Mr Brainwash first came to the world’s attention as the star of Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop. The film was so extraordinary it was met with a storm of hoax accusations. It followed the then Thierry Guetta, a perfectly ordinary (well, ordinary-ish) French-born owner of a vintage clothes shop in Los Angeles, who had an obsessive hobby for filming things. With a camcorder permanently attached to his face and no need for sleep, Guetta began turning his lens on other nocturnal creatures: street artists.
Over several years, with help of his cousin the French artist Invader, he fell in with Shepard Fairey (famous for the Obama Hope motif) and other graffitists in the LA scene. The famously coy Banksy even agreed to be filmed (under strict provisos of control of footage), having been told by others that Guetta was making a documentary about the particularly fruitful early 2000s period of street art – a misconception Guetta was happy to let rest.
Guetta scaled buildings, held ladders, ran from police and became a helpful, if insistent, fanboy in this strange night-time art world. But he made no attempt to turn the hundreds of hours of footage he had collected into a film. Eventually responding to pressure from Banksy he spent six months splicing, editing and producing one. The result was a completely unwatchable mish-mash of snapshots that did nothing for street art except give the watcher a headache.
In Exit Through the Gift Shop , Banksy says: “It was at this point I realised that [Guetta] maybe wasn’t really a filmmaker. That he was maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.”
Banksy took hold of Guetta’s precious store of video tape and decided to make the documentary himself. “Why don’t you try your hand at some street art?” Banksy said to Guetta, before setting about making a film about a filmmaker making a film about Banksy. But Britain’s giant of the art world can have had no idea how seriously Guetta would take his suggestion to become an artist. Or that in doing so Guetta would perform such a major transformation of himself and his life: he became Mr Brainwash the street artist, selling his work for thousands and putting his artist friends to shame with his overnight success.
Mr Brainwash meets me at the Opera Gallery in London where he is organising a major exhibition of his artwork at an enormous venue - the Old Sorting Office on New Oxford Street. The show opens this weekend. But when we met last month Mr Brainwash told me he still had no idea what to do with the 120,000ft space and isn’t anywhere near finishing the work for it. He has the blind optimism of a child, and is convinced it will come together magically.
“If I want to piss on a canvas and call it art, I’ll do it,” Mr Brainwash tells me, in all seriousness, his eyes aflame with zeal. He propels himself through the conversation like a Duracell Bunny on steroids, wearing paint-spattered jeans and hoodie. His legs jiggle, his arms flap, he jumps up and down and uses his hands to draw in the air. He’s often been accused of being a fake. But after spending an hour in his company I’m astonished to find myself thinking he’s anything but: kooky, yes; scarily energetic, too; but endearing and bubbling over with vim. If this is an act then he deserves that Oscar.
When I mention Banksy’s suggestion that Guetta become an artist, he says: “I take everything seriously and I do everything with my heart. So when I got the chance of doing something I was like a mental patient who finally got to see a shrink. I vomited out everything I had inside.”
He came up with his street pseudonym Mr Brainwash: “It’s just a name. But the more I go on I feel brainwashed. A Picasso brainwashes you, a Banksy brainwashes you,” he says. His signature style pitches somewhere between Banksy’s black and white stencils and Andy Warhol’s colourful prints. He draws straight on walls or prints computerized images onto large sheets of paper and pastes them up in separate pieces. It is a technique he learned while following Fairey and his work is now almost as ubiquitous in LA as Fairey’s own.
Mr Brainwash remortgaged his house (risking the stability of his wife and three small children), hired a team of 12 studio assistants and embarked on a blockbuster debut exhibition - all before he’d decided what kind of artist he wanted to be. And while he sweated blood and tears, broke his leg falling off a ladder, created hundreds of works and managed to get the show open to the public with not a minute to spare, he was being filmed by Banksy’s documentary team.
“They were making this movie about me and nobody knew where it was going to go. I think that everybody thought I was going to fail. That my show was going to be a failure,” he says, smiling in satisfaction. Because the show, Life Is Beautiful, opened in June 2008 to a queue of 7,000+ curious art-lovers who had been standing for hours to see what this new and exciting LA-based artist had to offer. Why? Because Mr Brainwash is a master at creating hype.
Before the show he emailed Banksy asking for a quote. What he received might not have been exactly flattering, but putting up posters saying “Mr Brainwash is a force of nature; he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way” – Banksy, on billboards around LA, did its work. The hordes came to see the David who had rattled Goliath’s cage and Mr Brainwash sold over a million dollars worth of art in a matter of weeks. The month-long show was extended to three months to meet demand.
Fairey and Banksy appear churlish about Mr Brainwash’s instantaneous success in Exit Through the Gift Shop . But Mr Brainwash is not trying to hide the fact his work is wholly derivative and speaks proudly of that fact. You could say he wears the Emperor’s new clothes with pride. He has naturally come in for a whack of criticism. But it is difficult to tell whether people are upset Mr Brainwash makes his appropriation of ideas so obvious; or because he succeeded in a stratospheric fashion without having first struggled on the fringes. His work isn’t outstanding and it isn’t particularly different from other street artists’. It works well, is funny and he is hugely prolific (or rather he and his studio assistants are).
“How can you steal an idea?” he asks, when I mention the criticism. “Art has no walls. Anybody can be an artist. Art has no rules. There’s no manual. People say that I did a show out of nowhere but they don’t know anything about me. They don’t know that I’ve had this inside me for a long time.”
I ask if he’s still in touch with Banksy. “Yes, we’re still friends. I mean it’s something that...[he tails off] He’s a great guy for me. There’s no bad between us. We had a journey and are sealed together.” Does it upset you when people accuse you of stealing Banksy’s ideas? “If they say that to me then I’ll say, ‘Well, Marcel Duchamp did it first’. I think Banksy’s work looks like Magritte’s.”
Staging his first European Life is Beautiful in London means Mr Brainwash is likely to get a whole new audience to the elaborate, and as yet non-existent, show he is preparing. Will they continue to swallow the charade? Or will Mr Brainwash get the recognition he deserves as the “force of nature”, of sorts, Banksy recognises in him?
“Creativity is in my heart. When I say ‘heart’ I’m saying ‘art’. My heart is a piece of art. Nobody can understand it. That’s why I say: time will tell [how the world will see me]. Whatever happens I am here, I am strong, I am never going to stop. Never, never. Never going to stop. Let them come, they cannot take my soul.”
The Old Sorting Office, New Oxford Street, London (mrbrainwash.com).
*A version of this article appears in the print edition of The Independent tomorrow, in Radar magazine