05/13/2010 03:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop & the Rise of Street Art


Warning: Spoiler alert (although, after reading this, you may realize that this is impossible)

These days, when people hear the term street art, they often picture Shepard Fairey's Obama Hope poster, yet it has a diverse history that includes everything from Keith Haring's brightly colored bodies to the cubism of the graffiti world--the three-dimensional lettering that old school New York City writer Tracy 168 dubbed Wildstyle. It encompasses artists from Michelangelo--who wrote his name in the remains of Domus Aurea so many centuries ago--to Neck Face, Ron English, Jef Aerosol,Tod Hanson, Swoon, Twist, and, of course, the Pied Piper of street hype and city storytelling, Banksy.

Central to Banksy's allure is his anonymity. Nobody is sure who the artist behind these hit-and-run hybrids of the sociopolitical and the silly really is. Whether he's painting an image of children playing under a hole that opens onto Paradise on the West Bank barrier, mounting his own outlandish works without invitation in leading museums, or leaving a mock Guantanamo Bay prisoner by a ride in Disney Land to scare the daylights out of the citizens of the magic kingdom, Banksy is ever the human question mark.

In his documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), Banksy provides us with a candid look at the world of street art, a form the film's narrator (Rhys Ifans) refers to as "the biggest counterculture movement since punk;" or does he? He frames "the world's first street art disaster" flick by saying that Thierry Guetta--the mad Frenchman with even madder mutton chops--started out making a documentary on him; but the eccentric videographer proved more interesting in the end, and a strange switcharoo occurred: Banksy became filmmaker and Thierry became artist--the wildly successful Mr. Brainwash, to be exact.


Mr. Brainwash, The Cans Festival, Banksy Tunnel, London

Thierry's journey into the world of stickers, stencils, and streets that brought him to Shepard Fairey, and finally Banksy, began when he started lensing the idiosyncratic mosaic pieces of his cousin, Space Invader. With its short life span (often "cleaned up" by city workers soon after it appears), street art was in need of documentation, and Thierry was in the right place at the right time...if there ever was a Thierry.

Perched somewhere between truth and fiction, vandalism and art, the film presents a riddle of sorts. If Thierry is make-believe, then he and Exit Through the Gift Shop, sprung from the spray can of celluloid, imagination, and hype, just may be Banksy's greatest guerilla art installation yet.

The film leaves us with the questions, is Thierry an act of cinematic vandalism on a gullible, adoring public? Even more stunning: is Thierry Banksy? That we don't have the answers is the film's point--all great hoaxes have an art to them, and all great art is a bit of a hoax. Regardless of who can rightfully claim the credit, Exit Through the Gift Shop manages to capture the fleeting lyricism of an art form that most people only see while whizzing past on subways.