[This piece first appeared on Destiny Connect]
New York is the ideal place to start a craze – or take one to a new level. The population of bodies multiplied by word of mouth, added to the number of media houses with head offices here means it doesn’t take too long before news from this Big Apple in America fills the rest of the world’s news basket. From food (the cronut) to art (MoMA’s Rain Room), there’s always something to rave about.
This month’s craze comes courtesy of the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy, who has been making the city his playground. Inspired by a quote from French painter Paul Cézanne, he has set up a residency on the streets of the New York, titled Better Out Than In. With these words as guide, he’s taken to putting up his famous stencil work in different boroughs – from Brooklyn to Queens to Manhattan. Each day the artist reveals a new artwork, with a photograph going up on his website and Instagram feed as confirmation. The exact location is usually found within the comments supplied by fans who ‘like’ the pics.
It’s now two weeks into the residency and people have been rushing out during their lunch-breaks, before work, after work, or in any gap of time possible, to see, for themselves, in person, a piece by an artist whose work is in such demand, its actually been chiselled out of walls and hauled off for auction. People have been taking pics of themselves, their bags, their children and other items – one woman I spotted held up something that looked like a cat-tail key-chain – next to the pieces, all to claim their own Banksy moment.
What makes the hype around this novel exhibition all the more intense, is that Banksy’s identity remains a secret.
We know he’s from Bristol in England. We know he has a penchant for making satirical street art in a distinctive stencil style. We know he’s not afraid to go after high-profile, controversial sites like the Israeli West Bank wall, and that he likes to use physical items – living (elephants) and not (telephone boxes), to make a statement. We know his work fetches a pretty penny from A-list stars and rich collectors alike. We know Banksy was nominated for an Oscar for the brilliant street-art doccie Exit Through the Giftshop, and we know he likes to tease his fans and his detractors alike.
So, all the hype leads to more hype, which means everyone has their opinion on Banksy and his work. This Monday’s piece – a man washing off a quote from the Gladiator movie (“What we do in life echoes in Eternity”), was a response to those who criticize his use of ‘lowbrow’ sources. Those looking to capitalize on the attention around his pieces have taken to tagging over them and defacing them hours after they go up.
For me, it’s been thrilling to see work from someone I’ve admired from afar, up close. Like being able to go see an exhibition of Edvard Munch’s The Scream at MoMA, living in New York at this time affords the opportunity to see the things one has only read about.
Being in New York has also rekindled an admiration I have for street art that was sown while studying at the University of Cape Town, where artists like Mak1One and Falko explained their work to us as part of a course on the elements of hip hop, and I began to understand the role of spray-can art within South Africa’s, and specifically Cape Town’s, cultural history. It was around this time I really learnt to appreciate the ‘this is my story, you tell me yours’ value of the subculture. Where the music of hip hop presents the chance to listen with our ears, street art is the chance to listen with our eyes.
The story – or stories, I should say, continue. Here in New York, there is so much street art, I actually have to switch off sometimes to get to where I need to go. Having Banksy put up pieces here is fun, but it’s also the chance to ‘see’ his story. From his tragic tribute to the Twin Towers on Tuesday to his commentary on graffiti being seen as a crime, and the idea that a lot of the time we miss what’s right in front of us.
I had to kick myself that on the one Saturday I decided not to run my usual route in Central Park, Banksy had set up a old man at a stall that sold small canvasses of his stencil art for $60 when they’re worth about $200 000. A handful of people bought pieces, as most New Yorkers, used to just walking past all the stimulation that constantly vies for attention – and that includes Banksy knock-offs – ignored the stall.
Like me, they’ll just have to keep getting their Banksy fix on the street itself – at least until the end of the month.