Graffiti meets high art in the first biographical assessment of a renowned yet anonymous figure.
Americans who didn’t follow street-art culture had probably never heard of Banksy until his 2009 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, earned an Academy Award nomination. In Britain, however, Banksy-spotting (discovering that the artist had stenciled a cheeky design on the side of a building or bridge) became a national pastime and earned the mysterious spray painter a cult following. The tricky part started when this once-underground phenomenon moved into art galleries and began commanding staggering prices at auction. Banksy then established his own agency, Pest Control, to authenticate his works, field press inquiries and maintain his anonymity, but misunderstandings and scams abounded regardless. Former Sunday Times chief reporter Ellsworth-Jones (We Will Not Fight…The Untold Story of World War I’s Conscientious Objectors, 2008) presents a patchwork treatment of a subject who simultaneously comes across as both a likable guy with a knack for striking imagery and a control freak who delights in thwarting the aims of anyone who tries to breach his inner sanctum. Since Pest Control refused to grant the author access to Banksy, the author relies on interviews with gallery owners who sell his work for millions, graffiti artists who dismiss their rival as a sellout and devotees who have stood for hours in line to obtain limited-edition prints. Most interestingly, he spoke to a couple who live inside a trailer that Banksy painted for them: When Pest Control declined to authenticate the mural, the pair fought back and negotiated an unprecedented deal to legitimately remove and sell it, thus subverting Banksy’s ironclad control.
Entertaining yet inconclusive: the real story of the “Man Behind the Wall” will probably have to wait until the hype dies down.