The graffiti artist Banksy is London's phantom celebrity. Millions have seen his work. But few have seen Banksy. Preferring to be thought of as a "quality vandal," he winces at the idea of being called an artist. "I'd never write that word on my passport, it's a bit precious sounding" says the skinny 28 year old. He has a silver tooth and sports an earring. "I'm not trying to recast graffiti as an art. The word vandal would suit me fine, a 'quality vandal' that is. I'd like to reclaim the word 'vandal' the way hip-hop reclaimed 'nigger'."
Banksy's first major exhibition "Turf War" was one of England's best -- and briefest -- shows this season. Staged in a warehouse on Kingsland Road in London's East End, the exact location was kept secret until the last minute.
"Turf War" was supposed to be open from July 18 to 24, but police closed it down two days after the opening. Why? Because artist Banksy is a wanted man.
Guests packed the space to see Banksy's provocative work that included a smashed up police van, vandalized monuments and graffiti-coated live animals.
Many celebrity fans like chef Jamie Oliver and DJ Sara Cox wanted to meet Banksy at the opening. So did the police. But the elusive vandal was nowhere to be found. "I have warrants out for my arrest and besides I don't like dealing with the public," he said.
Banksy's been busted before. He has a penchant for branding London's public buildings and bridges with his well-crafted black-and-white stencils of visual puns and slogans. Banksy's form of self-expression has put the police on his tail. Graffiti may still be a hot cultural form. But in London, it's punishable with a prison sentence of up to ten years.
All this makes Banksy a "cultural gangster" at large. And crime seems to be paying. Banksy's numerous products are selling. The pop band Blur asked him to do the cover of their recently released album, "Think Tank." You can buy Banksy's posters at Selfridges department store. Pop stars and night club owners are clamoring to commission him. Banksy's brand can be found on t-shirts. His canvases are selling for up to 10,000 apiece. And as demand is high, it's only a matter of time before prices follow.
Would Banksy sell work to Charles Saatchi? "He can keep his money. I would rather my work was in the hands of thousands than in the hands of one man."
Despite his fame, Banksy turns down many lucrative offers. The latest was issued from the world's biggest sneaker pimp, Nike. Banksy turned them down flat. "I'm not worried about selling out. I concentrate on the work." Spoken like the true outlaw.
Many think that graffiti's jump from the trains to canvas -- from breaking the law to entering the art market -- has been responsible for the death of the movement.
But canvas is the car of the art market, the vehicle that everyone uses to transport their visual message. In the mid-1980s, New York graffiti was the hottest commodity on the international contemporary art scene. Invited to mount an exhibition at the Basel art fair of 1984, my partner Guillaume Gallozzi and I sold 72 paintings and 40 drawings in three days. An ironic outcome, given that we flew to Switzerland with $50 between us and left with over $250,000, much of it in cash.
As an art fad, graffiti was soon played out -- though it lives on in advertising, where the look of graffiti is used to give products the street credibility that is needed to reach the multibillion-dollar youth market.
"Our culture is obsessed with brands and branding" says Banksy. He hasn't done a bad job branding himself as the mysterious vandal, famous yet anonymous at the same time. Even his parents are unaware of his secret identity. They think he's a decorator.
"Turf War" features live cows, sheep, lambs and a ewe literally branded with Banksy's trademark spray-painted stencils. "I'm taking the idea of branding back to its original roots, which is cattle branding. I call it Brandalism," he said.
But there's also a less serious reason he used farm animals. "I'm from Bristol," says Banksy, "and if you come from outside London they [London's snobbish graffiti establishment] give you a lot of shite about being a country bumpkin. So I thought, right, I'll give 'em country bumpkin -- I'll just get all these animals together and paint them."
Watching over this menagerie is an enormous stencil painting of Winston Churchill sporting a green Mohawk with the word "Thug" branded underneath.
The seemingly small and insignificant act of unauthorized writing in public spaces still evokes crisis in city administrations around the world -- including London. Last year over 100,000,000 pounds was spent on cleaning graffiti. It boggles the mind to think what could be done with even a fraction of that money if were given to gifted vandals like Banksy.
Surely London mayor Ken Livingstone would appreciate Banksy's baiting tourists with his meticulously stencilled sign on the base of Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square reading, "Designated Riot Area"? No ground is too sacred for Banksy's form of prose. At the London Zoo, Banksy managed to sneak inside the penguin enclosure to leave a calling card saying, "This place is too cold."
So what's in it for Banksy -- the thrill, the money, the fame, les femmes? "I'm doing it because I can. Painting sucks, art sucks -- hopefully I'll get out of it soon and find something a bit more worthwhile to do with my time," he says audaciously. Throwing a final dig at collector Charles Saatchi, Banksy adds, "I don't like the gallery system. These days, the value of art seems to come down to whether one millionaire likes it or not." But with paintings going for 10,000 a pop, who else could afford one?
Despite his success, Banksy still gets the biggest charge from his covert stencil-and-run operations. "Nothing is as exciting as doing a painting where nobody wants it," he says. "Even a major exhibition at the Tate Modern couldn't compare with that."