Banksy: The joker

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Quite how a celebrity culture like that of Hollywood is going to cope with the British artist Banksy is far from clear. His show Barely Legal - featuring an incarnation of the proverbial elephant in the room - has this week made Banksy the darling of Tinseltown.

The problem is that the man who is variously described as a "guerrilla artist", an "art terrorist" or - by those of a more prosaic turn of phrase - as a "prankster" is someone for whom celebrity is anathema. So much so that he has never let the world know his real name - and he has never even posed for a photograph. Funny kind of celebrity.

Though various glittering creatures from the Hollywood firmament - Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Keanu Reeves, Jude Law and Macaulay Culkin, along with Christina Aguilera, the rapper Everlast and even Joni Mitchell - turned up to a Los Angeles warehouse to see Banksy's latest exhibition the great man himself did not deign to put in an appearance.

It did not matter. Indeed, absence made the heart grow fonder, winning him the front page of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times as well as on seven US television news shows, including ABC's Good Morning America. He even made al-Jazeera. And the celebs' purchases left the street-artist's bank account some £3m the fatter.

He has come a long way in a short few years, from the scruffy 14-year-old who began spraying graffiti on the walls of inner-city Bristol, his home town, where he was expelled from school and did some time in prison for petty crime. If you can believe him, that is. Or, if you can believe the chap who turned up in a pub to be interviewed by a journalist on The Guardian, the only British newspaper which has managed to get a face-to-face interview with the elusive spray-artiste. When the hapless interviewer asked him: "How do I know you are Banksy?" the man replied: "You have no guarantee of that whatsoever." Even his mum and dad don't know who Banksy is. "They think I'm a painter and decorator."

It's the same story with his photograph. No one really knows whether any of the handful of photos in circulation, purporting to be of Banksy, are really him at all. He needs to remain anonymous, he said in an e-mail to another interviewer, "so I can do my work without being impeded by arrest". His real name, it is said, is Robert Banks, though some newspapers prefer Robin Banks, which at least has the virtue of being a bit of a gag.

Jokes are important to Banksy. They tell the story which the bald details of his biography hide. His stencilled graffiti - he says he can't draw freehand fast enough - are replete with humours juxtapositions.

Sometimes these are political in nature - he's anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-establishment - a helicopter gunship with a pink ribbon beneath its rotors, a little girl cuddling up to missiles, an insect with air-to-air missiles beneath its wings, or a parody of that great American icon of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima - only in Banksy's version the men are not soldiers but urban protesters.

Sometimes they set out to undermine the cultural status quo. The men from Pulp Fiction firing bananas instead of guns. A bomber hurling a bunch of flowers. A copy of Rodin's The Thinker with a brass-cast traffic cone on its head (a symbol of ordinary people making culture their own, he says). The napalmed girl from Vietnam with Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald either side.

His graffiti is big on animals. In London Zoo he climbed into the penguin enclosure and painted: "We're bored of fish" in six-foot-high letters. In Bristol Zoo, he painted a thought bubble on the wall of the elephant pen saying: "I want out. This place is too cold. Keeper smells. Boring, boring, boring." On city streets he has a thing for rats - rats with paint-brushes, drills, radio transmitters - who seem to stand for put-upon humans striking back covertly against authority.

It was just five or six years ago that the Soho ad creatives and the Hoxton art set began to notice Banksy's prolific and witty urban output. A spokesman for the Keep Britain Tidy campaign has valiantly continued to maintain that Banksy is just another vandal: "How would he feel if someone sprayed graffiti all over his house?". But elsewhere Banksy began to be viewed through the lens of Gramsci's call for the subversion of the dominant cultural hegemony to help bring about the revolution . With added jokes.

It was the ingredients of a perfect media storm, which Banksy fed by painting the Queen as a chimpanzee during her Golden Jubilee and by spraying seven police vehicles with aerosol slogans at the Glastonbury Festival. He added to it the following year, 2003, with his first exhibition, Turf War, held in a London warehouse where he painted live pigs in police colours, sheep in concentration camp stripes and covered a cow in images of Andy Warhol's face - causing an animal rights activist chained herself to the railings in protest.

Celebrities including Jamie Oliver, Sara Cox and Jarvis Cocker duly attended the opening (from which Banksy absented himself) and Blur commissioned him to design their latest album cover.

The next step in Banksy's elevation of subversion into an art-form came when he decided to smuggle some of the doctored oil paintings he had pioneered in the Turf War exhibition - he had added litter and a shopping trolley to Monet's Water Lily Pond and a football hooligan dressed only in his Union Jack underpants to Edward Hopper's Nighthawks - into leading museums and art galleries.

His first attempt was a flop. The work he infiltrated into Tate Britain came crashing down because the glue he used was too weak. But in 2004 he placed a dead rat (clad in wraparound sunglasses, with a microphone in one paw and a miniature spraycan at its feet beneath the graffiti legend "our time will come") in a glass-fronted box and affixed it to the wall of the Natural History Museum. It remained for several hours before staff spotted it.

He did the same thing in 2005 in New York's top four museums - the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History. Of the four cuckoo pieces he said: "They're good enough to be in there, so I don't see why I should wait."

Indeed, when he placed a primitive cave painting called Early Man Goes to Market, depicting a human figure hunting wildlife while pushing a shopping trolley, in Gallery 49 of the British Museum the staff there decided to add it to the permanent collection.

What came next was to raise Banksy's profile internationally. In August last year he went to the giant wall the Israelis are building around the West Bank. There, on the Palestinian side, he painted nine images including one of a ladder going up and over the wall and another of children digging a hole through to the other side.

"As a graffiti writer you have to make a pilgrimage to the biggest wall on earth at some point," he told Zoo magazine. "It is also the most politically unjust structure in the world today. It stands three times the height of the Berlin Wall and will eventually run for over 700km - the distance from London to Zurich. The wall is illegal under international law and essentially turns Palestine into the world's largest open prison." The Israelis were not amused.

By this point, the various websites on which Banksy's work had begun to be catalogued were making him more famous than the originals every could. He also published four books of photographs of his work and began to sell limited edition prints. In addition to the Blur album, he did a commission for a graffito for Greenpeace, though he turned down several offers from Nike to do something for its ad campaigns. "The list of jobs I haven't done now is so much bigger than the list of jobs I have done. It's like a reverse CV, kinda weird. Nike have offered me mad money for doing stuff."

Instead he has continued with the street art. A sculpture based on a crumpled red phone box with a pickaxe in its side, apparently bleeding, was placed in a street in Soho. He accepted an invitation to do a public painting for the 2004 Liverpool biennial. And in Bristol he stencilled an image of a naked man, hanging out of a bedroom window, on a wall.

"Art's the last of the great cartels," he says. "A handful of people make it, a handful buy it, and a handful show it. But the millions of people who go look at it don't have a say ... I have a much more direct communication with the public." And the public respond. When Bristol council asked locals whether they should erase the naked man, 97 per cent of respondents said it should stay. It has.

Banksy is not without his critics. Some find his images banal and vacuous. "Take his political stuff," said the comedy writer and cartoonist Charlie Brooker yesterday citing the napalmed Vietnamese girl holding hands with Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald.

"Wham! The message hits you like a lead bus: America ... um ... war ... er ... Disney ... and stuff. Wow. One of his most imbecilic daubings depicts a monkey wearing a sandwich board with 'lying to the police is never wrong' written on it. So presumably Ian Huntley was right then, Banksy? You absolute thundering backside."

The great man can afford to ignore such gripes. His stunt to remove 500 of Paris Hilton's new CDs from shops and replace it with a satirical doctored version last month received widespread approval. As did his trick of placing a blow-up doll in the orange jumpsuit and black hood of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner in Disneyland's Rocky Mountain Railroad roller-coaster ride.

The writing may be on the wall for Banksy. But the reviews - and the sales - are all rather good.

A Life in Brief

BORN 1974, Bristol, real name (allegedly) Robert or Robin Banks.

EDUCATION expelled from school, prison for petty crime (allegedly)

CAREER Began street graffiti aged 14. Started as a freehander but, unable to draw fast enough to evade the police - he was arrested several times, but before his incarnation as Banksy - he switched to stencilling

Exhibitions: Turf War, London(2003); Barely Legal, Los Angeles (2006)

Cover art: Blur's 2003 album Think Tank

Books: Banging your head against a brick wall (2001), Existencilism (2002), Cut it Out (2004) and Wall and Piece (2005)

HE SAYS "If you have a statue in the city centre you could go past it every day on your way to school and never even notice it, right. But as soon as someone puts a traffic cone on its head, you've made your own sculpture"

THEY SAY "He does all this and he stays anonymous. I think that's great. These days everyone is trying to be famous. But he has anonymity" - Brad Pitt