(3.5 stars) If Banksy is now considered part of the recognized "art world," as author Will Ellsworth-Jones contends in this enlightening biography, it is certainly not what Banksy himself would ever have envisioned as a youth. Born in 1974, in Bristol, England, then the center of a lively graffiti "art scene," Banksy saw the nightly battles between young men armed with aerosol paint cans and the police who wanted to arrest them for defacing property, a counterculture phenomenon centered around Barton Hill. He joined that night-time scene when he was only fourteen, excited by the hit-and-run atmosphere which surrounded these street artists.
Graffiti is a "lawless activity with a million and one laws," the author explains. For most artists the "passion and fame...the comradeship, the challenge, and the fear" shared among other artists is what it is all about, and many "graffiti artists" do not consider Banksy one of them at all. One fellow artist explains that graffiti artists "only write their name and do characters and it's a whole ego trip and it's all about us and our peers. It's not about the public." For Banksy, however, it is all about the public and the wider audience he seeks. "[He is] painting the same walls as a graffiti artist but [he is] producing images which are instantly understandable - a gallery on the street that is inclusive rather than exclusive."
Eventually, Banksy abandoned the characters and the "bomb and run" style of his early freehand painting in favor of working as a stencil artist, which requires precision, advance planning, and organization. The designs, many with social messages, can be repeated and installed in more than one area. Freehand artists in Bristol hated these new images, but the public loved them for their accessible style, dark humor, and contemporary messages, often anti-war, anti-poverty, and always anti-establishment. In 2003, Banksy began his "Art of Infiltration" in London, scoping out museums, entering quietly, going to a pre-determined site, and posting his own work on the walls. In 2003, he hit the Tate Modern, followed by seven more galleries in the next seventeen months. He adorned the Natural History Museum and the Louvre with his work. In 2005, he "infiltrated" four museums in New York City, without being stopped once. His work began to sell, and by 2008, at a Sotheby's auction to raise money for AIDS programs in Africa, his prices ranged from $385,000 to $960,000, with the painting on the cover of this book, "Keep it Spotless," selling for $1.8 million at that auction.
Author Ellsworth-Jones's many anecdotes and stories about Banksy, his art, his antics, and his loyal coterie, Pest Control, give attention to a form of art that is less guerrilla style than it once was, though Banksy continues to insist on anonymity. His information about the people with whom Banksy has worked and his many projects, including his film, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," are entertaining and help explain the Banksy phenomenon and the street art itself. The chronology of the book jumps around without enough references to dates, however, making an accurate time sequence difficult to ascertain. No discussion is offered on what constitutes "true" art vs the brief, temporary installations of street artists, usually seen by small audiences, nor does it ask whether that should even be an issue. This book looks at this recent counterculture phenomenon and presents information but offers few conclusions.