Books: Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by William Ellsworth-Jones


Banksy is not a graffiti artist. To call him a graffiti artist is naïve and ignorant way to think about street art, and is, quite frankly, painfully uncool.

Of course I, like almost everyone else outside the complex underworld of graffiti, had absolutely no clue whatsoever that there is a distinction between graffiti and what Banksy does. But after a look at Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, it is clear the difference is massive. Technically, pure graffiti consists just of the artist’s name and some characters, exclusively for the appreciation of their peers. It’s freehand and rarely pre-conceived.

Stencilling, and other forms of street art which have come to the fore in recent years, are a different game altogether. For these artists it’s all about the public reaction, about the artistic pre-determination, about being understood by the random passer-by on the street.

Will Ellsworth-Jones, though, is in no way an expert or insider in the world of street art. A large part of the book is the ex-Sunday Times reporter’s voyage of discovery, and it is a journey on which we happily join him. Ellsworth-Jones reaches out to the reader a welcoming hand. He has no pretentions, freely admitting that he is an outsider looking in. In this way his narration is inclusive, informative and, thankfully, lacking in any claim to superior knowledge ‒ a fault which often blights work on the subject of something so “cool”.

Mercifully, the book is in no way an ode to Banksy, our paint-rolling deity and King of edgy satire, either. Ellsworth-Jones manages to tread the tightrope of acknowledging Banksy’s undeniable talent and expertise, while also detailing the backlash against him, and the reasons for it. Not strictly a biography, the book examines Banksy’s place in the growing exposure and popularity of the UK street art scene over the past two decades, from the Bristol graffiti network of the 90s to worldwide stardom.

Along the way Ellsworth-Jones examines the battle between a movement which is supposed to emancipate art and the streets with the work it creates, and capitalism’s role in making that work exclusive. Various other contradictions in the very figure of Banksy are explored: his preferred status of vandal versus his role as an artist whose work sells for millions of pounds; his international fame versus his relentless anonymity.

It is an anonymity which the book has no intention of destroying. Many fans of Banksy, including  myself,  were infuriated by The Mail on Sunday’s reporting on his supposed identity, and even more so by their oh-so-Daily-Mail exposé on the identity of his wife. Ellsworth-Jones mentions this unmasking, but refuses to name him or engage with the manhunt which, in the words of a commenter on the Mail’s website has ‘ruined something special’.  The book is not about tracking him down, pointing the finger and lambasting him as a public school boy posing as a working class rebel.

Despite what the boast of ‘appropriately unofficial and utterly unauthorised’ may suggest, this book is a carefully constructed, respectful and intellectual debate on Banksy’s part in the upheaval street art faces, and is well worth a read for those harbouring only a fleeting interest in Banksy and his ubiquitous work.

words: Jennie Pritchard

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