The Banksy biographer is faced with a tricky dilemma. Should he or she delve into the street artist's background and destroy the anonymity on which his art, and his legend, depend? Or is it better to honour Banksy's desire to remain in the shadows, but be unable to tell the whole story?
Will Ellsworth-Jones, in what is carefully described as "the first book to follow Banksy's career", plumps for the latter option. Thus he is sketchy on the artist's personal history, beyond telling us that Banksy was raised in Bristol and, having been public school-educated, isn't quite the working-class hoodlum that many accounts would have us believe.
From there on, the author is more forthcoming, charting Banksy's rise from a graffiti enthusiast at a Bristol youth club, to a guerrilla street artist scurrying up ladders and dodging CCTV cameras, to an international exhibitor and darling of the art establishment. He also offers a broader perspective on the graffiti scene, offering useful lessons in the lexicon of street art, and the contributions of the scene's major players, among them the veteran Parisian artist Blek Le Rat, from whom Banksy has frequently stood accused of stealing ideas.
Ellsworth-Jones certainly puts in the legwork, zooming from city to city to chase up leads – many of which prove false – and embarking on a tour of Banksy hotspots in London. The latter is no easy task, due to the fact that graffiti, by its very nature, is in a constant state of flux, forever being scrawled over by rival gangs, whitewashed by councils or, in the case of anything by Banksy, simply removed, bricks and all, by the buildings' owners and sent to auction. On unexpectedly unearthing one of Banksy's infamous rats on the outside of Moorfields Eye Hospital, the author finds himself in the peculiar position of advising the hospital on what to do next. (They eventually sell it for £30,000.) Elsewhere, there are cloak-and-dagger meetings with old associates of Banksy's: graffiti artists, journalists and exhibition co-ordinators who, in a touching display of loyalty, co-operate on the basis that Banksy's identity isn't revealed.
That's not to say that all in the graffiti world are his cheerleaders. Banksy's spats with fellow street artists – who have variously accused him of plagiarising, selling out or disrespecting their codes – are numerous, and help to illustrate the seismic effects he has had on this underground and, let's not forget, illegal practice. Most intriguing is his feud with Robbo, a retired street artist, which began when Robbo allegedly hit Banksy upon their first meeting, for not showing him the appropriate respect. Later, Banksy painted over Robbo's 20-year-old graffiti along the Regent's canal in London, a move which prompted a tit-for-tat game in which both artists repeatedly returned to the spot to alter one another's work.
The Man Behind The Wall is a credible and intelligent portrait of a unique artist, reluctant capitalist and control freak struggling to preserve his own myth and maintain his outsider status – which is not an easy task when you are feted by critics and celebrities and your work fetches hundreds of thousands at auction. As Banksy told one journalist by email: "I'm not so interested in convincing people in the art world that what I do is 'art'. I'm more bothered about convincing people in the graffiti community that what I do is really vandalism."Reuse content