Banksy Documentary Takes Inside Look at Street Art

I mentioned my newfound obsession with Banksy on Saturday. Let me just say: it has grown. That same night I watched a documentary produced by and featuring Banksy called “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Absolutely fabulous. Banksy is not only an artist; he’s a character. Having a naturally sarcastic way about him, his commentary adds wit and entertainment to the 86-minute-long look at some of the most famous images of political graffiti, protest graffiti, and street art.

Banksy produced the documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which takes an inside look at some of the most famous street artists in the world, along with many of their politically-charged works. Banksy is also a subject in the film.

Even more cool, viewers actually get to see three of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists—Banksy, Shephard Fairey, and Invader—at work. Given Banksy’s notoriously camera-shy reputation, the fact that he appears onscreen at all is remarkable.

The documentary begins when a Los Angeles based Frenchman, Thierry Guetta, gets the idea that he would like to film street artists in the process of creating their work. To gain access, he tells them he is making a documentary. In reality, he is only filming endless footage with no intention of making a cohesive movie. Unaware of this fact, many street artists from around the world agree to participate. As Thierry goes out with artists at night, he begins assisting them in creating their designs and even gains insider knowledge about the most sought-after locations for graffiti art.

The documentary also takes a look at Shepard Fairey's "Obey" campaign, and viewers will see him posting his graffiti in many locations.

After following Invader, Fairey, and other graffiti artists for a while, Thierry finally gains permission to tag along with Banksy, so long as he only films his hands working. In interview scenes, Banksy demands to be blacked out, and viewers never see his face. Banksy eventually convinces Thierry to use his footage to make a movie. After six months apart, Thierry returns to Banksy to show him the product of his work. At this point, Banksy realizes that Thierry is an amateur filmmaker at best, but still finds Thierry to be an interesting character—in an odd, yet appealing, way.

Banksy decides to take over the film process and uses Thierry’s footage along with additional material to make his own documentary about Thierry’s journey in this project. Since Thierry spent so much time involved in the process of street art, Banksy also suggests (rather offhandedly) that Thierry become a street artist himself. Not wanting to disappoint Banksy—whose suggestion Thierry takes very seriously—Thierry reinvents himself as street artist MBW, an acronym for “Mr. Brainwash.”

After being on the LA street art scene only a short while, Thierry throws everything into putting on a massive art show showcasing his work. However, as viewers will see, much of his ‘original’ work appears similar to other artists’. Despite the unoriginality, he gains fame and popularity, much to the other artists’ shock.

The film ends with my favorite line of the documentary, said by Banksy:

“I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.”

Watch the trailer for the documentary here: 

Banksy: The Street Art Phenomenon

I’m undergoing an obsession (likely a fleeting one) with Banksy, arguably the most well-known, albeit controversial, street artist in the world.

I’ve mentioned him several times, but to review: Banksy is a graffiti artist from Bristol, England, whose artwork has appeared throughout London and other cities around the world. Despite being wildly popular, he’s managed for the most part to hide much of his identity from the media. Nobody can even say for sure what his real name is, although many assert that it is Robert or Robin Banks. However, he sings all of his works of art with the stenciled “Banksy” logo.

On the occasion that he has agreed to be interviewed, Banksy refuses to call himself an artist, although he is obviously considered as such by other artists and by viewers of his works. His street art style is very unique and most commonly employs a distinctive stenciling technique.

Banksy’s art is often heavily controversial and almost always politically loaded. His works offer commentary on a wide range of societal problems, but tend to focus most on urban decay and subjects in urban environments. His political leanings, which many believe to be left-wing, are often not appreciated by certain members of society. Sometimes viewed in an offensive light, his art is not always received well by older members of society, but he has generated somewhat of a cult following among younger generations.

In addition to his street works, Banksy does paid work for a few organizations and sells some canvases for a steep price.

In 2006, Banksy generated an unprecedented amount of controversy when he stenciled nine images on the West Bank Barrier, the 425-mile concrete barricade separating Israel from the Palestine territories. Israel constructed the wall as a security measure against suicide bombers. Painted on the Palestinian side of the barrier, one image depicts a hole in the wall with an idyllic beach, while another shows a mountain landscape on the other side. Still another shows the head of a white horse appearing to poke through, while he also painted a ladder going over the wall.

Banksy condemned the wall, but also described it as the ultimate holiday destination for graffiti artists.

Here’s a video documenting his work on the West Bank Barrier: 

Here’s another showing a number of his works around the world:

Society May Prompt Its Own Vandalism

Another work of Banksy stenciled graffiti: I’m catching the theme that he’s popular among political street art circles. I’m also catching onto his style (totally called that this was his).

This work (on a street corner in Belgium) touches on the idea of graffiti as vandalism, a topic I’ve previously covered. The art world and the public don’t always see eye-to-eye on the role, purpose, and legality of graffiti in society. Here, Banksy offers an interesting twist to the artist’s argument

On a street corner in Belgium, this is another stenciled graffiti piece by Banksy. It offers the idea that society itself prompts works of graffiti, an act considered vandalism by much of the public.

Protest art is, more than anything, a response. Something spurs it. Artists wouldn’t draw pieces protesting war if there was no war; images of the homeless wouldn’t appear if homelessness was not a problem in society; works favoring or disagreeing with one candidate or another or one issue or another wouldn’t appear if disputes didn’t exist among sides.

In short, politically-charged works of street art tend to emerge as reactions to societal problems and issues. It’s a classic example of cause-and-effect.  Where problems arise, art follows. And the greater the problem, the more likely it is there will be a united and powerful response among the street art world.

Furthermore, works of political protest art and street graffiti are not created simply to express an individual artist’s opinion, but to call attention to what they (and generally many others) view as an injustice existing in society. This ‘vandalism’ then, as many perceive it, is precisely the fault of society: as the acting impetus, it deserves to suffer the consequences.

Street artists will continue to launch responses to societal concerns so long as society remains imperfect. As such, it is unrealistic to ever expect walls and buildings devoid of art.

Live Free or Die

I have no idea where this piece of political art exists, but when I saw it online, I thought—of all things—of Patrick Henry’s famous speech in which he closes with “give me liberty or give me death!” Same idea.  Different wording.

This work of political street art reflects a core foundation of America: the importance of freedom and the willingness to fight for it at any cost.

The words ‘live free or die’ are iconic to American political philosophy. They capture and reflect the assertive independence typically found in our nation’s politics, which tends to hold an attitude that even death is preferable to life without freedom.  Any self-respecting American can identify with the phrase in this artwork and appreciate its significance to our cultural and political history. Even the most unpatriotic citizen can surely agree that America, despite whatever problems it may have, can at least be credited for consistently standing by its thoughts on freedom.

To distract from that paragraph, which unintentionally became a soap box lecture, here’s a fun fact: “Live Free or Die” happens to be the official state motto of New Hampshire, adopted in 1945.

Apparently, the phrase comes from a toast written by General John Stark, New Hampshire’s most famous soldier of the Revolutionary War. On July 31, 1809, Stark declined an invitation to an anniversary reunion of the Battle of Bennington, but included in his note a toast for the evening which read:

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

More than two centuries later, Americans still agree.

‘Tiles for America’

I’m taking a break from looking at protest art and propaganda today to look at a unique display of art (still political) with a far more positive message.

In New York City, there exist two “Tiles for America” displays, created in remembrance of September 11, 2001. These hanging tiles are patriotic, touching, inspirational, and heartbreaking all at once. Although the two displays now consist of thousands of tiles and ceramics of all shapes and sizes, they had small beginnings.

The "Tiles for America" display was created to be a message of inspiration and hope for 9/11 survivors. Today, the display is both a poignant reminder and a touching memorial for victims.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, crowds gathered in large numbers in front of Saint Vincent’s Hospital located at the corner of 7th Avenue and 11th Street. This hospital received thousands of survivors, and hopeful relatives crowded outside the building once news of the event had spread.

In an effort to create an inspiration for recovering victims in the hospital, Lorrie Veasey (owner of OUR NAME IS MUD, also located on 11th street), began to create tiles with messages of hope and courage.

From raw clay she fashioned approximately 5000 small angels and American flags, which she and friends attached to a fence that faced the hospital on September 14. Upon being released from the hospital, many victims took a tile home with them. Others were taken by mournful relatives as consolation.

Word of the tiles spread within the art and pottery world, and within weeks, “Paint Your Own Pottery” studios across the nation were joining together to create tiles that would reflect messages of peace, unity, courage, and hope. Through this creative outlet, the nation was able to honor the brave men and women who lost their lives on September 11.

Looking down Seventh Avenue.

One tile expresses the exact purpose of the displays:

“These tiles reflect the thoughts and feelings of people across the U.S.A. in response to the events of September 11. Artists of all ages and backgrounds express their emotions here.”

Currently, more than 6000 tiles hang on chain-link fences at two different sites: the original site outside of St. Vincent’s at the intersection of 7th Avenue and 11thStreet and a second at the Tribute WTC Center on the southside of Ground Zero.

I found this tile to be especially touching.

For an up-close look at more of the tiles, watch this video:

War vs. Peace

This image is about war and peace.

Stenciled on some wall on some street corner in some city, the art appears at first glance to be an anti-peace work (big red target!). But on closer inspection, it proves itself to be an image of peace advocacy.

An image full of symbolism, this stenciled street art is advocating peace, although it deceivingly gives the impression of advocating war.

You’d have to be blind to miss the heavy peace symbolism. There’s a dove and an olive branch, universal symbols of peace since practically the dawn of time. (But for real. I looked it up and use of the olive branch as a symbol of peace dates at least to the 5th century B.C., in the time of the ancient Greeks. Furthermore, the dove apparently appears in many early Roman catacombs in funerary inscriptions, sometimes accompanied by the words in pace, which is Latin for “in peace.” So there’s that evidence.)

But even while the peace symbolism is strong, it’s not what the eye notices first. The target, centered directly over the heart of the dove—and therefore the heart of peace—takes the first-impression prize hands-down. And if I did a word association exercise with the word “target,” here’s what comes to mind: bullets, shooting, guns, war, battle. (I was having a really hard time blocking “store” from that list). In any case, the target obviously represents war, and on first glance, it appears to be taking pretty good aim at peace.

But notice what’s under the target: a bulletproof vest. Protecting both the bird—and peace—from war, the vest is why this image can be labeled pro-peace. With such foolproof safety gear, peace is shielded from harm.

While war is taking pretty good aim, it’s just a bit off-target.

Persuasion In Propaganda

During World War II, American propaganda was used to increase support for the war and to ensure a commitment to an Allied victory. Posters were commissioned by branches of the U.S. Government such as the armed forces, recruiting bureaus, the Office of War Information, and the United States Treasury. Patriotic in nature, these prints stirred up pro-American feelings and helped mobilize citizens to support the war movement.

Within the realm of political art, I’m most fascinated by the persuasive power of propaganda posters. With just a simple design and a short (and sometimes not-so-sweet) slogan, prints gave off a powerful message, called people to action, and produced a lasting effect on the home front.

I’ve posted a video in tribute.

Watch this YouTube video for a look at some of the most iconic propaganda posters used in World War II.