This interview is held by Lee Coan, June 2008.
A great interview to read. Banksy, one of the street artists who inspired us during our research and for our blog.
‘That’s my mum,’ says Banksy.
He’s pointing at a googly-eyed stencil portrait of an old lady. ‘Don’t tell her I gave her funny eyes, though. It’s not her most flattering portrait.’
Before I continue, I should clarify: officially this man isn’t Banksy. But unofficially, he’s so Banksy I want to slice off his face and put it on eBay.
From my past encounters I’m 99 per cent sure it’s him.
He’s the only man in this dirty, poisonous little road beneath London’s Waterloo Station that nobody refers to by name.
They just come up to him, ask a quick question and then scuttle off. He’s tall and well built with slightly shabby hair. His voice has a slight West Country twang lurking behind an otherwise London tone.
We met before, back in 2006, when Banksy was flogging his art to the Hollywood elite for six-figure sums at an LA show that centred on a live painted elephant.
On that night I shared a urinal with Keanu Reeves, had my G&T pilfered by Jude Law, chatted to Brad about where Angelina was going to put their new Banksy statue, and crucially helped stop the four-ton Indian elephant creating the biggest Hollywood bloodbath of all time.
Having been fed 50 bags of M&M’s and a few litres of Red Bull, Nelly was understandably tetchy at being blocked out of his ‘luxury elephant trailer’ by Banksy’s broken-down lorry.
In one of the most surreal hours of my life, I helped the artist move his stricken truck, before giving his crew a lift back to their hotel in a convertible Mustang I’d hired. From that point I was ‘in’. Which is why I’m here now.
‘It was great fun out there,’ he laughs about our time in LA. ‘OK, there’s no elephant this time, but in a way this is much bigger, the biggest thing we’ve ever done. It’s so vast, and every time you walk to the end you notice that something else has changed.’
He’s covered in paint, yet claims not to be working today. When he speaks, everyone listens. Point a camera near him and he runs. Looking askance at my photographer, who’s lurking, he politely reminds me, ‘No photos.’ That’s fine. We’re not here to blow his cover.
A new Banksy mural ‘One Nation Under CCTV’ painted next to a CCTV camera at a Post Office yard in the West End.
Described as Britain’s Andy Warhol, undercover graffiti guerrilla Banksy is not only our most important working artist, but one of the world’s most elusive criminals.
In January, a wall defaced by his spray can sold for £208,100. Everyone from Jude Law to Brangelina has his politically charged stencils on their walls – and I’m spending a morning watching him create his latest masterpiece, an entire London street graffitied in secrecy and not due to be unveiled until tonight.
Despite countless attempts by the police, his fans and the media, Banksy has somehow managed to keep his identity under wraps since he first became famous around eight years ago.
The story goes that his real identity is so secret even Banksy’s parents don’t realise who their son is; his agent tells me, ‘They think he’s a painter and decorator who’s done very well for himself.’
I’m not sure if I believe that, but I do know the cat-and-mouse game he plays with those trying to find him is both perfectly executed and as tongue-in-cheek as some of his wittier artworks.
The New Yorker, the BBC, Esquire and London’s Evening Standard have all attempted exposés on him, and all have failed.
When the LA Times tried to find out who he was, Banksy unleashed stand-up comedian Simon Munnery as his ‘lawyer’ to confuse matters.
This, despite the fact that Munnery had been drinking heavily all night. His 30-minute rant baffled them enough to make them give up on their scoop. Proof of just how far the artist is willing to go to guard his secret.
His agent and right-hand man Steve Lazarides once told me even he isn’t 100 per cent sure of Banksy’s identity.
CCTreeV at last month’s Cans Festival
Alarming, considering Lazarides owns the artist’s website and gallery and controls all access to him – if you want to buy a £60,000 Banksy-defaced Mona Lisa, Steve is the man you call.
‘I get a note telling me which B&Q car park he’s going to leave his latest box of his canvases in,’ Lazarides once told me.
‘I collect them and leave him a cheque in their place.’ Though he wouldn’t tell me who the cheque was payable to, he was deadly serious, convincingly baffled by the arrangement himself.
Considering Lazarides was previously a West Country chicken-plucker who took photos of Bristol’s graffiti scene in his spare time, it’s not a bad deal, and one he’d be a fool to blow.
It was Lazarides who arranged for me to be part of this top-secret paint-bombing.
No other member of the media even knew about it, let alone got asked to attend, and my invitation was suitably mysterious: just a two-word text reading ‘Leake Street’. Having met Banksy before, I know this means I have to get to Leake Street immediately. It’s 5am.
I find the kind of place urban foxes go to die, filled with junkies and litter.
To be honest, I’m a little nervous. This, after all, is the man who unleashed 164 live rats on art critics at his 2005 show in London’s Westbourne Grove.
On arrival, I see Banksy’s publicist, who I met in LA, loitering in front of what looks like a building site.
A sign on a blue plywood temporary barrier reads ‘Transport for London: road closed for vital maintenance work’. It’s a fake sign.
In truth, Banksy has rented the entire road for six months, and has created a monster behind the faux barrier.
‘Space Girl and Bird’ sold at auction last year for £288, 000
I’m itching to see what it is. As the publicist bangs on the plywood to be let in, she hands me a piece of paper
On it there’s a note from Banksy himself. It says, ‘Graffiti doesn’t always spoil buildings. In fact, it’s the only way to improve a lot of them.
In the space of a few hours with a couple of hundred cans of paint, I’m hoping we can transform a dark, forgotten filth pit into an oasis of beautiful art – in a dark, forgotten filth pit.’
Fantastic. A chain rattles, a padlock is removed and a 6ft, bald security guard swings the plywood barrier open. I’m in.
Beyond the temporary tarpaulin doors, the entire street is rammed with dozens of the planet’s finest stencil vandals, all busy at work.
Paint is dripping off every wall. Stencils of rats and Boris Johnson litter the floor; men in hoods are hanging off ladders with cans. The fog of aerosol fumes is enough to give me an instant migraine.
Every great stencil street artist on Earth is here. Someone tells me Banksy simply posted out first-class plane tickets and an address to 39 vandals around the world. That was three days ago.
‘Most people couldn’t make something this amazing work in three days, but everyone came,’ the London-based graffitist Pure Evil tells me.
Banksy artwork on Essex Road, Islington, London. The piece shows children pledging their allegiance to supermarket giant Tesco.
If the police were to burst in, they’d have a field day – these are some of the most prolific vandals in the world.
Notorious ‘steampunk’ artist Paul Insect rushes past me, Portugal’s Vhils is autographing walls and a slightly scruffy-looking bloke in his mid-thirties is hiding his face behind a black-and-white scarf.
I walk up to the main man and thrust out my hand in a hopeful sort of way. He smiles, shakes it and then yanks up his scarf even more.
Banksy’s role in what he’s calling the ‘Cans Festival’ is more executive than anything else, as he moves around directing various pieces. I have interrupted him at work on a sculpture called ‘CCTreeV’ involving dozens of fake security cameras. Before that, he was busy putting a Noddy car up on bricks.
When he arrived at Leake Street, Banksy’s biggest worry was the homeless men living there.
‘I didn’t want to just kick them out,’ he says. ‘Firstly it was their home, and secondly they were quite scary.
‘We offered to put them up in a YMCA, but they just said, ‘Don’t worry about it’, and moved on to somewhere else.
‘We’ve got this for six months, at which point Eurostar have told us they want it returned in the exact state we got it. So we’ll have to go find those guys and bring them back, I guess.’
They’ll also have to painstakingly urinate on the walls and bring back all the used needles.
It seems a shame, to say the least. ‘This street must be worth millions now,’ I point out, remembering that earlier this year one of Banksy’s quick urban paint jobs sold for £950,000 at Sotheby’s, New York. But the point of the Cans Festival is that it’s not for profit; this time, nothing is for sale.
‘We’re only flogging programmes for £3, and we’ll be very lucky to break even,’ Banksy states proudly.
‘It’s been quite an expensive project – we’ve flown artists in from 11 countries, and it’s not cheap to rent a road!
A wall adorned with a mural by graffiti artist Banksy has sold on EBay for 208,100 pounds ($407,000)
‘We could have put prints up for sale and made a fortune, but that’s not what this is about. We wanted people to be able to come here and have a go themselves.’
And when they’ve finished, they’re invited to take away whatever they like. ‘We did a show where we gave away free canvases to kids a couple of years ago, and this is just a progression from that. We’re giving away a piece of wall instead of the canvas.’
I ask if I can have a go at stencilling. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Are you any good?’
I’m not. My graffiti skills were wisely retired after I sprayed ‘M Khan is bent’ on a skateboard ramp in my youth. But there’s one empty patch I have my eye on. I ask if I can have a go with one of the ‘emulsion hydrants’ (fire extinguishers filled with paint, used to create giant splatters to stencil upon).
Sadly, that patch is being reserved for French graffiti legend Blek le Rat, who won’t arrive until tomorrow. Banksy is a huge fan. ‘Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it, too,’ he says, ‘only Blek did it 20 years earlier.’
At this point he starts to look twitchy. My photographer is struggling to resist taking photos and is edging ever closer. Even more worrying, the world’s media are knocking at the door. Time to leave…
‘You’re coming to our party tonight, aren’t you?’ Banksy asks as I shake his hand and say farewell. I’d only been half-invited to the grand unveiling up until this point, but now I’m definitely coming. ‘Great,’ he says. ‘I’ll see you later.’
PICTURE BY: ALMASI-BUSHELL / Banksy’s “Sweeping it under the carpet”, Chalk Farm, London.
He won’t. As I walk out, the mass of journalists who have now descended is suffocating. The Sky News helicopter is chopping overhead, eager hacks in suits and jaded art critics in hemp trousers are craning their necks and a CNN reporter thrusts a camera in my face.
‘Can you go live in five minutes?’ asks the CNN man, as his sound lady starts feeling up my jumper for suitable spots to pin a radio mic. Me, live to the world? Dear God, no.
‘Just tell them what you’ve been creating in there,’ he says, and it dawns on me: this man thinks he’s got the art-world scoop of the century. He thinks I’m Banksy.
Meanwhile, I see the real Banksy hugging the few hooded men who are still painting, and then he just walks out – fast, but bold as brass. He won’t be returning to the scene of the crime.
By the time I come back to Banksy’s street later that night, it’s huge news across the planet and has turned into a private street party.
Invitation-only, of course, and we’re still the only media in there. Unlike past Banksy parties I’ve attended, this one has nothing to do with flogging paintings to overly rich people. Nothing is for sale, kids are swinging on smashed-up cars and family and friends make up most of the numbers.
But there are also a lot of ‘London cool’ types sneering at the pieces. I’m not sure how or why they got in.
Banksy graffiti of a girl being taken by a cashpoint machine, Rosebery Avenue London EC1
You can sense the huge popularity of their former favourite is getting to them, and they’re clearly unhappy they can’t buy the pieces this time around.
‘I tell you what,’ laughs Banksy’s publicist, ‘if a grenade went off in here, there’d be a hell of a lot of dead a*******s.’ She has a point.
Ten o’clock the following morning is much more in the Banksy spirit. The ‘a*******s’ are gone and the street genuinely comes to life.
By the end of the three-day event, 28,500 people will have entered the street (queuing for up to an hour in the blazing heat), 691 of them bringing their own stencils and adding to the art, just as Banksy wanted.
Blek le Rat is here and busy at work – spraying an image of a homeless man in a style so familiar you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a Banksy.
Banksy image at the Cans Festival in Leake Street
He’s less political than the Englishman, but just as talented, and arguably more important on the street-art scene. I take the opportunity to buttonhole him.
‘Banksy is a very angry man and I love that,’ explains Blek as he sprays, in a soft Parisian accent.
‘People say he copies me, but I don’t think so. I’m the old man, he’s the new kid, and if I’m an inspiration to an artist that good, I love it. I feel what he is doing in London is similar to the rock movement in the Sixties.
London is the most exciting city in the world, and it’s because of the revolutionary artists transforming your city. You are very lucky.’
Ironically, Blek says he arrived late due to the huge popularity he’s now enjoying, thanks to Banksy.
‘People want to know me now… I have a major book deal with the biggest publishers in the world. I have waited 30 years for this. It’s only today that my street art has become big news, and that’s thanks to people saying Banksy is inspired by me.’
As Blek and a few dozen others concentrate on their painting, the rest of the punters seem hell-bent on destroying the place. Pieces are kicked, moved, stolen – and security encourage it. You certainly don’t get that at the Tate.
Cans Festival….A tunnel in south London has been transformed into an exhibition space by stencil graffiti artist Banksy
‘They’ll be here with angle grinders in the end,’ says one of Banksy’s people as I catch his eye near the end of the three-day extravaganza.
As I consider hiring one myself, I recall Banksy’s words about promising Eurostar they’d return the street in the exact state they’d found it. That already seems like a promise London can’t let Banksy keep.
Be it due to angle grinders or Banksy’s scrubbing brush, it’d be a tragedy if this new Leake Street vanished.
Once the dirtiest corner of central London, it has been transformed from a street nobody dared walk down into the most talked-about stretch of Tarmac in Britain.
What’s more, it hasn’t cost anyone (apart from a petty criminal from Bristol) a single penny. Love or hate Banksy’s art, you’ve got to respect that.
I return to Leake Street a few days later, when the camera-phone-clutching hordes have vanished and the tramps have moved back in, their grubby old patch of pavement now one of the most valuable properties in the capital.
I reach into my pocket and pull out a scrunched-up piece of paper. It’s Banksy’s note: ‘I’m hoping we can transform a dark, forgotten filth pit into an oasis of beautiful art – in a dark, forgotten filth pit.’
For a second I think it’s rather poignant. But then a hugely depressing realisation hits me:if only I’d got him to sign the thing, it’d be worth a fortune…Sources: dailymail, Breaking Banksy. Consulted October 7, 2011. From: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1024130/Breaking-Banksy-The-interview-worlds-elusive-artist.html