"Banksy came to Toronto!"
Ah ha (I think, too groggy for an exclamation point) so I didn't leave my cellphone set to "loud"— I merely dreamed the obnoxious ring-tone, and now for the surreal conversation. No doubt the scene shall soon shift without warning to a seaside resort or Santa's underground lair or somesuch.
"... Seriously?" I mumble. But as the conversation proceeds, as I am reassured in the most realistic and persistent manner that Banksy has indeed come to town. As my grogginess only resolves into a vague yearning for coffee, it dawns on me that I am in fact awake, if not widely so, and that my inamorata's exuberance at the other end of the line is neither dream nor joke. Banksy (or, for the cynic: someone in possession of Banksy's stencils and in collusion with his publicist) passed through Toronto last weekend, and left behind several characteristic embellishments of the urban scenery.
Banksy is a British graffiti artist whose nom de plume commonly adjoins the epithets "notorious," "secretive," and "enigmatic." He was born around 1974, raised in Bristol and beyond that very little is known about this remarkably popular vandal. In 2006 the BBC ran a story that Banksy's real name was Robert Banks. Then, two years later, brandishing a photograph they claim was taken of the artist in Jamaica four years back, The Mail On Sunday named Banksy as one Robin Gunningham. Neither claim has ever been confirmed by Banksy or those associated with him. It all comes down to whether or not you take The Mail On Sunday's word for it— and first, it's worth asking, does it even matter?
As the two of us peddle our bikes out into the unseasonably cold drizzle, the secret identity of the mysterious Banksy is the last thing on my mind. We course downtown on a scavenger hunt with only sketches of directions and all the excitement of a day-care class let loose in Centreville and he could be an army of Nikola Tesla clones for all I care. What matters to me is that, when someone calling themself Banksy scribbles on your city's walls, its more than likely that said scribbles are worth the effort in finding them.
The art of Banksy is characterized by humorous quips, irony, and a stencilled aesthetic indebted to the likes of Blek le Rat. He often plays with a set of recurring characters such as cops, children, and most especially rats. His work has that rare characteristic of seeming obvious and simple after the fact, yet somehow it always takes a Banksy to execute. Rarely does he need to tag his name these days, his work is recognized by style, like an unsigned Rembrandt at a yard sale, and that sometimes includes the cartoon cash signs ringing up over eyeballs. Facelessness, as it turns out, is no great obstacle in the art market. His paintings have gone for as much as £288,000 at auction¹ and though he won't officially confirm any street art as his, there's fair reason behind Torontoist's withholding of detailed directions to the Toronto pieces.
When we get to Queen and Adelaide, it doesn't take long to find a Banksy, or rather a Banksy-shaped lacuna of flat grey paint on the stucco side of a drab office building. Some here are quick to "give graffiti the brush-off," according to the twee slogan that has festooned many a Toronto trash bin.
"Well that was stupid of them," my companion says. "Stucco's really easy to remove."
Her meaning is plain: at least one landlord this week just lost their chance at an extravagant profit on ebay.
It is against just this sort of profiteering that the flimsy information black-out barrier has been erected. Last month, a Banksy image of a guard walking a Jeff Koons-esque balloon dog in Los Angeles was cut from its wall and carted off. According to JetSet Graffiti, the coup was likely perpetrated by the disreputable Doug Christmas, owner of Ace Gallery (where the artists have something of a history of needing to sue to get paid). This is no paltry act of appropriation, even unconfirmed the work could fetch a heady price. After all, back in 2008, a west London brick wall on Portobello Road— on which a stencilled, old-fashioned palette painter brushes the finishing touch on a bubble-lettered "Banksy" spray-paint tag— fetched £208,100 on ebay, and that doesn't include the cost of relocating the wall.²
Tearing down a wall to collect or sell a piece of street art seems rather crass to me. Putting up sheets of perspex over a Banksy (as has become something of a habit in places) to try to curb the fluid overturn of graffiti on a given wall seems silly, and it's far from effective. There are at least two instances in which the perspex has been deliberately breached. Once in Islington, the perspex was removed and after alterations were made, replaced, as part of the ongoing feud between Banksy and King/Team Robbo (this following Banksy's appropriation and adaptation of a Robbo piece from 1985 that was either calculated or ignorant). In Melbourne, where silver paint was tipped through the crack between the top of the acrylic sheet and the wall, the attempt at preserving appears to have incited its very destruction.
Banksy occupies an unusual position, straddling street art and gallery art, commerce and vandalism, fame and anonymity. For some, this is uncomfortable. Banksy's egalitarian street art has attracted a crowd of admirers whose appreciation is expressed through the need to keep it. The ethic of street art is one celebrating public access and rights to public space, lauding accessibility and an utter absence and impossibility of price tags. Consumerism can become a boogieman to flee and mock in the dead of night, and there is some truth to that position. But what Banksy seems to show is that people will want to purchase and keep something they adore and in the art world, this can lead to a snowball effect where high prices accrue higher prices, and the reason for making a purchase can turn somewhat inside-out, from buying a piece for love of it, to selling it for the demand-driven profit, to buying it for the investment and its expected addition down the road to one's RRSP. Rarely are these various motivations clear-cut or separated.
In all honesty, “selling-out” is an idea that I don't care for. There is an unfair tendency that crops up from time to time to blame an artist for the price inflation, hype and hullabaloo that the international art market rolls around their work. I'm in no position to become an investment art-collector, so I don't care how much money an artist makes or how much their stuff is worth. What I care about is the quality of the work they make, and I think Banksy is top-notch.
Our Banksy scavenger hunt was, essentially, all in good fun. Times like these, graffiti is about being where you are, but I don't mean that in any pseudo-zen spiritual sense. It is an aesthetical "I wuz here" and it's the subsequent recognition by others that someone else wuz there too once, and that both of you saw fit to pay close attention to the environment.
Sometimes graffiti carries territorial meanings, but Banksy and the legion of other artists in his strata go beyond this. There is an odd community aspect to street art. Writing your name on a wall can't make it yours any more than writing your name in a reference library book will make it yours when it goes back on the shelf. Street art is more like writing a new story on the flyleaf of that library book, in the hopes of someone else enjoying it, and sometimes even continuing or inserting their vision into your story, until some librarian becomes terribly upset and pastes over the vandalized flyleaf and it's up to a subsequent bookworm to start the process again.
Our first find, a quizzical, sunglasses-wearing rat in a Chinatown parking lot, was shared when complete strangers came to where we stood, and shared in the excitement of discovery. In that moment, that rat formed a fleeting global network of hooligans and citizens. Banksy's visit was a transatlantic signal, Queen Victoria congratulating James Buchanan across the first fragile transatlantic telegraph cable only to have it break two months later, only instead of two months Banksy's cable snaps after two days, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Some of Banksy's art can be found at www.banksy.co.uk