Street (il)legal: Q&A with Banksy

The mysterious artist-turned-auteur talks about the graffiti-gone-wild doc Exit Through the Gift Shop.

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RECOMMENDED: Street art and graffiti guide

Passersby stop and stare at a life-size drawing on a public corner of male police officers passionately kissing. Disneyland visitors stumble across an Abu Ghraib--jumpsuited dummy near a ride. Tourists gawk at graffiti depicting kids playing in front of a wall, with a tropical paradise peeking through a gaping hole. (Did we mention that the “wall” is the West Bank barrier in Israel?) These guerrilla murals and gonzo pranks are just a few you’ll see in Exit Through the Gift Shop, an extraordinary street-art doc featuring—and made by—the mystery man responsible for those subversive pices de rsistance: Banksy. TONY conducted an interview with this reclusive graffiti legend and reluctant filmmaker via e-mail.

You inherited all this random footage from Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash), who’d started shooting you and street artist Shepard Fairey years ago and couldn’t finish the movie. What made you think, I could make a documentary out of this?
The beauty of having no idea how to make a movie is that I thought I could do it. Basically, this new art form was emerging that was a true global movement. It needed to be recorded and preserved accurately for posterity. And that’s the film I haven’t made.

Do you see Exit justifying the idea that street art is equal to what’s hanging in galleries?
Should graffiti be judged on the same level as modern art? Of course not: It’s way more important than that. Hopefully street art will stop being trendy. They say the quickest way to kill a man’s ideas is to make him fashionable.

What’s more subversive: making socially conscious art that smacks people out of their stupor, or getting paid and becoming famous from it?
I wouldn’t want to be remembered as the guy who contaminated a perfectly legitimate form of protest art with money and celebrities. I do sometimes question whether I’m part of the solution or part of the problem. For example: I’m getting pressure from my distributor to take out billboards for the film. Now, I hate billboards; they’re just corporate vandalism. And yet last week I was thinking, Well...maybe a couple won’t hurt.... There’s obviously nothing wrong with selling your art—only an idiot with a trust fund would tell you otherwise. But it’s confusing to know how far you should take it. I don’t read books or listen to music made by people in their spare time, so I guess the vandalism I look at shouldn’t be any different. I want it performed by professionals at the highest level.

You must get a lot of flak for that opinion.
People ask, How do I sleep at night? Very well, actually. Because I’m an alcoholic.

Is it now harder to cultivate anonymity instead of fame?
In today’s culture: yes. I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is a superpower.

You’ve called this a “street-art disaster film”—and said that the result feels personally disastrous. So did the positive reception at Sundance and Berlin shock you?
I didn’t really think about the critics and audiences, I just wanted to make a film that my friends would enjoy. Unfortunately, all my friends are idiots.

Did the whole “Is this a hoax?” question about Mr. Brainwash and his artwork surprise you?
Never once during the film’s making did it occur to me that people would think either the film or Thierry was some kind of put-on. In a way, that diminishes the power of the movie. But on the other hand, it makes me look kind of smart—so I’ll take it.

What made you choose that crumbling, graffiti-strewn wall for the film’s last shot?
Maybe it represents the art of finding beauty in everyday life. Maybe it’s a poignant symbol of a generation’s dreams crumbling to dust. Maybe it’s a wall falling over. Essentially, the moral is—sometimes there is no moral, deal with it.

What’s next?
I’m thinking of quitting the art world. I want to do something a bit more creative.

Click here to score an exclusive poster of Banksy’s TONY cover.

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