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Last week, underground superstar street artist Banksy paid a visit to Detroit. He was on what could be considered one of the most proactively viral and resourceful publicity tours in history. Hitting Los Angeles, Park City (for Sundance), Chicago and Toronto, the famed spray-can kid left a series of paintings in his now-iconic style, but also some indelible pain, in Detroit. Whereas Banksy typically, in other cities, elicits retorts from ignorant municipal types calling his work simple vagrancy, in Detroit he was damn good news, even if he fervently, inadvertently divided the arts community.
First, a bit on Banksy: Looking back at his wild nine-year career, he's mostly shrouded in mystery. We know he was born in 1974 near Bristol, U.K., and that his name might be Robin Guggenheim. He rose through England's underground art scene in the early 1990s, prolifically creating hieroglyphs with aerosol cans in public places — sans permission. He's a fearless, nightstalking globetrotter with Lenny Bruce's wit, and he's arguably one of the most important and topical artists of the 21st century.
It'd be far too easy and lazy to dismiss him as "smart-ass graffiti writer." For the layperson, Banksy's work could be considered meta-graffiti. His affective yet simple illustrations are framed with an uncanny knack for site-specific perspective. They're smirk-worthy pieces that leave you entertained, hopeful or sometimes unexpectedly despondent. Your average graffiti artist is more concerned with letter style and unblushing self-promotion; Banksy provokes a more critical and emotional response, all while not taking himself nearly as seriously as the art world does. But, make no mistake: Self-promotion is one of his many talents. He's not shy about that.
Using a system of stencils and spray paint, Banksy's work is visually stark and efficient to produce, which is key when, for instance, he's painting over gang tags during the dead of night. The artist's paintings often feature characters that figuratively and literally play off their immediate environs, such as his piece in London's graffiti-heavy Leake Street tunnel that depicts a city worker in a construction vest power-washing a wall of graffiti in the form of ancient cave paintings. Prodding at society's downfalls and obsessions, he has built a cult following while redefining pop art in an amalgam of anarchy and animation.
In the last decade, Banksy's name has appeared in more than 720 New York Times articles. Angelina Jolie and other millionaires spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on his stuff. This year, Banksy was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People, and a few weeks back he released Exit Through the Gift Shop, a self-financed documentary about — who else: Banksy. The film follows a whacked-out shop-keep from France who attempts to break into the underworld of street art and befriend the major players of the global movement, including its pied-piper Banksy. The camera eventually, and hilariously, turns on the shopkeeper, who later makes a tainted name for himself as the inglorious Mr. Brainwash. Exit opened wide in the United States this month, locally at Royal Oak's Main Art Theatre, to gushy reviews. When we go to press it will have grossed more than $1 million in only 31 theaters. That he painted Detroit last week is kind of a big deal.
After our "Reckless Eyeballing" arts and culture blog broke the story of four local paintings that Banksy had left around the time his movie opened here, rumors spread about a local nonprofit gallery excavating a 1.5-ton piece that the artist had painted on a decaying car factory wall for "preservation and protection." Even before archivist Randy Wilcox of the Detroitfunk.com blog posted the photos confirming 555's huge art extraction, conversations of ownership and artistic intent were already lighting up local and international websites. Then, when a duo posted pictures on their theprocesstheory.tumblr.com blog of a failed attempt to sledgehammer out another Banksy wall gem in ghetto area on Van Dyke Road, the conversations became toxic.
It turns out that 22 year-old Shane McMurphy is the guy behind the latter blog, and the hammer in the photos. He claims another group must've snagged the Banksy while he left to buy more tools at Home Depot (at 6 in the morning?). The now-reviled blogger says they don't have the Van Dyke Banksy and that they didn't break it beyond repair during their botched heist. He's fairly shameless about the incident, admitting his intentions were purely selfish, but that he'd probably think harder about the repercussions and leave the Banksy alone if he could do it all over.
As news that a third Banksy had been found in the Cass Corridor — and then power-washed away by the building's owner — the matter of street art's value and context had entered the burgeoning discussion.
Soon several Internet forums and Facebook pages were yapping on of the significance of a street artist's intent, the ownership of street art, and the implications of ignoring or disrupting the genre's site-specific context.
Others are still deciding for themselves whether Banksy is a pesky-but-entertaining trust-fund vagrant or a fine-art vigilante who sticks it the man with a spray-paint can. If it's the latter, what does it mean that he's now tickling Tinseltown's toes? And what if his film is another of Banksy's pranks and he's just pimping it, however subversively that promotion may appear? See, when it comes to public high jinks as filtered through contemporary art, Banksy stands alone. If Keith Haring were the new star of MTV's Jackass, and all episodes were written and directed in a collaborative effort by pop-culture's two most talented Zachs — de la Rocha and Galifianakis — the show might feel like a Banksy.
A regular court jester, Banksy once printed counterfeit currency in London, replacing the Queen's head for that of Princess Diana's. Where the bill would normally read "Bank of England" he printed "Banksy of England." In disguise, armed with a hammer and nail, he's hung re-imaginings of the Mona Lisa inside the Louvre, and followed suit by hanging several other subverted renderings of famous art pieces inside multiple London- and New York-based museums. In August, 2006, Banksy swapped 500 copies of Paris Hilton's musical debut, Paris, in 48 UK record stores, replacing them with his own art and a Danger Mouse remix of the music. One song title was aptly renamed "Why Am I Famous?" He flew to Anaheim, Calif., for a trip to Disneyland where he placed a blow-up doll dressed like a Gitmo prisoner (orange jumpsuit, black hood, handcuffs) by the Big Thunder Mountain ride. He painted paradise on the West Bank barrier between Israel and Palestine (it's rumored that he was shot at), and he put up an intricate stencil of a Klansman hanging from a noose in Birmingham, Ala.
Then last week, in Detroit's dilapidated Packard Plant — the Playboy Mansion of ruin porn — he left a painting of a boy, looking sincere, as if you just caught him doing something bad. He's young enough that he has to use both hands to hold a can of paint. He's also clutching a dripping brush. The phrase "I remember when all this was trees" is painted next to him, in red kid-scribble. Surrounded by the busted shell of what once was a booming factory, every inch of the crumbling wall on which Banksy painted looks artfully repurposed. Behind that, a lone coniferous tree, maybe four feet tall, rises from the rubble.
The sapling is still there. The wall with Banksy's painting, however, resides with the 555 gallery.
Counting the sprayed-off mural in the Cass Corridor, three out of the four Banksy paintings are either gone or ruined — the Van Dyke one is smashed, the other excavated from its display spot. The lone remaining painting exists in Warren. On the side of a vacant-looking warehouse a stone's throw from the GM Tech Center, a cartoon rat — a signature Banksy character — wears Bootsy Collins-like star-shaped sunglasses while balancing on a tight rope, which is really a rusted old chain that hangs there. The Tightrope Rat has become an instant fave for hardcore fans and Banksy noobs. Luckily, it exists on a wall where it doesn't look like it's going to disappear anytime soon.
Many Banksy fans unfamiliar with Detroit are curious about the general areas and specific "canvases" the artist picked, and what, if any, importance the environment might have played. Let's look at them:
Kid Draws his Garden on Cass Avenue
Location: Cass Avenue near Willis Street, Detroit, near the campus of Wayne State University.
Geographic context: While there are moves to rebrand this neighborhood as the Cultural Corridor, or let Midtown annex it, Detroiters who love Detroit will always call this neighborhood the Cass Corridor. Home to John Sinclair, the MC5 and White Panther Party in the late-'60s, it's continued on as a rebellious womb for music, literature and visual art. The '67 riots took their toll, but so did crack in the '80s. Then it was a hotbed for car theft through the '90s. Even the Cass Corridor of five years ago varies drastically from it today, thanks in large part to the entrepreneurial youths into community planning and urban gardening.
This piece was painted on a building that's up for lease in the heart of what is the Corridor's current resurrection, or re-gentrification, depending on who you ask. It was located directly across the street from punk-chic Curl Up & Dye salon, down the street from the Hub of Detroit bike shop, Canine to Five doggy day care, the Cass Cafe artist hangout and the studios of 101.9 WDET. It's also just around the corner from hip boutiques, microbreweries, galleries and eateries, such as the new Midtown Shangri-La Chinese bistro location, where Banksy likely ate. (Photographer Billy Voo found red paint-stained Shangri-La menus, a recent New York Times crossword puzzle, and a used red spray-paint top all in the same spot at the Packard location.)
Fate: Banksy chose a building surrounded by a batch of successful independent businesses and recent construction to make way for new ones. The "for lease" sign was new, and the property clean for your average vacant Corridor building. Gabriel Schuchman, vice president of the real estate company LaKritz-Weber, didn't return our calls, but we can only assume that he was ignorant to the social and monetary value of the Bansky on his wall. So out came the power-washer and, despite the pleas from the ladies at Curl Up, it was buffed out, leaving a ghostly charcoal outline against the gray slab. That wall with Banksy was worth at least twice as much as the whole property's asking price.
A Girl Holds a Diamond on Van Dyke & Palmetto
Location: Circle Cleaners on Van Dyke Road between Milton and Palmetto in northeast Detroit.
Geographic context: A bombed-out yet magnificent relic, the former home of Circle Cleaners, tells the story a community that's been aching for a long time. The distinct 1950s swoop sign takes you back and forth through time. Today, when it's dry, it's home to the homeless. It was a canvas for graffiti, mostly Crip tags, before Banksy got there, and it will likely stay that way. The painting showed a young girl sitting as she would on a kindergarten classroom floor, holding a diamond in the palm of her hand, as she would during show and tell. But the "diamond in the ruff" metaphor seems too obvious. Maybe it's about the products of extreme pressure or regenerative strength. Banksy's addition of the trademark insignia attached to the diamond could be a comment on gang tags, which in effect "trademark" buildings, blocks and neighborhoods. Territory is marked in the underworld. Or it could be a simple satire on consumer culture.
Fate: Shane McMurphy — regardless of whether he has it or broke it or someone else finished what he started — laid down the sledgehammer swings that ensured Banksy's diamond girl wouldn't be seen again.
Tightrope rat in Warren
Location: Van Dyke south of 12 Mile, Warren
Geographic Context: Wearing star-shaped Bootsy Collins-style sunglasses with gold glitter, this happy rat walks a tight-rope, which is actually a rusted chain on the side of the vacant warehouse, while holding onto what looks to be quite a heavy balance beam. From Van Dyke, you can see Banksy's rat and the General Motors tech center. If this isn't a comment on the economic fallout of big business, what is?
Fate: It's intact and a delight to view. Highly recommended.
A boy paints at the Packard
Location: Abandoned Packard Plant on Warren and Mount Elliott, Detroit.
Geographic context: Banksy had the boy in the painting write, "I remember when all this was trees." There's no doubt that at some point in Detroit's history, it was. But what's more likely is that this ramshackle cesspit (really, it's a prime example of what a post-industrial wasteland should look like), will sooner return to its natural, vegetative state, as evidenced in the greenery growing in the background, then it would its industrial one.
Fate: The wall Banksy chose still exists, at 555 Gallery and Studios in southwest Detroit. When graffiti photog Billy Voo was first hipped to this Banksy piece by one of his scrapper contacts, he knew the importance of the artist and the piece. Seeing as how the painting could bring some serious cash, Voo called local galleries and museums in an preservation effort. When 555 Gallery founders J. Monte Martinez and Carl W. Goines got the call, they, along with cohort Eric Froh, decided to excavate.
"It was coming down one way or another," Martinez says. "If it wasn't us, it was going to be scrappers," Froh adds. "We're not selling it, we're protecting it," Goines says.
Knee-jerk reactions accused 555 as being motivated by the money the Bansky could fetch in private auction. The 555's assurance that they'd never sell has quelled some naysayers. The argument that rose centered around the geographic context of street art, and the general consensus was that taking the Banksy piece to the gallery pretty much ruined it, as it's meant to be viewed in its natural habitat.
(At press time, the 555 began discussions with Packard Plant owners about the fate of the excavated Banksy. Stay tuned.)
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.