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Banksy goes to Hollywood

As the graffiti artist's Oscar-nominated film faces the Academy vote, new artworks have made him the talk of LA
  • @guyadams

The child soldier appears to be pointing his oversize machine gun at a no-parking sign. But look more closely: those bullets are colourful crayons. And he's standing in a flowerbed that appears to have been sketched by an infant using exactly the same crayons.

Then we have Charlie Brown. The stencilled painting shows him pouring petrol while a cigarette dangles mischievously from his lips. Take a step back and you realise that it adorns a burnt-out apartment.

Both images were created in Los Angeles some time between sunset on Monday and sunrise on Tuesday. Within a few hours, they had been photographed and posted on the local street art blog Melrose & Fairfax. And pretty soon, readers had jumped to an exciting conclusion: Banksy is back in Hollywood.

The world's most famous graffitist is believed to have arrived in town over the weekend, with the intention of drawing attention to his oeuvre at a crucial moment: members of the Academy will this week vote in the election that will decide whether his film Exit Through the Gift Shop wins the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary.

Banksy has tirelessly used art to promote his movie in recent months, leaving several images on walls in Park City, Utah, before it premiered at Sundance. He also visited Los Angeles around the time of the film's theatrical release, stencilling (among other things) an image of a policeman walking a Jeff Koons-style balloon dog to a wall in Hollywood.

His latest pieces were publicised in suitably guerrilla fashion. "On Tuesday, a friend of mine was emailed a photograph of the child soldier from a contact who is close to Banksy," says Greg Linton, the editor of Melrose & Fairfax. "We stuck it up on the site, and within 15 minutes, someone had posted its location. So we immediately went there and took more photographs." Within a couple of hours, the images had gone viral, sparking heated debate about their meaning, along with all the usual discussions about whether Banksy's spray paint should be properly regarded as vandalism or art.

"To me, this is some of the best work he's ever done," says Sebastian Buck, the author of the street art blog Unurth. "He has often pointed fun at the military industrial complex. Putting a gun in a kid's hand is a striking way to do that, then twisting it by replacing bullets with crayons, so there's only peaceful intent, that's very clever. Of course coming to America to do this makes an even more political statement."

"The Charlie Brown work doesn't look that impressive until you see the fact that the building is burnt out. But that's the real joy of his pieces: they always speak to the context they are in. And they always have an underlying message or point."

Los Angeles has been a happy hunting ground for Banksy on his two previous working trips. In 2007, at the height of the art boom, he staged a lucrative exhibition at which buyers included Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. A live elephant was hired to stand in the middle of the gallery; visitors were handed leaflets telling them not to discuss it.

This year's visit is all the more intriguing because of confusion about what will happen if Exit actually wins an Oscar. Since the reclusive Bristolian artist refuses to show his face in public, and the Academy isn't willing to let him collect the award in disguise, the film's co-producer Jaimie D'Cruz has reportedly agreed to accept the statuette on his behalf.

At time of going to print, unconfirmed reports suggested that two more Banksys had just appeared. Meanwhile, debate was raging over the fact that the "child soldier" piece adorns the wall of a branch of Urban Outfitters. Cynics said the choice of location represents a sell-out, since it helped draw attention to a chain store which sells Banksy's best-selling coffee-table book Wall and Piece.