Searching for Banksy, by Nick Mount
We could stand in wreckage and adored,
Where nothing ever fades before it falls.
—Karen Solie, “The Vandal Confesses”
I’ve been loving the art of Banksy since around the time he tagged his first, now-iconic rat nine years ago. All online, sadly—in blogs, photo-sharing sites, web zines like the Wooster Collective. I haven’t travelled much outside Canada: no money, then children, then no money again.
Notably, I’ve never been to New York City. I say “notably” because New York is—was—the birthplace of graffiti, the crack-fired cradle of an art that inspired a ten-year-old kid from Bristol who has become, in the words of Shepard Fairey (himself no slouch), “the most important living artist in the world.”
Last week, I visited New York for the first time, hoping to see a surviving Banksy where it belongs, on the street. Long walk short, no Banksy. But while I was searching for him in New York, the Most Important Living Artist in the World got up in Toronto. For the first time.
I am trying not to take this personally.
The story goes something like this. On Sunday, May 9, Simon Cole, director of Toronto’s graf-friendly Show & Tell Gallery, posted photographs of three new Banksy pieces in the city to his gallery’s news page, after receiving a tip from a friend in New York. From there, the news jumped first to Torontoist and then to CBC News, the Star, the Globe, and the National Post—with many a flickr and twitter along the digital path. (So far, the Sun remains more interested in other kinds of pieces.)
Tipped by the same New York source, Torontoist featured four additional pieces, bringing our official Banksy count to seven (publicists for Banksy confirmed Monday and again Thursday that Banksy had put up pieces in Toronto—his first in Canada—but not which pieces, where, or how many).
The first three pieces to appear online are new works; one of Torontoist’s additions is a reverse stencil of the guard with balloon dog (à la Jeff Koons) that Banksy did in Los Angeles in April, later stolen by an art gallery; two others are versions of Banksy’s trademark rat, now wearing sunglasses in a wink to his new movie star status. The last is a characteristic bit of Banksy found art, a tree blown down in Saturday’s storm over a car on Portland Street, sprayed with the words “Take That!”
Good street art has the same core criteria as good real estate: location, location, location. The two rats were well (if obviously) placed, one in Chinatown and the other on Polson Pier by the old docklands and the recently defunct Docks, home to different kinds of Toronto rats over the years—and the venue for two shows last weekend by Massive Attack, including Robert Del Naja (a.k.a. 3D), the boy who introduced young Banksy to art by spraycan in the Bristol of the ’80s.
The sign-wearing businessmen seem less successful, especially in context. Mr. “0% Interest in People” adorns a wall in the so-called Fashion District (now buffed), while “Will Work for Idiots” (now tagged) hides in an alley in Portugal Village. Somewhere in the Financial District would have hit nearer the mark, or perhaps the Convention Centre to welcome next month’s G20 summit. I’m just saying, Mr. B.
Location-wise, the best of Banksy’s Toronto pieces is the L.A. repeat, on guard under the Gardiner on the rear of what’s now called 90 Harbour Street but fifteen years ago was the headquarters of the Ontario Provincial Police. Either Banksy does his homework, or he’s got a Toronto fixer.
But the best of the Toronto Banksys, all things considered, is a small piece on the back of a chain faux-Irish pub on Church Street, just north of The Esplanade. Here, in the heart of arts & crafts country, two men and a child stand with their backs to us, pensively contemplating a scrawled “Banksy” signature. It’s a wry comment on graffiti as art, a joke I and many others furthered (and fell for) by looking at the lookers. When I saw it Wednesday morning, the building’s owner spotted me taking pictures and was none too happy with the vandalism or my attention. “But you’ve just become a landmark,” I said. “And before you paint over it, you might keep in mind that a couple years ago somebody offered over £200,000 for a wall with a Banksy on it” (I don’t normally speak in hyperlinks, but there’s nothing like a good footnote to save yourself from a beating).
By nightfall, the piece was covered in screwed-down plexiglass. Hail, T-Dot’s Mona Lisa.
That plexiglass thrill has bubbled all week beneath the Banksy-comes-to-Toronto story, both headline and undercurrent in the usual art vs. vandalism debate. Has the Most Important Living Artist in the World put Toronto on the map? Has Fionn MacCool’s become our Louvre?
Well, no. Banksy didn’t come to Toronto for our great walls: he came, pretty clearly, to promote his new film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which opened in Toronto last Friday, the same day as the first of the Banksy spottings. He came here for the same reason he left art behind this and last week in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and Boston. Either he’s working with a crew, or the man’s accumulated more frequent flyer miles than the Times Square bomber.
Banksy’s visit does mark a kind of arrival for Toronto. At bottom, art like his attacks the usurpation of public space by private interests, a vandalism of the vandals. Banksy’s specific targets include big war, big business, our post-9/11 surveillance culture, the destruction of our environment. If Banksy comes to your town, you’re on the map, but it’s not a good map.
In the end, though, the main virtue of Banksy’s North American tour is simply that it got some of us out of our homes and into what’s left of our public spaces on a collective scavenger hunt, searching for Banksy and often finding each other, to stand for a moment in the wreckage and adore.
Nick Mount is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, and a regular contributor on street art and other subjects to The Walrus and Queen’s Quarterly. He won a National Magazine Silver Award in 2008 for an article on New York street artist Dan Witz.
Photos of Banksy’s Toronto pieces, as they were shortly after sunrise on Tuesday, May 11, by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.