Banksy: the Man behind the Wall

Jack & Jill, Banksy

If you want to research Banksy’s career, there’s not a huge amount of easy documentation — many books record his images but few tell his story. Will Ellsworth-Jones’ 2012 book, Bansky: the Man behind the Wall, is still one of the main sources of information about the elusive artist.

The author spent two years researching the material, charting Banksy’s rise from a — not very brilliant — graffiti artist to international fame. Ellsworth-Jones is a distinguished journalist, and former New York correspondent for the Sunday Times. He had to adapt to Banksy’s late-night world to track down the cliquey band of Banksy fans who would spend all night queueing in the hope of buying a newly released Banksy print. Ellsworth-Jones persevered — asking Bansky’s PR Jo Brooks for comment — and politely getting knocked back a few times as she tried to maintain her client’s air of mystery.

The resulting book answers many questions about how Bansky authenticates his work, and how he manages to square his anti-capitalist politics with a million pound business (by giving a great deal away to charity). And it hints at Banksy’s filmmaking talents and ambitions to come.

Through it all Ellsworth-Jones was won over by Banksy’s graphic wit and sheer creative energy. We asked him about the book.

Did you find it strange joining in with the street art way of life? I knew nothing about street art to begin with — which in a way was a useful thing. I couldn’t tell the difference between a throw up and a tag. Despite all the secrecy around this world I found most people happy enough to help.

Did Banksy win you over? Yes; I really enjoyed his art. He wouldn’t give me an interview but I had assumed that would be the case when I started researching.

When did you see your first Bansky? On a chemist’s wall on Essex Road in London, called “ Very Little Helps”. A really clever piece, in part because of the way Banksy turns an electricity cable on the wall into a flagpole. It remains my favourite Banksy, even though is has been ruined Robbo supporters.

What’s new in the Bansky world? There is less excitement about Banksy than a couple of years back, although his prices go ever higher. Maybe that’s the problem — he seems less part of any art on the street.

Grannies, Banksy

What advice would you give someone trying to buy a Bansky? Be very, very careful especially if you are buying a print. Quite apart from forgeries the early Banksy prints came out in fairly random way

Is Street Art over? No, but it seems to have peaked and the more ‘established’ street artists are earning good money in one way or another and why not? There will always be another generation coming up to keep the flame alive, even if they don’t get any of the publicitiy that Banksy has had.

What next for Bansky? I think he is planning another big bang show like the last one in New York, but where and when — who knows.

Are all art critics snobbish about Bansky? Yes, they put him in the same bracket as Vettriano — they are both the most popular artists in Britain and therefore somehow their work is no good because it is too ‘accessible.’ I am not a fan of Vettriano but I am a fan of Banksy. I think he is a very important part of the art scene today and the way he staged his New York exhibition as almost an internet exhibition is setting a level which others find hard to follow.

Are you going to write more about Bansky? Probably not although I would love to persuade Aurum Press to allow me to update the book.

Other ones to read for Bansky fans:

Banging Your Head against a Brick Wall, 2001, published by Weapons of Mass Distraction (Banksy’s own imprint). A collation of his best stencil work from this era.

Existencilism, 2002, published by Weapons of Mass Distraction. Photographs of new work from Barcelona, London and San Francisco.

Cut it Out, 2004, published by Weapons of Mass Distraction. The last in the self-published Banksy trilogy.

Wall and Peace, 2006, by Banksy, published by Century — compiles many of the images from Banksy’s previously self-published book in a more high-end presentation, with captions and anecdotes by Banksy.

Subway Art, 1984, Martha Cooper & Henry Chalfont, Thames & Hudson — Photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant documented the work of seminal New York graffiti writers in the 70s & 80s. This key book is cited by Banksy and many other street artists as a source of reference and inspiration.

Banksy: the Man behind the Wall, 2012, Will Ellsworth-Jones, Aurum Press — out now.

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