banksy. They’re getting people excited about art! Which could very well have a trickle down effect, right? I mean, art encompasses more than just paintings on a wall. Art is music and dance and books and movies and photography and food. Art is paint on a canvas and ink on a page and spray paint on the side of a building. So if Banksy’s fans--who may’ve never considered themselves “art lovers” before--buy his work, it may turn them on to other forms of art as well. Like literature, and ballet and opera—three industries that could certainly use a boost.

And how about the industries that are currently profiting from graffiti artists? Like the other graffiti artists and musicians and painters who collaborate with Banksy. The gallery owners who see tons of foot traffic at Banksy exhibitions. The auctioneers who suddenly have a hot commodity to sell. The cleaning contractors who are kept busy scrubbing and power washing buildings and bridges. The film makers and documentarians who tell their stories…. It’s good to be these people right now. They’re busy making a good living for themselves.

Hey, who said art was dead?

Want to learn more about Bansky and the underground graffiti art movement? Watch the awesome (and Oscar nominated) documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop."