Writing a biography of an anonymous artist seems like an impossible task…or maybe not when the subject is also world famous. The unidentified graffiti artist known as Banksy has turned himself into a faceless icon in recent years with high-profile stunts such as gluing his own art on museum gallery walls and painting pieces up on the Gaza strip. The new book by Will Ellsworth-Jones titled Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall explores the strange paradox of the artist’s fame in spite of anonymity. Although it might not be considered a biography in strict terms, this profile of Banky’s place in the world of street art makes clear the background, philosophy and even the business practices of a complex and compelling figure.
The chapters that go into Banksy’s business practices provide some of the most revealing details of the book. It may be strange to think of a graffiti artist as having an organization behind him but the more intricate Banksy’s efforts have become the more it has become necessary. A man who is an activist by nature and an anti-authoritarian has in his employ a lawyer, a publicist, an art dealer, assistants, independent authenticators of his work (dubbed Pest Control, they certify genuine Banksy prints by giving out fake currency featuring Lady Diana) and many others. The work that goes into keeping Banksy both well-known and unknown is a team effort that is written about in fascinating detail.
The transformation of Banksy into an icon reveals another benefit of anonymity. At his point in his career, die-hard fans realistically don’t want to know who the man is behind the wall. In one way it would spoil the fun, like a magician giving away his secrets. From a marketing perspective, Banksy’s image is his anonymity. What little video footage that exists of Banksy shows his face pixelated and his voice is distorted. That image of mystery is very compelling.
Still, Ellsworth-Jones pieces together a comprehensive story of where Banksy came from in the graffiti scene of the English city of Bristol. His path from an outstanding artist to a star and even further into a figure that changed the perception and legitimacy of street art has earned him plenty of both friends and detractors. Selling prints of his art takes street art out of the street, which may open opportunities for other artists or be seen as missing the point by others.
Surprisingly, the art of graffiti has rules that some think Banksy has broken (even vandals have standards). In order to get his works made as quickly as possible, Banksy often uses stencils for his work. This is actually the subject of much debate, as the real bragging rights behind graffiti tend to be working entirely freehand and getting one’s tags in the most outlandish and viewable spots. Banksy even had a sort of ground war going at one point against the tagger known as “Robbo” after Banksy put up a piece over top of a Robbo that had been up for years.
Each chapter in The Man Behind the Wall provides interesting glimpses into the phenomenon that Banksy has become. The stories range from people who try to sell counterfeit Banksy pieces, to others who literally carve out the walls he has tagged in the interest of preserving them. One chapter goes into a behind-the-scenes look at Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and graciously lends facts to rumors surrounding its subject, Thierry Guetta aka Mr. Brainwash. Another follows the author himself as he takes a tour around London seeking out Banksy pieces that are still intact on the streets.
Each new detail adds up to a rich perspective on a compelling, if divisive, figure. Ellsworth-Jones portrays the artist as in control of every facet of his work. Every piece, every big gallery show, and every effort that he devotes himself to requires an abundance of creative control. The book points out in detail that Banksy’s talents lie not only in his art but in his ability to organize and draw attention to his work and the works of other street artists. This book may be unauthorized by Banksy’s team, evidence more of his need for creative control, but the details inside are fair and certainly compelling
Verdict: The most comprehensive information on Banksy anyone will likely find, and an interesting take on counterculture as art
Banksy: The Man Behind The Wall will be released on February 12th by St. Martin’s Press