Text and images excerpted with permission from Seven Years with Banksy (Michael O'Mara) by Robert Clarke. Copyright 2012.
This book, a true story, is by an old friend of Banksy's. In the book, he calls him 'Robin'.
"All right?" he said as he looked up, giving a customary nod.
"Yeah; good to see you," I responded. There was a slight air of expectation about him so I perked up and paid attention. We exchanged a few pleasantries and he got down to business.
"I've got a question for you," he says. I knew what he was going to ask. It had been the elephant in the room for some time and it wasn't going to be my hand in marriage.
He took a breath in. "Do you think I should reveal myself, you know, to the press, tell them who I am, let them know and all that?"
I'd already thought about this so my answer came easily: "No, no way," I said emphatically.
He'd brought the cold in with him and I shivered a little. I offered him a drink but he declined in an instant so I said, "You, you're the Robin Hood dude. Everybody's going to know you, know about you through your work. The papers are going to love you. You've got this Andy Capp appeal, don't you? From the Sun to the Guardian, you know. They'll all be talking about you. For what you've got to say. You're that good that you'll be on the tongues and in the minds of the population. You don't need to reveal yourself. You're going to be known by all anyway. And because they don't know what you look like they'll always want to know. Won't they?"
He was as composed as ever, listening, shuffling his feet a bit but didn't say anything. He obviously knew this stuff anyway. Sometimes you just need someone to confirm your own way of thinking. I probably wasn't the only one of whom he asked this question.
I went on talking, for encouragement's sake, but the main substance was said. "Who the hell wants to be famous anyway? All those fuckers breathing down your neck. It would spoil all the freedom you've got. You wouldn't be anonymous any more -- wouldn't be able to move around the streets, that would be fucked up. It would stop you. You can have the best of both worlds: be free and your work be known."
I looked at him because this occurrence was irregular. He had never asked for my advice before. I could tell he was really listening. That was enough deference, if you could call it that, in the absence of suitable words. He didn't nod, didn't acknowledge; the silence of consideration enveloped us and a bubble was around us. We were deep in conversation though we weren't talking. To me his rise was inevitable, he was the unique, the authentic; as sure as day follows night he would be known, he was just that good. Like an equation, you know, mathematics.
"If you make any money you should put some away," I added.
He cut me off real quick and became animated again and said, "No, nah, that's not important. I couldn't care less about that. I could go back tomorrow to what I was doing before."
"What was that?" I asked.
"Working in a slaughterhouse,' he said.
I tripped out on that. Who the fuck would go back to working in a slaughterhouse given half a chance? But it sounded true; I didn't doubt it for a second. This comment cut me down and I thought better of saying more. He was shaking his head. We came back to the room and the goings-on around us. It was the millennium's eve. Party time. We looked at each other a little. I smiled. It was good to see him at this juncture, at this impossible moment.
"Yeah, see you," he said.
"Happy New Year," I replied.
"Yeah, right," he said, and then he was gone.
I'm often back in England and I've observed Robin's continued ascendancy, the endless newspaper coverage and the 'looking for Banksy' hysteria. The kid is front-page news. His incursion into museums, his movie, he follows a line from Chatterton to Cary Grant, a lone rebel genius from the city of Bristol. He's shown you can be famous without being known and that has got to be the best sort of fame -- a whole spectrum away from cheap, gaudy, desperate celebrity. He shows up the complete and utter vacuity of celebrity. I would never wish that kind of fame on him, it's like a curse, Coleridge's albatross, weighing you down. It's just not worth the money.
The establishment want to take bites out of him although they could hardly give a fuck about his messages. Where there's money to be made, who cares?
I've seen, too, on the other side of things, his work trashed by holier-than-thou street politicos who believe his graffiti brings with it gentrification. He moves all sides into a fervour, that's quite an accomplishment.
Now, someone like me is obviously going to defend him. I've always loved his appropriation of images from the news only to transform them into iconic images of insurrection. I've always loved his humour and its dark, melancholic edge he can't shake off.
But now he's through the mirror, on the other side. It's where he wants to be yet I don't think he should become too comfortable with that, to lose sight of himself, to forget those who supported him, who would not reveal his identity for any kind of money. He doesn't owe anybody anything, that's not it.
Simply due to their acceptance of him, he has become part of the establishment, but they don't deserve him and from my corner he should rock their boat more than ever. There's a lot of us that don't want him to become 'flavour of the month' only to pass on into oblivion. That's the way the establishment will treat him. He's worth more than that. Not just another pop icon to be worn on a useless T-shirt.
I hope his clear-sighted irreverence continues if only because his work brightens up the Ballardian nightmare we reside in. What a shame it would be for us if he lost his vision, by being cosseted in success. We want him to live out his artistic potential for the rest of his days, because he's got it. He's got the right stuff.
Can Banksy live up to his reputation? That's the final question and I have faith, perhaps due to the countless number of times I would meet him and he started the conversation by saying, "Fuck, I was being chased by the law again last night. A real hard chase, over bridges, railway lines, across roofs and roads... they nearly caught me this time -- they nearly had me!"
See photos from the book of Banksy's early work:
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