Out and about with Banksy in London
Original, thought provoking and hilarious. British graffiti artist, Banksy, cuts his own unique line in the world of spray-can wallscapes. Jim Carey takes a stroll round town with the UK's most prolific stencilist.
30th May 2002
"Oh yeah?" sneers the girl on the door of an exclusive West End club. "So what colour is your membership card then?"
She's wearing a figure hugging dress and a well practiced look of deep disapproval. "Light blue," replies Banksy with casual confidence.....and we're in....just like that.
Not that Banksy ever had a membership card of course. It's just that the conversation we've been having in a nearby pub isn't over by closing time and the only convenient place to lubricate our continuing chats is a discrete members-only bar for West End luvies. So Banksy strolls up, gives it the "I've been a member for years, just forgotten my card" blag, and open sesame.
"Well," says Banksy, by way of explaining his miraculous guesswork, "membership cards are usually either pink or light blue."
If gaining access to forbidden places is a skill graffiti artists share with secret agents, then Banksy has 007 credentials. How else do you explain how he managed to evade a park full of armed guards and drop a tag inside the giraffe cage at Barcelona Zoo. Or how he got away with painting 'Mind the Crap' on all the steps leading up to the Tate Gallery on the night before the Turner Prize ceremony.
It takes a certain gall to paint a 300 sq ft graffiti piece in central London and then, within a few hours, stand up to speak at a Greater London Authority meeting on "The problem of graffiti"; slipping away into the shadows just as the delegates began to realise they'd had the UK's most prolific graffiti 'writer' in their midst. And all because the lady loves......
Celebs may line up to buy his paintings (he calls them "souvenirs"), whilst his last book sold 22,000 copies. But very few people will ever get to know who he is. One of the most talked about artists of the moment is not to be found hanging in the Saatchi gallery, nor is he staring from the front cover of The Guardian Weekend magazine. He operates underground, knocking out extravagant works of graffiti like there's no tomorrow, and riding his wits to remain out of police custody.
"I guess galleries are just boring at the end of the day. They're like a big signpost to the joke before the joke has actually happened," he muses supping his pint of cider in the luvvies Club. "It's only ever funny if it creeps up on you by surprise and, suddenly, there's a punchline you weren't expecting. Going in somewhere where its white, pristine with nice floodlights is never gonna be funny."
It was, of course, a great artistic irony when the Tate Gallery spent hundreds of pounds hiring emergency graffiti removers to erase 'Mind the Crap' from all its front entrance steps, just in time to pronounce an unmade bed as Turner Prize artwork of the year. Particularly as the Tate's bookshop have sold 500 copies of Banksy's book. But then there's something about good quality graffiti that really irks the authorities.
"The best bit of graffiti you do will be gone by midday the next day. That's the rule of graffiti. The shitier it is, the greater the chance it will stay around for fucking years. If you write 'Dave sucks cocks for rocks' you can guarantee it will still be there long after you're dust. But if you paint something peachy, right place right time, someone will get rid of it by dawn."
Staff at Bristol Zoo even hung a dirty plastic sheet in their elephant cage to cover a recent Banksy hit.
"Wendy the elephant has been in that cage for seventeen years," says Banksy. "I got into her cage and wrote 'Keeper smells - Boring Boring Boring' on the wall. A fair guess of what she might feel I reckon. But they wouldn't have it. Not even for a day. They just hung a plastic sheet over it.
"You get the impression they'd rather not open the zoo than allow someone to see those words."
Earlier that evening we found ourselves leaning on an atomic bomb quaffing free rioja. We'd wangled our way into the opening night of a new exhibition on the Spanish Civil War at the Imperial War Museum. And, having wondered through a hall of tanks, bazooka's and Exocet missiles, we reach the bulbous grey weapon of mass destruction, and conversation turns to terrorism and art.
"September 11 was an amazing spectacle, very symbolic. In terms of terrorism nothing has ever come close. No amount of bombing people in little holes in Afghanistan will ever compare to that.
"In terms of painting graffiti about the event, it was a nightmare. All pictures were useless, Any remotely artistic response to it would have been too contrived. Any statement about it just needed to be scrawled on the wall in bad handwriting. So I just wrote 'Bury the dead not the truth' and 'There are no innocent bystanders' in a few places. It was the only honest response. Six months after the event something else can be done now. It was the end of innocence for Charlie Brown."
Banksy's been honing his approach to graffiti art for nearly ten years, starting in his native Bristol area with ol' skool coloured lettering and moving on through sheer prolific application to his remarkable and speedily evolving stencil images.
"I started writing graffiti like every kid did that I was hanging around with. If you couldn't talk over a record very well then it was the other thing you did. There's a beauty in stencils, especially if you paint somewhere like London or a 24 hour city because you can get a great image up in 30-40 seconds."
Favourite "reaches" include railway lines, public squares, bridges, police stations and of course zoo's. Besides his work in Barcelona and Bristol Zoo, Banksy's also known for breaking into the penguin enclosure at London Zoo and painting 'We're bored of fish- We wanna go home'.
"When graffiti artists began painting trains they were people who had no voice in a New York ghetto. Painting zoo's is similar in that it's painting for creatures who can't express themselves in any other way."
These days those images are appearing on walls all over the world. Berlin, San Francisco, Barcelona, London and even, whilst visiting the Zapatista rebels in Mexico, under the noses of the less than genteel Mexican policemen.
Despite his increasing profile and the audacity of his works, Banksy's only ever been caught once, having been spotted doctoring a billboard advert on a tower block in New York.
"You'd imagine that certain folk would kinda be on your side. But I was grassed up by some transvestite hooker looking to score brownie points with the NYPD. The cops stormed the roof and I got done."
Ironically the hotel where he stayed whilst completing his community service preferred having its walls painted with Banksy's images rather than money for the room.
"Some people do say that graffiti is ugly. Well a lot of graffiti is ugly....it's a product of society so it's bound to be pretty ugly. Some people want to make the world a better place I just wanna make the world a better looking place. If you don't like it you can paint over it."
Many of the world's major cities have inherited a new colony of industrious rats subsequent to a Banksy spree. Sometimes working in groups and sometimes alone, all busy dismantling street furniture with drills, screwdrivers, crow bars and hammers. These are Banksy's ever proliferating army of super vermin.
"It's about underground culture...the things come up from the sewers. I like the idea of nicely tooled up vermin. They're not quite as stupid as you think and they have the equipment to deal with things.
"When you got three rats round a radiator grill, one on look out, one with a screwdriver and one with a crowbar trying to prize the grill open, it's like all the little powerless losers grouping together, having a little think and coming back at you better than before."
"You can go out every night with a rat stencil and a can of paint in your handbag and find a spot or not find a spot."
Two other animal species making their faces known via Banksy's work are monkeys and the royal family. On the wall beside the Great Western line just outside Paddington Station a huge crown-wearing chimpanzee pronounces "Only the ridiculous survive". A range of monkey queens and other suitably irreverent royal family stencils are working their way round the UK in time for the queen's golden jubilee.
"They're too ugly to rule us anymore but I almost feel bad every time I have a bash at them cos it's so easy. I do them because they're iconic and the ultimate symbol of what's wrong with the whole idea of inheritance. But it's like hitting a puppy. Their little double chins and frumpy little faces. I mean look at a five pound note...what is that?"
Ask Banksy about his favourite artist and he's off and running about the man he thinks had it all. Harry Houdini: "A true cross over between art and real life. Everytime he performed he was always on the edge of either drowning or suffocating. Never afraid to fuck up in public. Apparently annoying to speak to, a nightmare to deal with but utterly compulsive and, in terms of art, the greatest all round artist of the last hundred years. He had timing and art's all about timing. The mark of true genius is timing."
A point not lost on me later that night when I'm lying on the floor of a police cell with black paint all over my hands, having been caught having a go so to speak.
Spraying a wall in central London with two bored coppers sitting in a car beside me was not the way to begin a sustainable career in graffiti writing. Evidently unable to contain their disbelief at the audacity, the bored coppers were all over me like I was a terrorist in their midst. Twelve hours in a police cell was their way of retribution and, as I lay there my thoughts turned to Harry Houdini and Banksy's words about fucking up blatantly in public.
"A while a go I got over the thing about fucking up in public," he'd said to me the night before. "Sometimes the bigger the lessons you learn in public - whether you fuck up with the picture or get nicked - the more useful it is for other people. It's slapstick. This is the entertainment business."
Midday the next day I'm turfed out into the rain, the cops having kept my coat "for forensics". The phone rings almost the moment I'm out. "Yo," says Banksy. "How's it going?"
"Not so bad I suppose," says I. "But give me that stuff about timing one more time."
For a selection of Banksy's images check out SQUALL's picture gallery.
The second book in Banksy's pocket book vandalism series, 'Existencilism', is published this month by Weapons of Mass Distraction. Price £4