Shok-1 interviews Banksy. 2001.
A chat with Banksy.
I should count myself lucky I wasn’t blindfolded like the reporter from The Face
magazine on the way to the secret HQ of Banksy [apparently he enjoyed it. Each
to his own!]
Not easily categorised, the man is an unusual blend of aerosol attitude and fine art.
Some narrow-minded purists have found his stencil based work hard to swallow,
but the establishment can’t seem to get enough.
Sitting amongst huge piles of street level photo’s and crisp canvases alike we caned
caffeine and talked shop. This is not an interview but just a conversation with a
normal bloke with big dreams…
Shok: [looking at a photo of a plastic Mickey Mouse face full of bullet holes]
Hahaha! You got a gun off someone to shoot holes in Mickey?
Banksy: Yeah, it’s that gun there.
S: Pooor Mickey! Hahaha! I like these lumps of wall too.
S: I saw a couple of your canvases up in a shop in Bristol last year but I haven’t seen
all that many really. You think they transfer well to canvas?
B: I just did a show in Glasgow that taught me a lot. I had a lot of these canvases up.
What I realized is, these are just like your tea towels & mugs really, of what I do.
The art is the stuff in the street, and then if there are canvases, people who have a bit
of money who want a souvenir, they can take one home and put them on their wall!
I’m lucky that I can rattle these off, they don’t take long, and I can sell them for 500.
S: It’s good, because your stuff is about repetition being that it’s a stencil thing anyway
so it’s not counterproductive to use the same image on a canvas as well.
B: I mean it’s part printing, part screen-printing innit? Even if you do twenty of an image,
no two are going to look the same. So it’s an original piece of artwork whichever way
you look at it.
S: The last thing I sold in Germany were laser jet prints and I’m much happier selling
things like that. One-offs, I’m loathe to part with them at all to be honest.
B: I’ve got over that bit now.
S: Obviously if people keep crossing your palm with silver that helps too!
B: I sold a canvas in Bristol and I wanted to get it back to put it up in Glasgow.
I asked the geezer and he said, “Nah, it’s staying where it is” and I realized, it’s like
selling a car – you can’t sell someone a car and then ask to borrow it back.
S: [Looking at the canvas] That’s not a stencil is it, you painted that with a brush right?
S: I was looking through some of your older photo’s there. They were much more like,
normal graffiti. [i.e. colourful New York graffiti]… I like to see an artist’s progression,
one of the things that appeals to me about what you’ve been doing is that we’re on the
same kind of wavelength in that I’m becoming more and more minimal as well. I’ve never
been greatly into using millions of colours anyway. I like the fact your canvases are really
plain, I can imagine people must really get into that.
B: You do it in a different way when you do stuff to put in people’s houses, you have to think about things like colours and making pictures that will fit through the door… [getting out a matching set of canvases] also how you space them out is interesting. You have one on one wall … then you have the other on another wall next to it [the second canvas shows that they have been bowling bombs].
S: Hahaha’ I like it! So looking back at when you were doing the big walls with lots of colours, how did you progress onto the stencilling and leaving out the extra colours and detail?
B: I got into this mindset that using colours is a sign of weakness, if you’ve got the fucking idea and you can lay it down, you don’t need lots of colours……
S: It’s funny, because I think what we do is really different, but in a lot of ways we’re heading in the same direction. The reason why I started doing really stripped down characters with just one colour and an outline was to make the same point. You see these kids with with these incredible multicoloured 3D shading techniques, but you strip away all the flashy stuff and the drawing is wack.
B: There’s a beauty in simplicity. I think it’s a bit like maths, in that you have a right answer and every other answer is wrong. If you’ve got an idea about a picture you want to make there is a perfect picture for it and every other picture is wrong. I haven’t got there yet, but I want all my pictures to be like. bang on. No unnecessary colour, not a single unnecessary line on the whole thing. Just perfect. Like with this cop thing here, [a painting of a group of policemen looking hopelessly for the culprit]. I was trying to say, “I got away with it” in as few lines as possible, even if you think you’re being really obvious, it doesn’t always work out like that. The funny thing is I sold one of these to this bird, I had a couple of drinks with her afterwards and she said, ”I’m really pleased with that picture, because you don’t see policemen getting drunk do you?” She thought it was two people drinking beer. But I already had the cash in my pocket, like, so I just went, “Yeah, yeah sure”. I thought, is someone going to tell her that they’re looking through binoculars not drinking beer?
S: When we were on the phone a while back and I was trying to guess the symbolisms in your images and I got them all completely different to what you meant them to mean.
B: But then I am fond of changing them halfway through myself!
S: I think it’s quite nice in a way if art is a little bit open-ended. That way the onlooker can have more of a personal involvement. If it’s too regimented and directed in its meaning then it almost excludes the onlooker, like you’re just showing your idea at them. Maybe it’s good to let them come to their own conclusions… Especially if the art is at street level.
When did you do that Mona Lisa near Poland Street?
B: Oh that’s new. I’ve still got to go and put the lyrics on that.
S: That’s a big fucking stencil man!
B: Did it look right? I painted it and fucked off so I haven’t even looked at it yet. I put, “Boom or bust” on it but then I scrubbed it off because it didn’t read very well. I did another one in Leicester Square on the same day. You know, after a while you think, fuck it, I’m in London, let’s take it to the fucking art of London. Doing Leicester Square was satisfying, you can’t get much more central than that.
S: My other favourite hit I saw of yours was the Centre Point one. I tell you what I like about when you use the lettering on its own is that it almost slips past you. Because you get bombarded with so much typography in adverts and stuff…. I saw that hit from the car and I had to double-take because it almost looks like it’s meant to be there, like some official thing. Do people say that to you? Do people think the logo’s like… well I guess branding in a way.
B: It’s funny because sometimes it goes up so quick and so nice that it’s almost too close to regular signwriting. I did one on the side of this building in Bristol, their sign was really shitty and it Awas on one end of the wall and my name was right across the middle looking crisp. It was only there for five days, I assume because the owner was like, “Why is someone else’s name across my building better than my own name?!” You could just tell by the way that it was painted over someone had got really pissy about it and that’s an ironic thing – people always complain graffiti is untidy, but if you do something very tight, it pisses them off even more.
S: We noticed when we were in Ireland that sign writing is still like an artform there.
Everywhere you go, you see this beautiful hand painted lettering. We got approached by this sign-writer in Limerick while we were painting, he told us that laser-cut lettering had only just started to come over there in the last year… and they paint the pubs. Every English writer must look at the side of pubs; they nearly always have great white walls. Well over there they paint these murals on them or they cut the painting out of wood and put it up there, these incrediblehand painted pieces of artwork. You don’t see that over here. It’s like all those walls that writers are doing in Germany.
You don’t get public art jobs like that being given to graffiti people over here, because the country is just too conservative and not open to it. That’s one thing that disappoints me about a lot of graffiti.
I mean, there’s all this meaning attached to the fact of where things get placed and the political and sociological meanings, but I kind of get to the point where I wonder if we’re creating all this dialogue to cover up the fact that a lot of it really isn’t saying very much, I mean it does, in fact there’s a story behind every hit, but beyond that…
B: It’s like the Fume piece over at Royal Oak, [25 foot high dub at Paddington mainline]. It’s got to the point now where if you’re going to just write your name, you’re going to have to do it like that to give it a meaning. The funny thing about that piece is that it say’s loads because it’s huge and the audaciousness of it. Although it says, “Fume” it also says, “fuck you, I can do what I want, where I want, I run this part of London…” Purely because of the size. If it was 5 foot high, it would mean nothing.
S: Another thing I’ve been wondering about your work is that it obviously has this dissident element to it but at the same time it’s also very tongue-in-cheek, so where does it fit? I suppose if someone very conservative saw it then they would think you’re a total anarchist. I don’t know how it’s been received by the graffiti community over here?
B: I try very hard not to wonder what the graffiti community makes of it. You know the scene, if you want to have a productive life; you’re best off not listening to the average kid with a spraycan in his bag. I think not listening to people is one of the main things you need to make good pictures.
S: I can think of one or two people who’ve had their heads a bit fucked up from listening too much.
B: I’m aware that I’m your non-graffiti writer’s writer. When I was in Bristol people would say to me, ”You’re the only bloke doing graffiti in this town” and I would tell them, no, I can name 25 other people who are up, but because they tag, people just don’t see it.
S: So many people are street bombing now and it’s been going around for so long that the public are desensitised to it I think. It’s like constant background noise, it doesn’t get their attention like it used to. I was really into street bombing for around six years. Then I thought, OK, I’ve been up for years, who gives a shit about seeing my name? So What? I thought, What am I doing now that I haven’t already done? I mean, obviously you do it for other writers to see, but I want more people to pay attention to it than that.
B: If you want to get up in a major way today, you need to be original rather than prolific, like most things it’s quality over quantity. This “Graffiti Area” stencil is without a doubt the best thing I’ve done, because it’s introducing the X-Factor – a load of shit you have no control over. I put the stencil up and a week later kids have written everywhere all over the wall. I spoke to this Lawyer and he reckoned in his experience that it would be enough of a defence if you were a kid and got picked up by the old bill writing on one of these walls. That would give you enough, ‘reasonable doubt’ to beat the case. The National Highways Agency doesn’t exist and the official crest on it is off a packet of Benson & Hedges. It’s a complete Mickey Mouse thing.
S: But it’s enough for them to say they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.
B: And the amazing thing is, if one kid gets off like that, it sets a precedent. That’s what I’m up for now. I’m going to put up 500 of those fuckers and then wait until it ends up in court and see what happens. It’s quite political, because it means you have the right to go out into your community and say how you think it should look, and that you can potentially bypass parliament and change laws.
I mean, you could sit there and say that you think it would be better if we allowed more public art in this country. Then you could complain about it. Then you could try and get the council involved.
Or you could just put up notices in the middle of the night saying, “You are allowed to paint this wall” and bypass the system. Get a test case and you can potentially get into the statute books.
S: I just read an interview with Dean from Brighton. He’s been using standard graffiti format, just straight letter “Dean” pieces but the difference is that he has really well thought out ideas about where to put them and why. He’s using it to oppose the gentrification going on in Brighton by preventing them from making it into a sanitized, untouched environment.
S: I’ve got a copy of Big Daddy #6 for you here…
B: Who did this cover?
S: I did.
B: Bit different for you isn’t it?
S: Well what’s the point of just doing things you know you can do? You have to keep moving on…
S: What’s this stencil made out of card?
B: Yeah, it was funny the other day, I was putting up that Mona Lisa and this guy keeping lookout was in hysterics because it was really papery card and part of the bazooka kept falling off.
He thought I would have cut them out of resin and all kinds of things. A big part of the thing for me is the fact that I’ve only ever used card that was free. I can get a can for 60p, that’s good for 30 stencils and then the cost of a couple of disposable blades and that’s it. It’s really important to me that you can have a huge street campaign that could get you famous in a month if you went nuts, and it would cost you about a tenner, the money factor is what turns me off the gallery circuit, that it costs so much to mount a show. Still, you can have a show that costs you next to nothing, like London, under the bridge. Our deal with that was that we nicked all the materials except for about four pounds worth of black paint.
S: How many people showed up?
B: On the opening night, about 500 people. We let people know in advance when it was going to happen, told them that they would have to email this address to find out where it was going to be at the last minute because it was all illegal. Six months later Cargo opened their club next to it and the artwork is still up. People have written on it, but the people from the club took a brush and carefully whited all the tags and left the stencils.
S: I see quite a lot of commercially orientated stencils around London. Was that here when you moved in?
B: Nah. Have you seen the [name removed to avoid undue promotion] ones? They’re everywhere.
I saw them in Glasgow and I was lining them out, because they approached me when I first came to London and asked me to do stuff for them for free, even though they’ve got backing.
S: You seem quite solitary in the way you do things…
B: If there was someone on the same wavelength I would maybe join up and do some things. When I used to do big pieces, I would always do them on my own. One time I went out, I had a friend who was looking out for me. I just started painting a big piece and he goes, “I’ve got a really bad feeling about this”. That ruined the whole mission from the word go. I have a project planned with Dane, but I’m going to carry on doing this mostly by myself.