The painstaking removal of multiple layers of paint revealed policemen with smileys as faces. Trademark Banksy, the guerilla street artist, they made up a work called ‘Every Picture Tells a Lie!’
Banksy had created it as part of a street art festival in 2003. When the festival ended, the wall was painted over for other uses.
Banksy went on to become more and more famous. So that when news broke that this early work of his was going to be ‘excavated’ in 2011, the media exulted in it as a re-discovery of a lost work, accompanied by much speculation about its value.
Being a huge fan of Banksy’s socio-political commentary, I hurried to the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, to see it. And was star-struck.
Covering a whole wall, the piece featured five of these figures, the smiley faces and angel wings in sharp contrast to the riot gear and red splatters. It had been created using stencil, dripping paint and a large dose of irony.
But the Banksy rediscovery was only part of a larger story. The act of uncovering this work was a deliberate one by another street artist, Brad Downey. It was a clever, pointed act that was part of his bigger piece, titled ‘What Lies Beneath’.
Downey was exploring appropriation and restoration of the whole room as it was when Banksy spray-painted that one wall. But Downey left blank the spaces where other artwork was, except for Banksy’s piece.
When most media turned its glare to the Banksy ‘rediscovery’ – to the point of completely leaving out Downey and his context – the work also became a comment on fame and commercialism in the art world.
Like probably many others, I fell prey to the skewed media reports and went to the art space with the sole purpose of drinking in the Banksy. I did look around the room though and got a vague sense of a purposeful uncovering of layers but no real understanding of the work in its entirety.
It is only in the light of researching for this story that I can look back and begin to appreciate the many levels of appropriation and representation it evoked. ω
Provocative, smart and invariably spot-on, Banksy is street art’s poster child. He has left his imprint world-over, from the Calais refugee ‘jungle’ to the West Bank barrier and inside four New York museums.
That this British superstar remains deliberately mysterious adds to his allure, at least to fans like me. His website is vague and showcases only his latest work. The Smithsonian Magazine has a more substantial treatise on him.
Banksy has courted controversy because his increased fame has escalated the value of his art to six digit sums and his work can be in such high demand that people have chipped it off walls. Yet to others, it is vandalism and is whitewashed or destroyed.
The artist even turned his talents to film-making. Critics remain divided as to whether ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is a documentary or a hoax. I certainly found it a brilliant and entertaining window into and critique of what art is and what it is worth.