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Guerrilla” Artist Banksy has had what would to any artist be considered the unthinkable happen; someone – a graffiti removal expert to be exact – has painted over an old mural in Bristol, the artist’s home town. Known primarily for his work in London, and now in places like Los Angeles, the site of his recent Barely Legal exhibition, Banksy is on one hand the voice of a generation who see paint on walls, buildings, streets, signs and damn well near anywhere else as fertile ground for real, innovative art, and on the other hand a feckless vandal who, were it not for the fact that he is still inexplicably anonymous, would be rotting in a jail cell with very colourful walls right now if the Met had their way.

Banksy’s real rise to fame accompanied his 2005 book Wall and Piece – a collection of his graffiti work in print, extending the cultural heritage of graffiti reproduction that started to some degree at least in the UK with Simon Rees’ book Graffiti, and its followers. Bristol of course, knew him years ago.

Banksy’s website (banksy.co.UK) and his Wall and Piece…er…piece, gives a fascinating insight into what makes the man tick – his manifesto from the website is tellingly not actually by him, but from Lt Col Mervin Willet Gonin DSO, describing the liberation of Bergen Belsen. He describes the arrival of the red cross, and that their first gift to the half-dead starved and destroyed prisoners was lipstick. Why? Well –

“I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

This gives us a very good idea what writing on walls means to Banksy. It is a singular act of reclamation. Taking back the space that is now filled by buildings, by walls that allow us up to a certain point, then stop us. Walls are designed for nothing else than an act of segregation so subtle that humans have yet to notice that the more walls are built up around us, the more our predicament is that of a prison. Not like a prison, it is prison.

Wall and Piece, (co-written by amongst others UK comedian Simon Munnery, of the League Against Tedium) – extends the metaphor further:

“People abuse you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happenings somewhere else. They’re on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate.They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

However, you are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with impunity.

Screw that. Any advert in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange andre-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. You especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

Here we see graffiti as reclamation not of just the physical space, but the ideological too – that advert is in my face – the pushback is to paint something over/around/on it. You tell me what to wear, I’ll tell your nice portrait what kind of damn mustache it will have.

It is ironic that in an age of asymmetrical warfare, where we are hunting bin Laden (with as little success as Banksy) and where there are no ‘sides to a war anymore (see Jean Beaudrillard’s The Iraq War Never took Place), fighting against ideological ills in society is becoming ever more particular to place, to space, to locality. Any literary scholar will tell you that what makes a great sentence is the two or three that surround it, any great historian will tell you that facts alone mean nothing without context and Banksy will tell you this:

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Barely Legal, LA.

It’s not because it’s a stencil of a rat with a boom box that makes it good – the power of any and all street art emanates from the fact that it was sprayed on your car when you weren’t looking. Or even better – when you were. The wall will lend you strength.

Anyway – in the fight against all that hog-ties our liberty, Banksy has become, well, forgive the pun, but rather bankable. His work now roars through Sotheby’s for hundreds of thousands of quid – and that’s cheap compared to where it’ll be in 10 years time. Prints of his work are on Ebay for hundreds if you’re lucky and thousands if you’re not. His preemptive response to this shift in status from banksy to bankable was captured in this piece (edited by a blogger, I can’t find the original, so Ignore GW Bush and the Iraq maps)

So now he’s the big time, and presumably the envy of every other street artist out there, stealing their limelight. What to do, what to do…

Paint over it?

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