Banksy Job

04.07.10

Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop, 2010, still from a color film, 87 minutes. Image courtesy of Paranoid Pictures.


BORN OUT OF THE NEW YORK graffiti scene of the 1970s and ’80s, street art has come a long way since Revs and Cost were wheat-pasting their block-letter foolscap names in every nook and cranny of the city. Like its sibling rap music, it has gone massive. No one was more responsible for this mainstreaming than an elusive, anonymous Bristol native who goes by the tag Banksy, with a close second going to the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey, he of the Obama “HOPE” poster. Both are featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary about street artists that Banksy took over from its original auteur (and the real subject of the film), Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash.

A diminutive Frenchman who resembles a Mini-Me John Belushi with, as Banksy puts it in the film, “facial hair from the 1860s,” Guetta grew up with an obsessive need to videotape everything that happened around him. Nothing very exciting did, until he started following his cousin around Paris at night as the latter pasted and stenciled the titular creatures of the early video game Space Invaders anywhere he could. Invader, as his cousin called himself, gave Guetta a taste of the subversive thrill of illicit art, and the manic filmaholic had finally found his subject.

Through Invader’s underground connections, Guetta worked his way up through street-art royalty, including a period of following/filming Fairey (in his Andre the Giant “OBEY” phase), until he got an audience with Banksy, offering himself to the artist as a guide to the virgin walls and billboards of LA, Guetta’s adopted city. “Street art has a short life span,” says Banksy through an electronic voice distorter. “We wanted someone to document it, and Thierry was at the right place at the right time.”

After assisting and filming Banksy at work in LA, Guetta was invited by the artist to come to his studio in London and film his process there. Banksy’s studio hands, ever protective of their master’s secret identity, didn’t like the nosy, irrepressible Frenchman and his camera. Banksy disagreed: “He was cool, very human. The power of Thierry is the unlikeliness of him. He became a friend.” Inspired by his heroes, Guetta made a stencil of himself with a video camera and started bombing walls around LA. Around this time (2006), Banksy held his first big US show, “Barely Legal,” in an abandoned LA warehouse. Controversial for its (live) elephant in the room, the show was nevertheless a smash with Hollywood stars and wannabe hipsters alike.

Banksy had Guetta accompany him to Disneyland to document his placing of a blowup Gitmo detainee doll in view of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride, which caused the park to shut down in panic. Changing clothes and riding rides, Banksy got away. Guetta didn’t, enduring a Cheney-era grilling from park security. “Thierry was seeing another side of the Magic Kingdom,” chuckles Banksy. Managing to stash his videotape of the event in his sock and erase his digital still camera in the presence of his captors, Guetta was eventually released for lack of evidence.

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Banksy, Exit Through The Gift Shop, 2010. (Trailer)

This endeared him to Banksy even more, and the artist encouraged his sidekick to edit his endless hours of street-art video footage into a documentary about the subculture. Guetta obliged, apparently putting the hundreds of unmarked tapes through a digital Cuisinart, resulting in an unwatchably nonlinear, ultra-quick-cut image salad. “I started to think that Thierry wasn’t a filmmaker,” recalls Banksy, “but a guy with mental problems.” In order to take control of the film project, Banksy suggested that Guetta go back to LA and pursue his own art—a move he came to regret.

Assuming the identity of Mr. Brainwash, Guetta threw himself into street art with the same hyperactivity he brought to his camerawork, producing gazillions of highly derivative pieces that mash up Warhol, Banksy, Fairey, and almost every street and Pop artist who ever lived. Distinguished by their giant size and shameless stylistic thievery, Guetta’s works are emblematic of an initially inspired art movement planing out to the mediocrity of total saturation, something like the relationship between the Replacements and the Goo Goo Dolls. Undaunted by criticism, Guetta mounted a copycat abandoned warehouse show in the old CBS Studios building in Hollywood, hyped it heavily, and overnight became almost as famous as Banksy, selling over a million dollars’ worth of art in two weeks.

“Most artists take years to develop their style,” laments Banksy. “Thierry seemed to miss out on all those bits. There’s no one like Thierry, even though his art looks like everyone else’s.” Getting to the rub, Banksy continues, “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless. I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that anymore.”

For his part, Guetta comes off at the end of the film as a vindicated Salieri without rancor or envy. “A lot of people think I’m a rabbit,” Guetta says. “Time will tell if I’m a turtle or a rabbit.” In the turtle column: Guetta was commissioned by Madonna to do the cover of her 2009 greatest hits collection, Celebration; he opened his second big show in the Meatpacking District in New York on Valentine’s Day, 2010; and he’s the subject of a documentary released under the imprimatur of his own personal Mozart. Maybe he’s really a fox.

Andrew Hultkrans

Exit Through the Gift Shop opens in select theaters on Friday, April 16.