Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Banksy, Art Fags, And The Jealous Wrath Of Old Skool Graffiti Writers
Banksy is a batty boy. Banksy is an art school middle class twat. Banksy is the Pop idol of those who gobble what is fed to them and put under their nose.
Why? Because last weekend, the London-based, Bristol-bred street artist did a painting under the Camden Road bridge on the Regent’s Canal in North London, appropriating the work of the graffiti writer Robbo, which had – according to the people calling Banksy these names – survived for 25 years. But now the great Robbo has become the punchline of a Banksy joke. In the new work, a painter-and-decorator in overalls is pasting rolls of his graffiti on the bridge wall.
The new piece – let’s call it Pop Wallpaper - is a riff Banksy has played before. In one of his most accomplished works, at the Cans Festival, a council operative was pictured whitewashing stone-age graffiti. In another image, displayed at the Banksy vs Bristol Museum exhibition, a Banksy rat ran a whitewash roller over a Damien Hirst spot painting.
In recent times, Banksy pieces have been targeted by other, less proficient vandals. His ‘Large Graffiti Slogan’ image in Croydon – in which a punk was seen struggling to assemble an IKEA (actually, IEAK) DIY graffiti kit – was quickly obliterated. His B-boy in Dalston’s Gillet Square was defaced within days, as was ‘Last Graffiti Before Motorway’, which waved motorists onto the M1 at Henlys Corner.
This didn’t used to happen. Previously, when Banksy images disappeared, it was because they had been buffed by council operatives. In those far-off times, before Banksy became an internationally-recognised artist (always described in news reports as having been collected by Angelina Jolie, though no one has ever produced convincing evidence of this calumny), councils felt able to remove graffiti indiscriminately, without worrying whether it might be of lasting cultural significance or financial value.
True, there were exceptions. The site on the corner of Old Street housed two versions of Banksy’s Pulp Fiction image (with John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson turned, latterly, into bananas) before being appropriated by the graffiti writer Ozone. This caused some peevishness amongst Banksy aficionados, but Banksy himself didn’t seem to mind. When Ozone was tragically killed by a train, Banksy dedicated the space to him, painting an angel in a flak jacket contemplating a skull. Banksy’s website published the tribute “When we lost Ozone we lost a fearless writer and, as it turns out, a pretty perceptive art critic. Rest in piece.” In case that was all getting a bit too cosy, this tribute was then defaced by graffiti writers 10Foot, Tox, and Cut, and appended with the slogan “Say No To Art Fags”.
Is Banksy an art fag? Well, that depends what an art fag is. He is a street artist who has achieved an uncommon degree of notoriety. He sells a great many books. He is, most likely, reasonably well-off. He sells a lot of prints, and his original works go for fair amounts at auction (but he’s still a lot cheaper than Damien Hirst.) His fame is peculiar, in that he has refused to fill the void. He is famous for being anonymous.
In which case, being an art fag can be translated as being too popular: in punk terms, a sell-out. And even the most committed follower of Banksy’s work would agree that, recently, he has shown signs of trading on past glories. Artistically, he has struggled to top the audacity of his giant ‘One Nation Under CCTV’ mural, off Oxford Street. As a creative hub, he’ll do well to match the impact of the Cans Festival, which brought dozens of street artists to broader public notice. And as a stunt, he’s unlikely to recreate the frenzy of the Bristol Museum one-man show, which generated an estimated £10m for the local economy in the summer of 2009.
So, instead, he’s gone back to basics, while also offering an ironic commentary on his own situation. The Croydon punk with his IKEA graffiti kit was a joke about the mainstreaming of street art, given a second layer of irony when it was removed by the owners of the fence on which it was painted, to be restored, and sold. We can only speculate, but Banksy’s works, and his occasional outbursts of gnomic philosophy, suggest that he would probably prefer his work to be vandalised, dogged, or randomly obliterated rather than see it removed from its context and offered for sale in a Notting Hill art gallery.
With the Camden Road piece, he’ll probably get his wish. Friends of Robbo have suggested that Banksy’s image will be gone by the weekend. That, apparently, is what happens to the work of art fags. How odd, then, that it’s the old school graffiti writers who are now arguing from behind a fog of insult and homophobia that Robbo’s work should have been preserved behind Perspex. That would be a bit faggy, surely?