Anonymous London street artist Banksy spent the past month in New York City donating free art to the public. Image via Banksy’s website.
It isn’t often that you can get the whole of New York City talking about something, but love him or hate him Banksy has done it. For the past month blogs, newspapers, and Instagram feeds alike were giving this London street artist their undivided attention. Everyone wanted to be the first to know about the latest piece and take a picture of it. Graffiti artists based in New York City had a hard time allowing Banksy on their turf, as the first few pieces were “modified” within hours of their reveal. And yet, the richest street artist in the world still draws a huge crowd to all corners of The City just to catch a glimpse of the newest art installation. For this Untapped Cities piece, we’re taking a look back at the past month chasing around this street artist, analyzing what makes Banksy’s stuff so appealing to so many different people and why he’s able to draw such a big interest to street art.
Banksy’s first tour of New York City in 2005 involved installing his own pieces in famous museums around the city. He said to The New York Times back then, who was more interested in how he didn’t get caught: “I’ve wandered round a lot of art galleries thinking, ‘I could have done that,’ so it seemed only right that I should try. These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.” His guerrilla takeover of the art inside the selected galleries was meant as a social commentary about the construct of museums being the only curators of the art available for the art consumer. He believes, in a sense, that art should be unmediated: available for the public to experience freely. By some extent, his works are free to be modified–or vulnerable to it–instead of protected behind the walls of a museum.
Header of Banksy’s website for Better Out Than In.
It is fitting that his most recent residency, where he takes the art to the streets, is of the same spontaneity and perhaps the same initiative. This project, which he entitled “Better Out Than In,” is better explained by the Paul Cézanne quote at the top of Banksy’s website: “All pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as those done outside.” It echoes the ideology behind his original visit to New York City into the museums about how art is at times restricted to a specific audience.
And how did NYC react to “Better Out Than In”? You’ve probably never heard of graffiti being ripped off of walls, protected by metal grilles, deflowered, covered in plexi-glass, columns of concrete getting relocated, or even two East New Yorkers hustling $20 from visitors for a picture of a beaver. It’s clear that Banksy’s effect on New York is different from any other graffiti artist. Animal New York recently spoke with various street artists in an attempt to reconcile these mixed reactions to the works. Shepard Fairey probably said it best: “Success engenders admiration AND contempt. Banksy is a victim of his own success. There seems to be a distorted narrative in the street art / graff culture that equates a diss or two to ‘NYC has turned against you.'” It is not that NYC has turned against Banksy but rather that we’re, for lack of a better word, obsessed with him. But by the same light, we won’t take lightly to a foreigner encroaching on our turf.
On the last day of Better Out Than In, Banksy left his mark in Queens–but not at 5 Pointz graffiti shrine. Instead, his last piece was “full of hot air.” Photo via Banksy website.
New York City is the mecca of the hip hop phenomenon that gave rise to graffiti culture. Take a look at 5 Pointz in Long Island City if you need evidence of how we’ve come to venerate this subculture. Interestingly, Banksy didn’t tag up 5 Pointz and only mentions it in passing on the last day of his residency. The message we can take from Banksy’s residency in New York City is that he isn’t interested in “tagging” his name in our already-written graffiti history books. His pieces are meant to provoke the observer in a way a lot of graffiti in NYC does not. What started out as a marker of territory or namesake is subverted by Banksy, who until this date has managed to remain anonymous. Perhaps this is what his appeal is all about: observers aim to unmask this cat from London, and somehow by gawking at his stencils of a scrawled quote in Queens, a lonely man in Hell’s Kitchen, or a ghetto boy in the Bronx we feel closer to truly knowing this aerosol vigilante.
Yet at the same time, despite his “anonymity,” Banksy carefully constructed our vision of him. Posting works daily to his Instagram, on his website, and giving an exclusive interview with The Village Voice (chosen because it also gives things out for free on street corners). It’s this gray area Banksy exists in, between commercial artist and street artist, between anonymity and social media maven (his Instagram gained over 306,000 followers in the month), that creates strong sentiments on both sides from animosity to love.
On the last day of his tenure here in the Big Apple, Banksy gives us some insight into what he views as the purpose of street art. The audio guide rounded up the month of artwork by saying:
Banksy asserts that outside is where art should live, amongst us. And rather than street art being a fad, maybe it’s the last thousand years of art history that are the blip, when art came inside in service of the church and institutions. But art’s rightful place is on the cave walls of our communities where it can act as a public service, provoke debate, voice concerns, forge identities. The world today is run, visually at least, by traffic signs, billboards and planning committees. Is that it? Don’t we want to live in a world made of art not just decorated by it?
So in the end, there we have it. Better Out Than In, if nothing else, was an attempt for the artist to bring art back to its “rightful place.” Thank you Banksy, for bringing NYC back to street art. You’re welcome back here any time–and by ‘welcome’ I mean: the NYPD would love to have you and we’re all going to want a picture of your work for our Instagram feed before someone tags you up.
Complete coverage of Banksy’s pieces in “Better Out Than In”:
Final Banksy in NYC Day 31: “Inflatable Throw-Up” on the Long Island Expressway in Queens
Banksy in NYC Day 30: Yankee Stadium/Bronx Zoo Leopard
Banksy in NYC Day 29: Painting with Nazi Officer in Housing Works on 23rd Street
Banksy in NYC Day 28: Tagging Robot on Coney Island
Banksy in NYC Day 27: “This Site Contains Blocked Messages” in Greenpoint
Banksy in NYC Day 26: “The Grumpier You Are The More Assholes You Meet.”
Banksy in NYC Day 25: Grim Reaper on Bumper Car
Banksy in NYC Day 24: Waiting in vain…at the door of the Hustler Club
Banksy in NYC Day 23: “Today’s art has been cancelled due to police activity”
Banksy in NYC Day 22: Urban Sphinx in “Everything Except the Kitchen Sphinx”
Banksy in NYC Day 21: Ghetto 4 Life in the South Bronx
Banksy in NYC Day 20: “Hammer Boy” on the Upper West Side
Banksy in NYC Day 18: Banksy x Os Gemeos Open Air Gallery Under the High Line in Chelsea
Banksy in NYC Day 17: Japanese Footbridge Scene in Bed Stuy
Banksy in NYC Day 16: Shoe Shine, Ronald McDonald’s with Enormous Shoes in the Bronx
Banksy in NYC Day 15: Twin Towers Tribute in Tribeca
Banksy in NYC Day 14: What We Do in Life Echoes for Eternity
Banksy in NYC Day 13: Spray Art for Sale Ignored in a Stall at Central Park
Banksy in NYC Day 12: Concrete Confessional at Cooper Union
Banksy in NYC Day 11: Silence of the Lambs Slaughterhouse Truck
Banksy in NYC Day 10: Beaver with Downed No Parking Sign in East New York
Bansky in NYC Day 9: Night Vision Horses on Truck and Car in the Lower East Side
Banksy in NYC Day 8: Fake Plato Quote in Greenpoint
Banksy in NYC Day 7: Battle to Survive a Broken Heart in Brooklyn
Banksy in NYC Day 5: 3-D Mobile Waterfall on Inside of Truck Touring Daily
Banksy in NYC Day 4: OCCUPY! The Musical in Bushwick is Already Gone But Two Still Remain
Banksy in NYC Day 3: Dog Peeing on Fire Hydrant in “You Complete Me”
Yes, Banksy is in NYC for the Month: Live Feed
Banksy in NY: Graffiti is a Crime Poster