ARTisSpectrum Vol.30, November 2013 - page 72-73

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ARTisSpectrum | Volume 30 | artisspectrum.com
ARTisSpectrum | Volume 30 | artisspectrum.com
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Banksy’s New York Accent
by Justine McCullough
photographs provided by Chiara Mortaroli
O
n October 18, a new art space popped up in New York City’s
Chelsea art district. Consisting of a cement-and-plywood
bench and two images hanging from the railroad tracks of the
elevated High Line, the “gallery” was the latest installment of Better
Out Than In, a month-long project by the British artist Banksy.
Known for his dark-humored, satirical graffiti, Banksy describes
Better Out Than In as an “artist residency on the streets of New York”
on his official website (
. According to a draft of a
press release issued to The Village Voice by the artist’s publicist, the
month-long residency would produce “elaborate graffiti, large scale
street sculpture, video installations, and substandard performance
art.”
1
Banksy’s “gallery” (which is also a graffiti term for a secluded un-
derpass) on 24th Street provides biting commentary of the art world
through its audio guide, which mocks those gallery-goers who ignore
paintings and gossip over drinks (likewise, the commentator is audibly
drunk by the end of the recording). The guide goes on to explain the
graffiti images as collaborations with a Sao Paulo graffiti team (“crew”)
that reference the Occupy movement. At one point the commentator
asks, “Have all the big ideas collapsed? But what if the idea that all the
big ideas collapsed collapses? Then where will we be?”
This self-reflexive commentary of societal institutions has been
the common thread throughout Banksy’s month-long project. Utiliz-
ing graffiti, social media, and performance, Better Out Than In has
engaged both the public and institutions, encouraging thought, dia-
logue, and awareness of the current historical moment.
Since the late 1980s, Banksy has produced graffiti using combina-
tions of writing and a distinctive stenciling technique. The creations
are often critical of various institutions such as the art world, politics,
religion, and culture. Although intended for public display, his art has
occasionally been carved away from existing walls, sold at auction,
and placed in collections. Despite being a street artist, Banksy has en-
joyed critical and commercial success, with an Oscar nomination for
his documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and his work being pur-
chased for millions of dollars by celebrities like Angelina Jolie.
As a technique, graffiti has been utilized for generations to convey
messages or apply critique. By physically inscribing a surface with ad-
ditional layers of meaning, the graffitist transmits messages that be-
come part of cultural dialogue and memory.
Banksy’s residency in New York has produced messages that
are not confined to the surface, but disseminated to the pub-
lic through social media. Although graffiti is temporary and can
be removed by other artists or authorities, it can be viewed glob-
ally through social media within seconds of creation. A quick on-
1
Hamilton, Keegan.“Village Voice Exclusive: An InterviewWith Banksy, Street Art Cult
Hero, International Man of Mystery.”The Village Voice - October 9, 2013
side the truck for long hours with just one restroom break per day,
according to the audio guide. Since it was first spotted in Manhat-
tan’s Meatpacking District, it has been spotted citywide.
Graffiti’s ability to convey and criticize is illustrated perfectly by
Banksy’s Concrete Confessional, which appeared in the East Village
on October 12 outside Cooper Union, the privately funded college
of art, architecture, and engineering. The work, which consists of a
large concrete slab painted with an image of a priest, was altered
shortly after its discovery by the addition of the Cooper Union logo
on his necklace and a white beard covering his face. The resulting
image bears striking resemblance to the founder of Cooper Union,
Peter Cooper, who was caricatured for his dramatic white beard.
An adjacent concrete slab, featuring a man giving confession or an
altar boy, has been transformed to resemble Cooper Union’s cur-
rent president, Jamshed Bharucha. Although it is unclear whether
the altar boy image can be attributed to Banksy, it functions simi-
larly as a critique of the institution, which has faced ongoing stu-
dent protests against the administration’s controversial decision to
charge tuition for the first time in its history.
In addition to engaging with the college, Concrete Confessional
directly interacts with the city institution. The street-facing mural
prompted authorities to rotate the concrete slab so it faced the
sidewalk instead, protecting onlookers from the danger of traffic.
Due to its public nature, graffiti can be difficult to ignore, and, as
Concrete Confessional illustrates, force those whomight otherwise
ignore the artist to become engaged with the work.
Better Out Than In is the latest installment of graffiti in New
York, a city historically opposed to the practice, yet home to count-
less graffiti artists over the years such as Jean-Michel Basquiat,
Keith Haring, Rammellzee, Phase 2, and Futura.
Banksy’s practice is technically illegal. Yet, despite a police in-
vestigation of Banksy’s identity (as reported by the New York Post
with a headline reading, “GET BANKSY!”) apprehending the art-
ist does not seem to be priority for city officials. His process does
not directly harm others, and at press time, no property owners
whose buildings were tagged have filed any formal complaints
against Banksy. Most owners have been neutral and even thrilled
about their property being marked by Banksy. One building
manager in Williamsburg at Cook and Graham tackled a street
artist who attempted to deface a Banksy composition, and the
owner plans to preserve the artwork on the building for posterity.
City mayoral candidates have been unable to ignore Banksy’s
month-long project. When asked in a press conference, Demo-
cratic frontrunner Bill de Blasio claimed to know nothing about
Banksy, despite considerable local buzz about the graffiti artist.
De Blasio’s rival Joe Lhota, meanwhile, is familiar with Banksy but
considers graffiti to be a crime rather than art.
Current mayor Michael Bloomberg has projected an opinion
similar to Lhota’s. Over the years Bloomberg has overseen several
efforts to erase graffiti, and he recently stated that any Banksy
work discovered on city property would be removed (or “mas-
sacred,”the graffiti term to describe the removal of graffiti by mu-
nicipal authorities). Under Bloomberg’s watch, operations such
as the 2002 Graffiti Cleanup Initiative and the city’s Anti-Graffiti
Task Force have removed over 16.3 million square feet of graffiti
from more than 6,200 locations across New York City. At a press
conference, the mayor stated, “You running up to somebody’s
property or public property and defacing it is not my definition
of art. Or it may be art, but it should not be permitted. And I think
that’s exactly what the law says.”
2
The controversy directed toward Banksy is tempered by sup-
port for his work. Each day, throngs of onlookers navigate the
city to see, photograph, protect, and preserve the latest Banksy
creation, and for a time, the marquee outside Brooklyn Heights
Cinemas stated, “Banksy, our walls are your walls.”
On October 17, several bystanders restrained a man after he
used a spray paint can to deface the Banksy featuring two gei-
shas at Cook Street and Graham Avenue in Brooklyn. The tag had
appeared less than an hour before, and was restored after the
tagger was detained. Another piece, Westside, located in Chel-
sea on West 25th Street (one half block from Agora Gallery), has
similarly been restored. The original Banksy read, “This is my New
York accent,” in looping, urban graffiti script with a postscript be-
low: “...normally I write like this,” stenciled in a refined italic font.
The day the work appeared, another street artist covered the text
with the question, “Who cares?” At press time the restored work
still “burned” (had not been removed) from its original location.
Like other graffiti artists, Banksy utilizes the city as a medium
on which to record images and convey messages. Along these
lines his website features the following quote by Paul Cezanne:
“All pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as
those done outside.” In the context of Banksy’s work, the quota-
tion implies not en plein air techniques, but how the public na-
ture of graffiti facilitates instantaneous information and resulting
dialogue. By using social media to document and disseminate
his messages, Banksy’s Better Out Than In project has successful-
ly engaged the public and institutions while producing artwork
that is more permanent and far-reaching than traditional graffiti.
2
Swain, Jon.“Banksy ‘ruining people’s property,’says Michael Bloomberg: British graffiti
artist Banksy, on one month residency in New York, draws ire of Michael Bloomberg.”The
Telegraph - October 18, 2013.
line search generates countless images of Banksy’s artwork
taken by other social media users, and the artist’s own web-
site (
) and Instagram (@banksyny) docu-
ment the messages as well. Each mural is accompanied by
a serial number, which leads the viewer to an audio guide
describing the work.
Social media conserves graffiti, but its fleeting existence
remains, as is evidenced by several evolutions to the pieces
in New York. Nearly as soon as they appeared, many were
removed or vandalized, either by authorities, street artists
promoting their own tag, or those simply interested in cover-
ing up the works. A few hours after Banksy’s hearted-shaped
red helium balloon covered with bandaids appeared in Red
Hook, Brooklyn, the street artist known as OMAR NYC used
his own tag to cover the image while a collaborator filmed
the action. Artwork has also been stolen, as was the case
when both doors disappeared from the graffiti installation
on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side.
Most of the pieces criticize contemporary culture, which
is not surprising considering the satirical work Banksy has
produced in the past. Some criticisms are subtle. The mural
on Cook Street and Graham Avenue in Brooklyn features a
scene silhouetted in black, consisting of a bonsai tree and
two kimono-clad geishas meeting at a bridge formed by an
arched structure on the building’s façade. The style, which is
undeniably similar to artist Kara Walker’s, calls to mind issues
often associated with her work such as race, gender, sexual-
ity, and violence.
Another subtle criticism accompanies the installation
on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side. The original installa-
tion is known, in graffiti terms, as a “lock on,”which describes
sculptural art chained to a public structure. Visible behind a
locked fence, the lock on originally consisted of a wall fea-
turing three Apocalyptic horses, each wearing what appear
to be night-vision goggles. In front of the wall is an old car
painted with a driver who looks up in terror at the horses. The
visual elements of war and disaster clarify upon hearing the
audio guide, which consists entirely of war zone radio con-
versations ranging from laughter over driving over a body
to an off-handed comment about blaming parents for the
deaths of their children: “It’s their fault for bringing their kids
to a battle. That’s right. Cut.”
Other critical pieces need no audio guide. The elev-
enth piece, Sirens of the Lambs, directly references prob-
lems with food production and consists of a moving
slaughterhouse truck carrying sixty stuffed animals peek-
ing out from the carrying bed to the sound of squeak-
ing toy noises. Each toy is connected to one of four
professional puppeteers, who sit strapped to bucket seats in-
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