Back in the 1970s when graffiti was young, most New York City artists (who actually referred to themselves as writers) just wanted to “get up.” That is, to tag their fly names inside subway cars, aerosol-spray their handles on the sides of trains until enough people saw their work and they were considered all-city visual outlaws. In addition to the artistic side of the business, being a writer was a nasty profession of sneaking into train yards after dark, crouching in the shadows as the cops crept by and hoping there weren’t any gangs robbing rivals for cans of paint.
While there existed an alliance between the best writers, there was also a competition amongst contemporaries over who put more furious flair, gritty grace and urban elegance into their pieces. Sitting at various writer’s benches in subway stations scattered throughout the city, young artists waited to view the train cars and pass judgment on the movable feasts of colorful images painted on the sides.
For that generation of writers, artistic stakes were high, and profits non-existent. But for those artists, it wasn’t all about the Benjamins; it was about birthing new styles and developing the art form.
“Graffiti was the first element of hip-hop culture,” explains hip-hop renaissance man Michael Holman, who in the ’80s produced and hosted the variety show Graffiti Rock. “In the beginning, it began [as] more of a celebration of the artists’ name and the achievement of street fame.”
While later, writers began incorporating various images (from cartoon characters to Andy Warhol’s soup cans) in their work, Holman says, “Many of the pioneering artists were first driven more by text and language than they were by conceptual images.” The irony, of course, was less than a decade later, artists like Rammellzee, Futura, Lee Quiñones, Fab Five Freddy, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, among others, made the transition from the streets to the galleries, feeling it was a proper maturity process.
Which brings us to Banksy. Influenced by the ’70s-’80s school of New York City graf writers, as well repeated views of Style Wars and Wild Style, British street artist Banksy came of age just as hip-hop fever hit his native Bristol. But like his hometown homies the Wild Bunch (a collective whose members included Tricky and Nellee Hooper), the artist put his own unique spin on the hip-hop aesthetic and began crafting his stylish work with stencils.
Choosing to stay anonymous, Banksy’s work is satirical and often uses images of rats, policemen and children to convey his anti-war and anti-capitalist messages. Illustrator Daniel Fishel, a admirer of Banksy, explains: “Rather than have his work hang in a gallery, he prefers to put them on the street so that everyone can see him making a statement about health care, our disrespect for the environment through pollution and urbanization, war, and how billionaires continue to keep getting richer and poorer staying poor.”
Having done stints in the streets of London, New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York, where Banksy has been working on his latest “show” Better Out Than In, he still considers himself a member of the graffiti community no matter how “arty” his style.
Yet most graffiti heads (myself included), having grown-up in New York City admiring the work of Dondi, SEEN, Daze and countless others, Banksy’s work doesn’t really look like any of the graffiti that I used to see back in the day. While I admire the work, there’s a British art school drollness to Banksy’s images that’s funny and smug while reminding one of something a too-cool advertising exec might produce. Still, I can’t help feeling that the way he creeps through the city like an artistic superhero that refuses to be unmasked is interesting.
While Banksy might prefer anonymity, his work has become highly collectable and valuable. After the release of his (mock?) documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop became an Oscar contender, Banksy’s fame grew, as has the animosity from critics and fellow graf writers, most of whom don’t think of him as a writer at all.
Since the beginning of Banksy’s month-long stay in New York City (where he’s done new works on the Lower East Side and East New York, Brooklyn), some locals started charging visitors $20 to get a peep, and a few of his pieces have been defaced.
Painter and Clever Agency founder Molaundo Jones, who’s been a Banksy fan since 2009, says, “I really dig his style, creative concepts, and the intention behind the work. The fact that he has become an international phenomenon and no one can point him out in a lineup is awesome in itself. But as for people defacing his latest works, that’s simply a hazard of being a graffiti artist. Anyone who’s seen Beat Street can get a sense of how ugly things can get with competition and straight up envy in that world.”
Sacha Jenkins, co-author of Piecebook: The Secret Drawings of Graffiti Writers, says, “I think to a certain extent, writing your name over and over can become boring. And some guys are better than others at doing that. So I appreciate the unpredictable nature of what Banksy does.
“However, money is tight these days, and the guys who used to write their names just for fun and local fame now want to be paid too. Banksy is getting that cheese, and writers want an elephant-size fridge full of it. That is where jealousy, to a certain extent, weighs in.”
Hip-hop historian Bill Adler, co-author of DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop, says, “I think Banksy is quite prolific and brilliant. But, much like his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, there is an obnoxiousness to him. He wants to have it both ways, to be an outlaw as well as an art star, and the whole thing is just way too slick.”
In a recent Village Voice interview with Banksy via email, the artist said, “Commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist. We’re not supposed to be embraced in that way.”
Legendary writer Cey Adams, who channeled his talents into becoming a respected graphic designer for Def Jam and Nike, says snidely, “I’m happy the market for his type of art has jumped through the roof. Maybe people will now see the artist value in ‘real’ graffiti art here in America.”