In September 2006, I cycled from Hampstead to Brick Lane as I intended to write a feature on a bookshop there for The Bookseller. I saw a pile of books in the shop titled Wall and Piece. I was familiar with Tolstoy’s epic novel but unaware of its near-namesake. And its author had an unusual name – Banksy. The book was published by Random House but its title page stated that ‘copyright is for losers’. The author had published three books in handy pocket-sized format himself before he was signed by RH. The shop assistant told me that Wall and Piece was one of their fastest-selling titles. This was my impromptu introduction to Banksy. The cover image was that of a masked protestor throwing flowers. It is an evocative artwork but it took me some time to realise that there is a bouquet rather than a stone in the hand of the protestor. It was reminiscent in fact – likely even a direct homage to – the iconography of the 1960s flower-power student protest movement.
The same year, I saw a mural in Chalk Farm near Camden Town depicting a white-aproned woman sweeping dust behind a whitewashed wall. This reminded me of a painting by a Dutch Old Master – Pieter de Hooch’s The Courtyard of a House in Delft – especially the striking detail of its brickwork. And like the allegories painted by some Old Masters, Banksy’s title, Sweep It Under The Carpet, has a deeper meaning. However, it was long after seeing the mural that I heard it was painted by Banksy. Later still, my bike would come to an abrupt spontaneous halt whenever I spotted a stencilled artwork on a wall around and about Camden Town, causing me to wonder if it was painted by the same elusive artist.
Graffiti has a long history although the word originated only in the mid-19th Century and became closely associated with street gangs in the 20th Century. Hundreds of years ago, people scratched walls to express their views. And aerosol paints, invented in the 1950s, were used by gang members to write their names on walls as a way of asserting – some would say ‘inflicting’– their identity.
Street artists differentiate themselves from graffiti artists, who never get tired of writing their own names again and again. Murals have been painted by people for thousands of years – one of the most famous is The Last Supper by Da Vinci. I was shocked when I saw that a doorway was cut through Da Vinci’s masterpiece in Santa Maria Della Grazie. Sometimes, it can take centuries for an artwork to be fully appreciated by the public.
Banksy gained recognition with his stencilled pieces a decade after he started playing cat and mouse with the police. His aversion to men and women in uniform is deep-rooted. It’s been said that he spent time in prison as a youngster for some petty offence. Street art is regarded as vandalism by law enforcement officers even though Banksy likes to call himself a ‘quality vandal’. The artist’s catchy pseudonym ‘Banksy’ has become synonymous with being artsy.
‘This artist who keeps his back to us, who sets no store upon being seen by posterity, and who will never know what posterity thinks of him, moves me profoundly’, writes Marcel Proust with reference to Vermeer. Banksy has effectively turned his back on the art world by remaining pseudonymous. He has reworked the masterpieces of great artists like Da Vinci, Van Gogh and Monet, all of whom suffered for their art. Da Vinci wrote a letter to the Prince of Milan, Sforza, listing the services he was ready to render if he was offered a job by him. Van Gogh hardly sold any of his works in his lifetime, writing letters to his brother confiding that he was going mad, and Monet’s work was rejected by the Salon as well as the Academy and he was suspected by the police of revolutionary activities. Yet these painters have inspired thousands of artists.
Banksy is said to have moved from Bristol to Shoreditch in East London in early 2000 as the people living or working in the area are tolerant of street artists. He painted stencilled murals in the courtyard of a nightclub and two of these works have survived to this day. In fact, one of them, the HMV logo in which a rebel dog holds a bazooka on its shoulder pointed at a gramophone, is surrounded by letters spelling out the name of another artist who, as a mark of respect, chose to paint around – rather than over – Banksy’s mural.
Shoreditch has become hip by transforming itself into an open-air art gallery. Two decades ago, I cycled there from Hampstead every other week to see an acquaintance who ran a small freight company. His warehouse and office happened to be situated inside one of the railway arches before a new overground station was built above them in Hoxton.
A picture framer occupied a nearby arch and a Swedish bakery that baked crusty artisan bread opened in another. When my acquaintance took me for a coffee there, he stated that their bread was pricey as they supplied it to one of the most expensive stores on Oxford Street.
The dreaded roundabout I crossed on my bike at the junction of Old Street and City Road to reach Shoreditch began to be called the Silicon Roundabout when tech companies started opening their offices in the area. I sometimes saw a lone office worker sitting behind the long glass window of a coffee shop and was reminded of a painting by the American artist, Edward Hopper. Nowadays, I see the neighbourhood teeming with people. There were hardly any hotels in Shoreditch back then but today you have half a dozen swanky hotels in a small area that is now known as Shoreditch Design Triangle. Even the big police station in Shoreditch has been turned into a hotel, just as the Old Town Hall opposite it now houses a top-notch restaurant.
Street artists brightened up the blackened exterior of empty warehouses with colourful pieces that made East London look trendy. But many street artists don’t like the idea of commissioned pieces as it goes against the spirit of public art. I recently toured the area with John, an Irish street artist, who gave me the lowdown on the underground art scene in East London. His own work, like most of the street artists, is overtly political and he has created a wall of infamy off Brick Lane with posters depicting political leaders from around the world. He particularly loathes Brexit. I asked him about the street art scene in Dublin and he told me that there wasn’t a great deal of it because the Irish authorities can be very heavy-handed in dealing with the artists. He has lived in many European capitals but especially enjoys the freedom that London, Berlin, Paris and Barcelona offer him as a street artist.
Banksy came into prominence in 2006 after hosting an exhibition in LA titled Barely Legal. However, it is barely illegal these days to engage in street art in Shoreditch. Today you can find street artists from all over the world unhurriedly painting murals, their backpacks, which contain tins of paint, placed on the pavement. Sometimes you see an upturned bicycle resting on its handlebar and saddle while its owner is bringing a wall to life with his painting. Banksy’s mural at the back of the nightclub states that it is a designated graffiti area. Another street artist has painted a sign on the wall in a heavily graffitied backstreet, asking his fellow artists to get their graffiti permission at the nearest police station. This is surely a neat self-referring joke.
‘The original painter proceeds on the lines of the oculist to create the visual world afresh for us,’ writes Proust, ‘and the artist of genius could be inspired by commonplace models.’ Banksy’s works are based on common social issues. The question as to whether he is a Genius or Vandal is a question explicitly posed by exhibitions like the one in LA.
My guide, John, held Banksy in high esteem for creating subversive art pieces as an expression of protest. What could be more subversive than depicting a protestor throwing a bouquet instead of a stone?
You have to be resourceful to afford a place to live in Hoxton or Shoreditch post-Covid. The rents are astronomical, like other neighbourhoods in London. A shoe repair shop owner told me recently that he cannot afford to rent a student flat above his shop even though both he and his wife are working full-time, and he was astonished how some students could afford to pay six months’ rent for their pied-a-terre in one go. The distressing term you often hear when you talk to street artists and locals in Shoreditch is gentrification. Many of the artists who have put Shoreditch on the art map of the world have been pushed out of the neighbourhood. Though pioneer performance artists Gilbert & George steadfastly remain in residence.
Banksy should devote one of his artworks to this theme. Perhaps he already has. Perhaps his notorious auctioned Self-Destructing artwork was it. Now that was radical enough to qualify as vintage Dada or Duchamp: an artist vandalizing his own work.