BOOKS FEBRUARY 26, 2013
Last year, around the time of the Queen’s Jubilee, a work of art by the anonymous street artist known as Banksy appeared outside a North London discount shop. The graffiti featured a scruffy-looking boy hunched over a sewing machine, turning out colorful little Union Jacks. In many ways, it was typical Banksy: clever but blunt, political but ironic, gritty but somehow still whimsical. Less typical was the artwork’s fate: It vanished earlier this month before promptly showing up in a Miami auction house, where the plan was to offer it up for about half a million dollars. After outraged reactions from residents and London councilmembers, the piece was withdrawn, but questions remain about its provenance and its appropriation. How did it get from impoverished Haringey to Miami? Is the work even real? Does it matter?
Banksy was something of a pretender when it came to fitting in on the streets of Bristol.
These are the kinds of questions that Banksy—perhaps the world’s most famous anonymous artist—invites. A new biography by Will Ellsworth-Jones, a former New York correspondent for The Sunday Times, titled Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, purports to offer a glimpse behind the numerous facades erected to keep Banksy’s identity obscure. It is an awkwardly positioned work: an unauthorized biography of an anonymous subject who is both ubiquitous—on the streets, online—and evasive. Although Ellsworth-Jones delves deeply into the origins of the artist, he refuses to unmask him. It’s a sop to Banksy that prevents this book from fulfilling its purpose.
What is generally accepted about Banksy is that he hails from Bristol and that he first made his way into the public consciousness when he took it upon himself to hang one of his works in London's Tate Britain in 2003, accompanied by the irreverent caption: "Little is known about Banksy, whose work is inspired by cannabis resin and daytime television." His more iconic works of stenciled street art include toothy rats brandishing signs, young girls hugging bombs like teddy bears, and policeman kissing. Over the last decade, they've cropped up everywhere from London to New York to the West Bank, where Banksy left behind a number of heart-wrenching works in 2005. His work, often politically loaded, also deploys a strong sense of irony: "Large Graffiti Slogan" shows a generic-looking punk with a mohawk trying to assemble works of vandalism from a box labeled "IEAK."
Ellsworth-Jones compiles all this information while also offering a thorough introduction to graffiti and its significance as a medium for disenfranchised teenagers.1 He also offers up some new information. Banksy was something of a pretender when it came to fitting in on the streets of Bristol. The artist’s publicist has boasted about Banky’s "very working class" origins, but Ellsworth-Jones discloses that the artist was actually privately educated at Bristol Cathedral School and brought up "in a leafy suburb on the edge of the city." Ellsworth-Jones does not explicitly endorse or dismantle a 2008 Mail on Sunday exposé claiming that artist's real name is Robin, but he might as well. "The name does not appear,” he writers, “because I am honoring the commitment to people whom I asked for interviews that I would not identify [Banksy]."
Beyond that, however, the book is more an examination of the role of anonymity than one that seeks to dismantle it. The author sees Banksy’s mystique as essential to his relevance: "The way he guards his anonymity,” writes Ellsworth-Jones,” gives him the added glamour of seclusion—the whiff of Syd Barrett or J.D. Salinger.” He suggests that Banksy's entire anonymous career might be the greatest act of marketing the art world has ever seen, and that Banksy's Oscar-nominated "documentary," Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), is a riff on how easy it is to persuade people that the emperor is not only wearing clothes, but the clothes are works of genius.2 While Banksy maintains that his anonymity is necessary because of the not-really-legal nature of his work, Ellsworth-Jones rejects that argument, stating that Banksy's projects have come to be cherished as emblems of creativity, beauty, and even gentrification—not urban blight and hooliganism. (The reaction of Haringey residents to the loss of their own Banksy seems to back this up.) In the end, Ellsworth-Jones seems to be convinced that outing Banksy would simply ruin all the fun. "Fans, followers, and even those who are just vaguely aware he exists, don't want to know who he is," he writes.
Ellsworth-Jones is probably right that were Banksy revealed to be just another ordinary Englishman with a phony street affect, it would ruin something. But then why write a book with such a tantalizing title and investigative bent? Ellsworth-Jones travels across Britain in search of graffiti artists, colleagues, and even former friends from the “crusty” traveler scene. After his requests to see an early Banksy inside a London nightclub are ignored, he queues up for admittance and is not deterred by the doorman’s warning that it's a "very heavy drum 'n' bass night."
The half-bargain the author strikes—hinting at Banksy’s real identity without confirming it—is echoed the equivocal way he treats his subject throughout the book. On the one hand, he calls Banksy's writings about his work, "pompous and irritating," and seems troubled by the hard-handed way the artist treats former friends and associates. When Banksy places a note on his website denying any commercial association with former friend and manager Steve Lazarides, Ellsworth-Jones describes it as “a bitchy thing to do.”
But he also seems to sympathize with the artist, whom he paints as an inordinately hard-working "perfectionist" who is naïvely perplexed by people’s incessant attempts to capitalize from his work. The astronomical sums to be made from being Banksy might be tempting to an Andy Warhol or a Damien Hirst, Ellsworth-Jones writes, but the artist finds his lucre had to square with his “softly leftish view of the world.” He respects Banksy's disdain for the art elite, which sees street art as too populist while embracing lesser talents. “With Banksy,” Ellsworth-Jones writes, “no one is made to feel inferior."
While a portrait of the artist as a real man isn't offered here, the book's investigation of Banksy’s career is undeniably thorough and meticulous. As for what Banksy's art itself can tell us about the man who created it, that’s also lacking—and that’s a shame. Banksy’s art is such a rich riff on visual imagery that cries out for clever criticism of his unique brand of vandalism. Much is analyzed about Banksy's character in this book, but his work—the most complex source of information we have—still leaves plenty of room for debate.
Sophie Gilbert is associate arts editor at Washingtonian. Follow @sophieGG.