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Art, politics and vandalism for sale

Rico Gagliano Sep 12, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: Art is big business and getting bigger. Christie’s did more than $2 billion in sales in the first half of this year. That’s up 39 percent from 2005 and this week begins a new cycle of buying and selling. It’s the fall art season. Thousands of artists are displaying their wares, mostly at upscale galleries. But on Friday, here in Los Angeles, there’s an art event of a different kind. From a different kind of artist. It’s being called a “vandalized warehouse spectacular.” Marketplace’s Rico Gagliano has more.

RICO GAGLIANO: On Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, Christophe Loiron stands in front of his vintage clothing store. On the wall near the door is the spray-painted stencil of a rat.

CHRISTOPHE LOIRON: When I first moved into this building, I saw some graffitis on my wall, and to be honest with you, when I first looked at them, I wondered what color paint I was gonna use to repaint the walls.

Then he noticed people stopping by to take pictures.

LOIRON: And asking me if I knew the artist. Some people mentioned his name, Banksy, and it took me a while to figure out how to spell it.

It’s B-a-n-k-s-y. And when Christophe Googled the name, he discovered his store had been vandalized by one of the world’s most elusive and sought-after artists.

[ Anchorman from UK Channel 4 News Video: Subversive graffiti artist Banksy has now created nine spray paintings on the controversial barrier which separates Israel from Palestine. Channel Four news has exclusive footage. ]

Much of Banksy’s work combines edgy political commentary with ironic humor and criminal derring-do. Last week he dressed a mannequin like a Guantanamo Bay prisoner and somehow installed it beside a railroad ride in Disneyland.

On the world’s most commercial surface, a blank billboard, he spray painted an anti-commercial slogan, advertising “The Joy of Not Being Sold Anything.” To fans, he’s a cross between agitprop artist and Batman, fighting the evils of authority and consumerism.

Never mind that Banksy paintings on old-fashioned canvas, are becoming very, very consumable.

GAGLIANO: What is a Banksy canvas going for now?

STEVE LAZARIDES: Depending on when it was painted and the size, anywhere up to over 100,000 pounds now.

That’s about $200,000. Steve Lazarides is Banksy’s agent. He also runs a gallery in London’s SoHo district.

LAZARIDES: There’s people who bought canvases 4 or 5 years ago for 500 pounds that can now sell ’em for 45,000-50,000 pounds.

So Business is booming. There’s just one problem.

GAGLIANO: There are warrants out for his arrest, right?

STEVE: Yeah, there are several police forces in the UK that are rather unhappy with him, I’d say, yeah.

Why isn’t Banksy in jail? Like Batman, he’s never revealed his true identity. He won’t let his face be photographed, he’s never released his real name. Which means Banksy runs his business like no other painter. For instance, you don’t interview him, you interview his spokesperson, comedian Simon Munnery, whose job is not to answer your questions.

SIMON MUNNERY: Who is Banksy, yes. I couldn’t confirm for sure that I’m not. And even the man I met, is he Banksy? I mean, he was in disguise. I’m not even sure if he knows what he looks like.

Agent Steve Lazarides again. He says the distance between himself and his client gives him a kind of plausible deniability.

GAGLIANO: Do the police ever come to you and try to trace him through you?

LAZARIDES: No, I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m just selling paintings. I pick them up around the back of a supermarket between a couple of old trolleys out the back. That’s how I pick up the paintings.

GAGLIANO: Are you kidding?

LAZARIDES: No, that’s how they always turn up. I get a phone call and go pick ’em up, back of a supermarket.

Here’s the thing: How can I believe him? Couldn’t this all be a put-on, designed to maximize buzz and sales? That kind of question might pose the biggest risk to the Banksy business. When your product is anti-marketing, you can’t come off like you’ve made *yourself into a money-making strategy. Banksy’s admirers say he hasn’t.

JOE LA PLACA: Well, would you want to buy a work of art from someone who refused to meet you?

Joe La Placa is a writer and managing director for Artnet.com in London. He says if anonymity is a marketing gimmick, it’s a bad one.

LA PLACA: Because a lot of collectors buy works of art almost as a détente. ‘I buy the work of art, therefore I get to meet the artist.’ Banksy isn’t having any of that. This work isn’t about his identity. This work is about something else.

Lazarides insists the work’s about getting across a message. That Banksy collectors are shelling out for a rare commodity these days: popular art espousing radical politics.

As with all things artistic, what that’s worth is up to you.

In Los Angeles, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

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