Banksy, this amazing graffiti artist from Britain, has been in New York City doing his thing this past month. I would agree that it’s not nice to describe any graffiti artist as “amazing,” considering how they deface things, but Banksy only fits that definition because of the definition. A graffiti artist is someone who goes out at night painting on walls without permission. Thing is, what he paints is often hilarious or great art. Here’s a few of his accomplishments.
In June 2007, he arranged a group of portable toilets in a field in England as an exact replica of Stonehenge. He stencil-painted a portrait of Charles Manson in a prison suit, hitchhiking and holding a cardboard sign reading “Anywhere.” In Bristol, England, he painted a naked man hanging onto the sill of a painted window in a blank wall. A man and woman are looking out the window trying to see where he went. This blank wall was part of a sexual health clinic at the time the work was completed. In 2008, he painted an old man in a rocking chair under a pre-existing NO LOITERING sign on a building in New Orleans. He works in Los Angeles, the West Bank, Chicago, Miami. He is never seen. And he issues statements on his website.
In many cities the authorities leave up what he paints as works of art. (The 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop chronicled Banksy’s works and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary.) In other cities, the bureaucrats order the paintings scrubbed off. It almost always results in people arguing. Mayor Bloomberg reportedly is not a Banksy fan.
Here in New York, he has stenciled silhouettes of proper fairytale people on the sides of buildings. He secretly hung one of his paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another in the Brooklyn Museum and another in the Museum of Modern Art. He constructed a fiberglass sculpture of a boy who is shining the oversized shoes of a real statue of Ronald McDonald that stands in front of a McDonald’s in Queens. And then, night after night, the boy was moved to shine shoes of other McDonald’s statues elsewhere in the city.
The auction houses are crazy about works by Banksy. They sell them, when they can be removed, for $30,000 and $40,000 each. Five years ago a couple put their $1,500 trailer up for auction for approximately $800,000 because Banksy had painted the side of it. At one auction, an item went up for sale that said “Banksy painting with building attached.”
On October 12 of this year, Banksy set up a table on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue near Central Park. For sale on the table were 25 spray-painted, signed canvases. The day before, Banksy announced this special one-day “sale” where each signed painting would go for $60. An old man manned the cash register. The tourists walked by, and only eight pieces were sold for the bargain price—and some were haggled down—according to reporters who covered the event.
My favorite Banksy prank occurred on October 27. A few days before, apparently, he had submitted an op-ed piece to The New York Times, which had been rejected. So he sent it out to the media, in the Times’ unique type style.
Comments about it appeared in magazines and newspapers in Sydney, London, Toronto, on The Huffington Post, etc. HuffPo ran a poll: Do you believe with Banksy or disagree with Banksy? The results, so far, were 49.9% yes and 50.1% no, last time I looked.
Banksy had written what he thought about the architecture of Manhattan’s brand new giant, world-class skyscraper, One World Trade Center. He called it a disaster and said something had to be done about it.
“It reminds you of a really tall kid at a party,” he wrote, “shifting his shoulders trying not to stand out from the crowd. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a shy skyscraper.… It looks like something they would build in Canada.”
Thing is, that’s how I feel about it, too. I remember when it was being built, how fat and chunky it looked. But I thought, oh, the great needle will go on top, and that will make it look great. It was supposed to be a sort of pyramid needle. But then at the last minute, they changed the plan. It went up straight, a needle very much too small. And I thought, oh, great. Well, I thought, I’m not going to say anything.
“Remarkably for such a tall structure One World Trade lacks any self-confidence,” Banksy wrote. It looks like it never wanted to be built in the first place.”
You know, it took eight years for the architects to decide what it would look like. It was always going to be 1776 feet high, in honor of The Declaration of Independence. You can knock us down but we get up taller and stronger. Some of the early drawings showed a soaring building leaping into the sky. It was great! But then that architect got dumped, and his plan went away. Then another plan got dumped because it didn’t meet anti-terrorist specifications. And now, finally, here it is, a building that looks like it was, and probably did, get built by a committee, I’m sorry to say. It does indeed look to me like a very tall fat kid trying not to stand out.
“You really need to put up a better building in front of it right away,” Banksy concluded.
Oh, Banksy. Oh, New York. At one time, the rocket ship Chrysler Building was the tallest in the world. Then the powerful, all-business Empire State Building held that title. Then we let it slip away.
Other taller buildings were either graceful or awful. Certainly Taipei 101, built in Taiwan at 1,667 feet, is architecturally uninspiring. The Petronas Towers, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at 1,483 feet, are pretty weird. But the International Commerce Center in Hong Kong at 1,588 feet is a great beauty.
Today, the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa, 2,722 feet high, in the main business district of Dubai. It’s an architectural masterpiece (designed by an American architectural firm). An interesting side story about it is that it was supposed to be named the Burj Dubai, and it was called that until the money ran out in mid-construction. A neighboring emirate bailed Dubai out, but the condition was they had to name it after the emir. The second-tallest building today is the Shanghai Tower in China at 2,073 feet. The Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower in Saudi Arabia, at 1,972 feet, which looks, frankly, like the Tower of London on steroids, is third. And fourth now is our very own One World Trade Center in New York, a shy building, but okay. We bill it as “The Tallest Building in the Western World.”
And I think, in praise of Banksy, we should add “…including Canada.”
I’d like to invite Banksy to the Hamptons. My idea is that on one night, he have a team of assistants go out and put bronze plaques on all the street benches on the Main Streets that do not have plaques. Each one could be a love note to a celebrity. We love you Billy Joel. We love you Madonna. We love you Russell Simmons. We love you Mel Brooks. We love you Jon Stewart. We love you Alec Baldwin.
Without you, we’d be nothing.