The questions that remain include discerning the difference between art and vandalism, between hype and hypersensitivity, between statement and swindle. At what point do scene-sters go from seeking meaning in cultural touchstones to subjecting themselves to surveillance?
Here's Jim's story...
Breaking the Banksy: Close encounters with an elusive graffiti artist
by Jim Fahy
Upon waking at 8:30 a.m. on Labor Day, I switched on the TV and checked the progress of Hurricane Gustav. Before physically leaving the bed I chatted with my fianc'e9 via Blackberry to get the latest news about her family on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Though I did kick it decidedly old school by making coffee with a French press, I enjoyed it while listening to a DVD commentary, fine-tuning an audio project on my laptop and getting caught up with my pals on Facebook.
It was on the popular social-networking site that my friend and colleague, Jonathan Purvis, made note about going to '93see that Banksy'94 at 9:57 a.m.
Now this was interesting.
Banksy is a well-known yet anonymous ('93pseudo-anonymous'94 if Wikipedia is to be believed) British graffiti writer whose surreal, incredibly detailed stencil work began attracting international attention around 2001. An artist whose modus operandi exists somewhere between Marcel Duchamp and Houdini, Banksy'92s graffiti has less to do with static images that revolve around a writer'92s signature and everything to do with creating art that interacts with its environment '97 and usually with a satirical, often political, bent that is likely be the most subversive element of your otherwise mundane commute.
Some of Banksy'92s most provocative work comes from twisting or modifying modern iconography to suit his message. This not only includes corporate imagery (one of Banksy'92s more well-known stencils features Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald walking hand-in-hand with a naked and crying child) but political figures, military motifs and Art itself. In fact, it may be argued that Banksy'92s greatest achievement isn'92t his street art but smuggling his own paintings into some of the world'92s most prestigious galleries, including The Louvre, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Museum of Natural History and The Tate Gallery in London. These works were not only as richly detailed at his graffiti, but dripping with the same smirking contempt of, among other things, the world'92s growing addiction to media. Or, if you will see it another way, our modern embrace of surveillance.
At 10:01 a.m. I asked Purvis where this piece could be found. Over the course of the next hour-and-a-half the mention of Banksy attracted two more fans who were quick to reference a couple of websites featuring photos and vague directions to Banksy'92s latest work. Apparently the internationally renowned artist had spent some time in New Orleans, no doubt in deference to the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, before heading east to an abandoned Chevron station in Ensley where he painted a hooded Klansman hanging from a noose.
I had already been driving for half-an-hour when I updated my Facebook status to read '93James is on the Banksy hunt'94 at 1:15 p.m. via my Blackberry.
I don'92t know Ensley very well. In fact, driving around on that muggy Labor Day afternoon was the first time I had ever really explored the western Birmingham neighborhood in-depth. The sun finally came out while crisscrossing the narrow streets of the mostly empty business district. But as I looped past 19th Street'92s Club Fifty Grand (the number'92s disconnected), a failed record and video store, and a half-dozen seemingly closed down African Hair Braiding salons, it seemed such a shame to see such a potentially cool downtown so devoid of life. Perhaps this was why Banksy decided to increase the property values of an otherwise dead area (Reuters reports Banksy'92s '93Space Girl and Bird'94 fetched almost $600,000 at a 2007 auction).
It was also around this time that my raging headache (I hadn'92t eaten) was getting the best of me and I decided to take a break from my search to grab something to eat. As I hit the on ramp back to I-59 North I looked to my right and spotted an abandoned Chevron. The distant glimpse of skinny kids taking pictures confirmed the rest.
I went back south, got off at the first Ensley exit, and took a left towards Legion Field. As I parked, the image of the lynched Klansman was clear as day under the awning of the forsaken filling station. Purvis, whose phone was dead, was there with two other photographers eagerly snapping pictures. As I started taking pictures of my own, another kid showed up with a camera. He was going to study photography when he started college. I turned towards my car and saw a white guy in a pick up truck was sitting with the driver'92s side door open, taking in the scene and saying nothing.
It had to be a funny sight to the convenience store (The Bush Hill Quickstop) across the street '96 a small cluster of white dudes (well, there was one girl) taking photos of a painting of a dead Klansman. As the majority of us decided to pack it in, an African-American guy and girl, both looking to be in their mid-to-late 20s, got out of an SUV and asked us what the graffiti was all about. While delivering our ham-fisted summaries it became obvious that the guy was upset. He wasn'92t interested in the celebrity status some arch graffiti writer from England. He wanted to know why someone would do this in his neighborhood without thinking of the trouble it might cause. This Ensley resident wasn'92t concerned about art '96 he was concerned about retaliation.
As the couple got back into their car to leave, another young African-American male walked over to the painting and started taking pictures with two different camera phones. He sauntered up to me with a big grin and I told him the whole story. Afterwards he called someone with one of the phones, repeated my story and crossed the street.'a0 I went home.
At 2:40 p.m. I posted a note on Facebook with more accurate directions to the abandoned Chevron. After uploading the digital photos to my Facebook page, I grabbed my fianc'e9 and split for San Miguel on Green Springs Highway to grab a long overdue lunch.
At 3:42 p.m. (I sent a Facebook message to Purvis via my Blackberry), my fianc'e9 and I discussed Banksy'92s piece over pulled pork tacos, shrimp ceviche and a cold glass of Bohemia. I kept thinking of that guy and girl '96 what he said about Banksy not considering the people who have to live with his latest creation.
The work Banksy created in New Orleans a few days prior is sublime '96 my favorite is the silhouette of a young boy flying a refrigerator like a kite. Photos of this work are already on Banksy'92s website (banksy.co.uk) and deliver an almost magically surreal commentary on post-Katrina New Orleans. It'92s work that brings a sense of beauty and humor to areas that look to be in dire need of both.
The Klansman, by contrast, seems alarmingly blunt '97 a cheap critique of a city that is desperately trying to keep its racist past as just that, the past. I couldn'92t help but feel silly taking pictures of a painting while a denizen of Ensley looked through his gut reactions of anger and fear to find out what so fascinated us. I live in Southside. Banksy remains anonymous'85 But a city that'92s not in on the joke may be left with some unwanted damage control. Furthermore, why put this image in a predominately black neighborhood? Why not in, I dunno, South Shelby County?
From 5:16 p.m. to 11:51 p.m. on Monday, I received a number of Facebook comments about my photos. Some were excited that Birmingham had been graced by an art star. Others were not so impressed. A few had never heard of Banksy but cursory Google searches transformed negative first impressions into healthy curiosities.
At 8:11 a.m. on Tuesday, I received a Facebook message via my Blackberry that Banksy'92s piece had been modified with black spray paint. I went back to Ensley at 9 a.m. to confirm the report and take a few pictures. Following me into the parking lot of the abandoned Chevron came a Hummer that, just a few seconds prior, was parked in front of the Bush Hill Quickstop. Out of it came two guys from Nashville who had been following the story on the Internet. They claimed that the spray paint was still wet upon their arrival.
They also claimed that a few of the Bush Hill Quickstop employees saw Banksy and an accomplice do the deed. I went to my office and uploaded the photos to my Facebook page at 9:30 a.m., but the news of the modification was already out. At 10:40 a.m. I e-mailed a photo to a popular street-art blog called The Wooster Collective who posted the photos of Banksy'92s original creation on Saturday, Aug. 30. In the e-mail I asked if they thought Banksy would go on record with the Weekly and, if so, whether they knew how to contact him. I received an e-mail almost an hour later saying they would pass my e-mail along. At press time I still had not heard from Banksy.
At 11:30 a.m. I decided to go back to the Quickstop and conduct a few interviews. The conspicuous Nashville Hummer was properly parked and its passengers were across the street talking to an African-American gentleman who first denied but later claimed that he was the owner of the property. He was reticent about being on the record. In fact, just about everyone I talked to declined to go on record about Banksy '96 yet they were still more than willing to not only discuss the piece but ask questions of their own. Although the people I talked to ran the gamut of being visibly amused to outwardly disgusted by Banksy'92s work, they all had this in common: They found his graffiti disturbing and wanted nothing to do with it.
Bush Hill'92s Renee Calvin was the only employee who would speak to me on record. '93Every customer that came in the store, they wanted to know what was the purpose of putting it up there. They thought it was going to cause conflict.'94
Rene claimed that two men had set up at the abandoned Chevron for a couple of days '97 an amount of time tantamount to eternity in street art. A fellow employee (off the record) contradicted this, claiming they only spent a few hours working behind a tarp and that they were not British but local and, upon finishing their work, hung out by the dumpster to see if anyone would react.
The man who first denied but later claimed to own the property corroborated that the gentlemen in question couldn'92t have been there for more than a few hours (he would have noticed), adding that he found their tarp in the bathroom.
As to who would have covered up the painting? No one could say. Nor did anyone seem to care:'a0 This was not about high art, it was about hate begetting hate. And no one who frequented the Bush Hill Quickstop was interested in any of that.
Also at the scene were two guys from New York on their way to Orlando, promoting a film called Bad Biology. Anthony Sneed was actually in the film and his friend was along for the trip. They heard about the Banksy piece and took a cab from the Birmingham airport to see for themselves. The two of them not only knew an awful lot about Banksy but about graffiti writing in general and, judging by the techniques on display, thought it was undoubtedly his work. Despite Ensley'92s demographics, they thought the site was well chosen for it visibility to the interstate. They were on the hunt for something to eat and I agreed to give them a ride to Bottletree.'a0 Leaving the Quickstop we noticed that the two guys from Nashville were back to chatting up the maybe-owner of the property. One of the guys told me he worked in music publishing. Could they be making a deal?
Anthony and his friend indulged all my questions and once we got to Bottletree they bought me a beer. We shot the shit for a while and parted ways.
At 6:16 p.m. I received a text message from the New York guys (now en route to Nashville) that '93those hum vee red necks [sic] snatched it'85'94 A quick phone call confirmed that a friend drove them back to Ensley to find the painting gone. I hopped in my car to confirm it and, sho nuff, all that I saw was exposed cinder blocks. I snapped a picture and left. At 7:45 p.m. my Facebook status read '93James is '91It'92s gone!'92'94
So what do we have here? Tying this up seems impossible. We currently live in times that ask much of us and get little in return'85 As of press time the past 36 hours of my life have been consumed with questions of modern art, modern race relations and what it means to live in the South. On top of that I wonder if Birmingham has been privy to a great Art Swindle? All this Sound and Fury'85 Could this be the point?
Why not keep things modern? Rather than beat my head against the wall trying to come up with a neat finish, I'92m going to move the conversation to '93Mixed Media,'94 the Weekly'92s blog. With word that another of Banksy'92s works is floating around Birmingham there is plenty to discuss.