The British street artist known as Banksy began what he called a month-long residency in New York City on October 1, 2013. Each day the graffiti artist, whose actual identity is unknown, would post hints on his website as to where the new work could be found, sparking a daily scavenger hunt through the streets of New York.
The event sparked controversy in the city: some viewed the work as desired decoration, while others considered it an illegal defiling of public and private property. When HBO asked filmmaker Chris Moukarbel make a documentary about the event, Banksy Does New York, he culled endless online footage shot of the event by fans, and conducted his own interviews, to piece together a vision of Banksy’s appeal.
Rob Feld: I wondered if going through all the fan-made internet footage crystallized for you anything about what makes Banksy a compelling figure?
Chris Moukarbel: He’s a populist artist. I think it’s always been part of his project to make his work as easily accessible and widely popular as possible. They’re like pop songs, structured to get the most attention and to be the most accessible, while contemporary art I don’t think is as interested in the wide audience. He’s coming from the background of street art so it’s not about the gallery or contemporary art world, it’s about the average person on the street and work that almost anyone can find some way to connect with.
RF: Was there a favorite piece of video that cracked open something for you?
CM: There is a couple, Julia and Kurt, who had the most comprehensive coverage because they really gave up the whole month and tracked Banksy every single day. They’re dog walkers by trade. Their YouTube videos only had a few views, so it was kind of an untapped archive that was essential for us in telling the story. We crowd-sourced a lot of footage, but because of the way they included themselves in their footage, and the way they were able to get to each piece, they became the most effective storytellers and the best characters for us to track. I enjoyed everything they were doing and their commentary is hilarious; they were really into it and you didn’t feel they were the least bit self-conscious about what they were doing.
RF: HBO approached you with the idea to do this, and at first Banksy’s people had nothing to do with it. At what point did you start to get some assistance?
CM: I’d say midway through the process. We already had a decent rough cut of the film and they had been asking to see it. They really just wanted to know what we were doing. I think they were a little bit suspicious that we were making some kind of exposé, or trying to unmask him. Once they saw a cut and realized that the focus was less on Banksy and more on New York, I think they were really into it. They were supportive and able to assist us in ways, like with video or clarifying certain points for the sake of accuracy.
“It’s not about the gallery or contemporary art world, it’s about the average person on the street and work that almost anyone can find some way to connect with.”
RF: There’s the story about his work, “The Banality of the Banality of Evil.” It seemed really useful to have their help there.
CM: The original painting that Banksy purchased for $50 at the Housing Works thrift store was a kitschy landscape. He painted a Nazi soldier sitting on a bench looking out into it, called it “The Banality of the Banality of Evil,” and then dropped it back at Housing Works. By adding his mark to it and signing it, the value skyrocketed and eventually it sold for over $600,000. It was interesting because it wasn’t just the gesture of changing the value of the work – “the banality of evil” is a reference to Hannah Arendt’s book about where evil actually resides, and how it doesn’t actually come from the top down. It is perpetuated by people just doing their jobs. Her conclusion was that in the example of Nazi Germany, so many people who had committed these horrendous crimes weren’t inherently evil or sociopathic people, they were people who were just taking orders and that’s actually the real crime: how people fail to think about their actions. That was the reference for Banksy – we’re all complicit in evil and there’s the potential for evil to happen everywhere, it wasn’t specific to that moment in German history. Its potential exists all over the world and can happen at any time. Banksy’s people gave us a photograph of the painting before he altered it, which we wouldn’t have had otherwise. By the time the work had any attention on it, it had already been altered.
RF: Do you have some sense of his reaction to the film?
CM: We were told that he really enjoyed it. Just the fact that he engaged in it at all sort of meant that he was giving us his blessing, to an extent. He wasn’t involved at all in making it but he seemed to be pleased with the outcome.
RF: For yourself, how do you parse out the issue of illegal graffiti versus public art?
CM: When the film premiered at the DOC NYS festival, people tittered as Mayor Bloomberg condemned the residency. But of course it is a real issue in that maybe some of us are okay with Banksy painting on walls because we think it’s clever, but if I were to go around painting on walls, I guarantee you it would be considered a nuisance.
RF: Where does street art begin and end?
CM: I think it’s interesting to look at the evolution of the aesthetic of graffiti. It did start out being something associated with crime and blight, and people were afraid of it. As urban space became more gentrified, that whole urban aesthetic also became gentrified and now you have luxury condos using street art to decorate their walls, paying street artists and graffiti artists to create that look so it feels “gritty” or “New York.” There’s the sanctioned side of it and there is still an unsanctioned, illegal graffiti culture that exists in New York. I’m personally grateful that it still does because, whether or not it’s legal, not all laws need to be respected all the time. There is something to be said for living in a world where people might bend the laws to create beautiful things or conversation. Maybe it’s illegal and frustrating to have your wall graffitied. At the same time, living in a city is frustrating and can also be hazardous, which is maybe one of the reasons why cities can still be fun and vital places.