On October 1, Banksy put up a work in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood a few blocks from where I live, a stencil of two boys stealing the spray can from a “GRAFFITI IS A CRIME” sign. I never saw the piece, because in a few hours, it was gone—dismantled, tagged, and finally buffed over. However, I did see a picture of it on the Instagram @banksyny, the launch pad for Banksy’s New York residency, “Better Out Than In,” where he put up one work a day for the entire month of October. Most of his pieces followed this get-up-get-tagged-get-buffed narrative, and unable to see the art on the streets of New York, the world followed his residency online.
“Better Out Than In” did not begin when Banksy painted his first piece. It began when he posted it.
Banksy is an anonymous Bristol-born street artist who rose to fame in the early 2000s with his satirical, anti-authoritarian stencils that offer social critiques in witty but simple visual bites. New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz calls his work “Anarchy-lite,” and even though his stencils have lost their scathing power with repetition (thanks, in part, to the Internet), Banksy’s work sells for literally millions at auction. “But there’s no way round it—commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist,” Banksy told the Village Voice in an exclusive interview on October 9 that made every other news source green with envy.
So how could this British vandal maintain his street art cred? By doing something for free, of course. “There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all,” Banksy told the Voice, “I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached.”
Yet, there is a price tag attached, a pretty fucking big one. Throughout “Better Out Than In,” people have known that they can make cash money off of Banksy’s street art, wrenching, chipping, and ripping his works from the streets. Or, if that wasn’t possible, covering them up and demanding money for a peep. Banksy’s PR woman, Jo Brooks, who facilitated the Voice interview, told the paper that Banksy’s residency "turns the city into a giant game of treasure hunt." In reality, it feels less warm and fuzzy—or as Saltz puts it, less “Kum-ba-ya”—than that. Banksy had to figure out how to escape the vultures.
While street art is generally accepted as a visual form of subversion that comes directly from the community, Banksy is a foreigner on New York turf. And New York itself is nowhere near a cohesive space. Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York has become more unequal than ever, a predicament strongly felt when a local who was charging visitors to look at Banksy’s piece in East Brooklyn said, “Y’all wouldn’t come here if this wasn’t here.”
As the New York Times points out, he was right. To avoid his art getting financially implicated (both by the art market and by the economics of the city), Banksy has taken to one place that is truly public—the Internet. The “gallery” space for “Better Out Than In” is not the streets, as it would’ve been when Banksy was first emerging. Now, it’s Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Vine, and YouTube. It’s the blogs that are reporting on his works. It’s the commenters that are talking about his residency. The announcement for “Better Out Than In” was painted in LA, but the location of the piece was never identified. Instead, this makeshift press release lives on news sites that published it. “Better Out Than In” did not begin when Banksy painted his first piece. It began when he posted it.
Banksy, of course, is not the only street artist to use the Internet. Because street art is essentially impermanent, graffiti writers and muralists have been relying on digital methods to record their art for some time. For example, Icy and Sot, a street art duo from Iran, where people caught writing graffiti are accused of “Satanism,” needed to document their work in Tabriz because it would be erased in a few days. Over in Paris, KIDULT blasts high-end stores like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and famously Marc Jacobs. He posts his work on his blog, because it is hastily stripped by angry retailers, or in the case of Marc Jacobs, made into a $680 T-shirt. This documentary impulse has also allowed KIDULT and others to gain a sort of Internet fame, like viral YouTube stars. Banksy’s fame had a growth spurt when he took to the Internet for "Better Out Than In," documenting his short-lived works on Instagram, where they were exponentially shareable and repeatedly hashtagged.
Icy and Sot graffiti in Tabriz, Iran / Image via Icy and Sot © Icy and Sot
KIDULT tagging "ART" on a Marc Jacobs Store in SoHo, New York, 2012 / Still from KIDULT's film "Visual Dictatorship" on Vimeo
Besides building the hype around this mysterious man named Banksy, the Internet conveniently allows the camera-shy street artist to remain anonymous. Last week, another faceless street artist and friend of Banksy, Invader, debuted a film in New York called ART4SPACE, where the viewer never sees his face (the day after the screening, he was arrested trying to put up work in the Lower East Side). As the film circulates, more and more people will know about the French artist’s 8-bit mosaics, while he remains anonymous.
The Internet paradoxically allows people to be incredibly famous and incredibly private. If Banksy employed the encryption software Tor, which WikiLeaks relies on, we couldn’t dig up his IP address even if we tried (good luck, NYPD). For his Crazy Horses installation, Banksy used the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” audio, a film that shows a US Apache helicopter attack in 2007 that killed a Reuters jounalist and several others in Baghdad, to accompany the piece. Is it a coincidence that an artist so concerned with privacy included a source that relies on, like Banksy, anonymity, the Internet, and controversy? While Banksy is nowhere near as extreme as the WikiLeaks crew, he does seem to be exploiting the Internet’s anonymity, something he couldn’t do in a floor-and-ceiling gallery.
"Collateral Murder" audio leaked to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning in 2010 / Audio via Soundcloud
Another anonymous street artist from Italy named Blu has used the Internet to give his graffiti a second, and different life. He creates time-lapse videos from shots of repeated painting and buffing. Blu’s moving images, while born from street art, only exist on the Internet. Insa, a British street artist, has created something called “GIF-iti,” where he loops images of re-painted murals into mesmerizing GIFs. “Graffiti was once a very free art form that anybody could enjoy but it has truly been commodified, packaged and sold to the highest bidder,” Insa told The Creator’s Project. "I quite like the fact my GIFs can’t be brought or sold or hung on a gallery wall per se. Once a GIF has been uploaded it is free to travel and be seen by many.” Blu and Insa use the Internet to create a new, freer form of street art. Unlike the documentary artists like KIDULT and Icy and Sot, Blu and Insa are creating Internet-specific works, not just a recording of what they do on the streets.
"BIG BANG BIG BOOM" time-lapse graffiti by Blu, 2010 / Video via YouTube
Insa's GIF-iti / Image via Insa
This is not street art at all, but Internet art with the same impulse as Banksy’s street art—subversive, witty, and democratic.
During “Better Out Than In,” Banksy also created Internet-based works. For his sixth piece, Banksy posted a video of rebel soldiers shooting off a bazooka on Instagram and directed viewers to his website to see the end of the video, where the soldiers’ victim turns out to be the cartoon elephant Dumbo. His 19th work used the same gimmick; a video of an anthill posted on Instagram is zoomed out on banksyny.com to reveal a woman’s hips and private parts. On the 23rd day of Banksy’s residency, the street artist simply posted the text, “Today’s work has been cancelled due to police activity.” It is possible to look at this post as another work of art, a response to the NYPD’s manhunt for Banksy that was reported by the New York Post six days earlier. These additions to “Better Out Than In” not only appear online, but they rely on the Internet to be understood. This is not street art at all, but Internet art with the same impulse as Banksy’s street art—subversive, witty, and democratic.
Banksy's "Rebel Rocket Attack" / Video via YouTube
Banksy's "Anthill" on YouTube / Video via YouTube
Banksy’s online presence may be getting to his head. Completely anonymous and hugely famous—why wouldn’t Banksy do anything he wants? A bolstered ego may account for Banksy’s New York Times Op-Ed flop. In a rejected article for the paper, Banksy offers a weak critique of the World Trade Center, criticizing the “shy” building without pointing to anything in its actual architecture. Jonathan Jones of The Guardian responds to the op-ed, “Duh, Banksy, the life of a city is in its people, not its buildings. If New York was just tall buildings and canyons of glass, it would be a boring place—however great the architecture. It's always been what happens at ground level that made the Apple so big.”
This may be the cost of staging his street art residency on the Internet; Banksy forgot the actual streets. By taking a swing at Daniel Libeskind’s building, Banksy was trying to push his favorite buttons, but there’s a reason that the Times didn’t accept his writing—it wasn’t that good. More controversial may have been his tribute to the Twin Towers, which he knew would get vandalized (he had to have known; this was two weeks into his residency). Was it even okay for Banksy to paint this New York trauma, especially because the flower looked a lot like a fiery explosion? Removing himself from the reality of the city, Banksy may have gotten carried away.
Banksy's Twin Tower Tribute / Image via banksyny on Instagram
Even if he’s got a big ego, it’s not like Banksy’s a bad guy. He’s been compared to Batman, covering the streets of Gotham City, but his stunt with Housing Works (an organization that helps those suffering from HIV, AIDS, and homelessness) was more Robin Hood’s style. Towards the end of his residency, Banksy purchased a painting from the Housing Works thrift store, altered it, and then returned it to the store. The painting sold for $615,000 in an auction online with all proceeds going to charity.
Even Banksy’s interview with the Voice was a generous (if calculated) gift. Brooks claims that Banksy chose to speak to the Voice because he "feels an affinity with people who provide quality content for free on street corners." For a publication struggling to stay afloat in a page view-driven industry, an interview with the elusive Banksy was gold. Even the Os Gemeos collaboration, which is Banksy’s most traditional gallery-hung work of the residency, appeared on the Village Voice cover first. Click, click, click.
Os Gemeos x Banksy on the Village Voice and installed at the High Line
More than Banksy’s social media presence, the people discussing “Better Out Than In” online drove the Internet aspect of the Bristol artist’s residency. As soon as a Banksy work went up, comments spilled across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Feeds were dominated by #Banksy and #banksyny supporters and haters alike. Saltz himself hosted an outdoor seminar that he posted on YouTube, and he and other art critics have been diligently tweeting about the developments of “Better Out Than In.” Banksy fans tracked his roving truck installations, Mobile Waterfall and Sirens of the Lambs, online. In fact, New York Magazine created an interactive map demarking every Banksy work in the city. Banksy’s Ronald McDonald statue and Grim Reaper installation do not have an obvious Internet quality, but these performative pieces were dispersed by Vines, YouTube videos, and Instagrams. Possibly most supportive of the argument that “Better Out Than In” was an online movement, is the fact that Bronx graffiti king Cope2 created a fake collaboration with Banksy that he posted ON HIS INSTAGRAM. Banksy even brought old school street artists to the Internet.
COPE2's fake Banksy collaboration / Image via COPE2 on Twitter
Maybe “getting up” is not on the streets anymore; it’s on social media.
“Better Out Than In” may have decorated the streets, but the residency truly lived online. Addressing Bloomberg’s anti-Banksy comment—"That's not my definition of art"—art critic Ben Davis writes for Slate, “What strikes me about the mayor’s remarks is that he is stuck in a ’70s narrative about graffiti. The new narrative of street art isn’t that it is a sign of impending urban apocalypse; it is that it’s worth lots and lots of money.”
So Banksy did the one thing he could think of to break up his narrative—he went online. Maybe “getting up” is not on the streets anymore; it’s on social media. And maybe this free online space won’t last forever—Phillips and Tumblr have already been working on ways to sell Internet art—but for now, this is Banksy’s clever solution to selling out, possibly his most clever move in New York. Whatever you think about Banksy’s art, it’s pretty damn amazing that he has been able to build a community (online) of people talking about art, including a whole bunch of people who don’t give a shit about what is going on in Chelsea.
Banksy has also opened the door for a new and reinvigorated form of art, based in the streets or not, that could branch off in infinite directions. What if the net and digital artists aimed their code at him? Imagine if the kid who created the wonderfully satirical site cooperunion.biz were to build banksy.biz. So much could be done with lessons learned from “Better Out Than In,” and its true influence will be written across the Internet faster than we know it.
Image via banksyny.com