I Accidentally Bought a Banksy in 2003
The other day, I stumbled on this New York Times article called “Does Anyone Here Speak Art and Tech?” It’s about the cultural clash between the worlds of art and technology. Seldom does a Styles article read my mind, and yet here was a perfect depiction of my own experiences over the past few years. You see, I bought a Banksy print in 2003 and have tried unsuccessfully for years to find someone who might help me sell it. My somewhat naïve attempts to make any sort of meaningful contact with people in the art world have, so far, fallen flat, and I always assumed it was because I wasn't doing it right. Little did I know that this was an endemic issue (and the New York Times is on it).
This is the story of my Twitter avatar, Banksy, and one tech-leaning girl's random adventure in the art world. My relationship with art has always been clumsy, and reading the article made me realize that perhaps I wasn’t the only with this kind of story to tell.
The year was 2003. I was a sophomore at Northwestern and a new resident of McCulloch Hall, the raucous and disgusting party dorm where the trash cans are chained to the wall so that they don't get tipped over by drunk freshmen. My roommate and I lived next door to our two other friends and the four of us were the classy sophomores, at least according to us.
As a result of having outgrown my freshman year style, I decided that the go-to room decor option, allposters.com, was officially lame. I could do better than an XXL Bob Marley poster draped over my bed. I was also the most “internet adventurous” of my friends, because I was willing to give my (ahem, parents’) credit card information to almost any random website at a time when people were insanely paranoid about such things. One afternoon, I found myself on some British gallery’s website, staring at this cool print of a girl hugging a bomb. After minimal deliberation, I threw down sixty pounds (pounds, people! over a hundred dollars!) and crossed my fingers that this thing would actually show up. It was the most I had — and to this day have — spent on a piece of art.
Luckily, the print arrived in a poster tube within a few weeks. I opened it up and it was fantastic, even signed and hand-numbered by the artist. The contrast of the bright pink and jet-black was really cool, and looking at this girl I thought, “I am the bomb,” and that was that. I did that makeshift thing where you fold pieces of scotch tape around themselves and up my Banksy went.
The common reaction from my friends was mostly one of hesitation.
“Amanda, don't you think that's a little weird and violent?”
…mmm, not really?
“Amanda, that thing is kind of creepy…are you sure you want to put it up in our room?”
Some concerned floormates thought it would scare away all the cute frat bros that would stop in, and so just a few days after it triumphantly went up, it was taken down and put back in the tube. It lived mostly in storage closets and under beds for the next two years, and then after I graduated in 2005 and moved to China, it took up residence in my parent's basement. When I lived in Texas in 2007, the house I had was so much larger than any other space I had ever occupied, that I made a desperate attempt to track down every piece of art-type-thing I’d ever owned to cover the sparse and voluminous walls.
And that's when I had the realization that perhaps I had stumbled onto something big. I knew this not because I meticulously followed art trends, but because I had read that Angelina Jolie had recently purchased some of Banksy's work. Surely if Angelina thinks this dude is cool, he must be.
Around that time, I had been accepted into graduate school and was staring down the barrel of a major investment. My genius plan was to cash in on my mini-goldmine of an art-buying blunder. Surely, if Angelina was buying this stuff, maybe someone else might too? I had absolutely no idea where to begin, and proceeded to fumble my way through random phone calls to galleries, auction houses, and appraisal spots. Maybe someone would be kind enough to educate me on how to unload this thing on someone who would love it more than I did.
Unfortunately, I am not an art nerd. I do not know much about the evolution of street art (which, the Times article correctly states, tech people do love). I have not even seen Exit Through the Gift Shop. I just bought the print because I liked it, and while it's not a million-dollar piece, I had seen similar prints on eBay UK priced in the low five-figures.
For the most part, the people I spoke with were total jerks. No one wanted to help me, probably because I was “doing it wrong.” To me, therein lies the core of the conflict between art and tech: there appears, still, to be this “one right way” mentality where art is concerned. It presumes there’s a single way to buy, discover, and consume, and that only the chosen few get to show, sell, and be known, and everyone else doesn’t deserve the privilege of an audience. But so much of what I love about the technology industry is the widespread belief that audiences are infinite and distribution should be democratized and available to all.
So I kept my Banksy around, and even paid serious bucks ($250!) to get it framed properly. I joined Twitter, and made it my avatar, because surely that would help me sell it. Over the past five years, I have regularly made attempts to track down someone who might be able to at least walk me through what you do in this scenario. So far, I’ve had no luck.
These days though, I am totally fine with my outsider status. As of late, the internet has told me that Banksy has become all the more famous and that his work has come to embody this contemporary period in American art. Perhaps more importantly, this image has cemented its place in my personal narrative — it represents who I have become over the past decade. Sometimes, people ask if my Twitter avatar is supposed to be me (I wear ponytails a lot), and more and more, the answer is “well….metaphorically….yeah.” Working in technology is all about embracing risk in a way that feels wholly inhuman and dangerous. Hugging the bomb, if you will. And maybe that's what attracted me to the piece in the first place; I wanted to feel like I was a part of something crazy and dangerous and fun, even if only through the art on my wall.
Though I still ask around, I am not really interested in selling the piece anymore. It seems like me and Bomb Hugger are going to be together for life and I am pretty happy about it. If nothing else, it hangs there on my wall as a tangible reminder that some of the best things in life are attributable to nothing more than dumb fucking luck.