Arts book review

Banksy revisited

A look back at the revolutionary oeuvre of an anonymous vandal

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Gingko Press as the publisher. The book is published Carpet Bombing Culture, and is distributed by Gingko Press.


Banksy: You Are an Acceptable Level of Threat

Compiled by Gary Shrove

Text by Patrick Potter

Design by Lee Crutchley

Carpet Bombing Culture

June 2012

You know the dull wall of Building E38 (pink, cream, whatever) that runs between MIT Press and Cosi? The other day somebody had the audacity (dare I say, the good heart) to spray-paint two machine guns with barrels curved together in the shape of a heart. When I saw this act of vandalism, I smiled and nodded. For I have learned to appreciate this kind of art. Street art. And it’s thanks to Banksy.

Maybe you don’t know who Banksy is. Most people don’t. This is a shame, for he is one of the most memorable visual artists of his generation. I call him an artist, but he prefers to be called a vandal. He’s also a provocateur, a thinker, a poet, and Zen master of sorts.

In a new book on the elusive artist, Banksy: You Are an Acceptable Level of Threat, Patrick Potter describes Banksy as “an anonymous street artist from Bristol who rose to international fame in the late 1990s and the present day chiefly by illegally spray painting stencil designs across the major cities of the U.K. and North America.” It’s not street art if it isn’t illegal, we are reminded, along with a quote from Banksy: “Crime against property is no real crime.”

At this point, Banksy is anonymous by choice. Not only his choice, mind you, but the stubborn denial of his followers and fans: “Our myths are far more important to us than some twat with a real life.” Banksy will live forever anonymously, writes Potter, “and that is as it should be. Even if he came tomorrow and revealed herself. We still wouldn’t have it.” Plus, anonymity is kind of handy; if you’re going to play Zorro, you better damn well wear the mask.

As an artist, Banksy has tackled some of the most controversial topics of the day. In 2008 Banksy went to New Orleans, to “draw attention to the slow recovery of the city and criticise the perceived lack of political will to put money into the clean up.” And his “summer project” on Israel’s Wall has been called “one of the most pertinent artistic and political commentaries in recent memory” by a supporter of the Palestinian cause. Given these risky moves, anonymity is not the only layer of protection Banksy uses. Another one is replication. As Potter points out, “In his early days it seems likely that Banksy was one guy, these days there are reasons enough to suspect that there might be more than one artist working under the cypher.”

If you are not familiar with Banksy — not the man, but the style, the school of thought, the revolutionary brand — I recommend you take a look. A fast and fun way to become acquainted is to watch his Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which Potter accurately describes as “a disorienting hall of mirrors, fun to watch but ultimately leaving you with the feeling you’d been conned but you still weren’t sure exactly how.”

Another way is to grab a copy of Banksy: You Are an Acceptable Level of Threat, and look back at the mesmerizing images of the protester throwing a bouquet of flowers, the girl whose heart-shaped balloon is blown away by the wind, and the ubiquitous Banksy rats. For if you contemplate them, as if a Zen koan, you will understand who Banksy is. As said by Banksy himself, “there’s nothing more dangerous than someone who wants to make the world a better place.”