While I have had the privilege of visiting many big cities and exploring them, I have yet to actually live in one, excepting the few years I spent in Seattle during my undergraduate studies. Perhaps this is why graffiti still interests and confuses me. Some of the tags are crude phrases, some unreadable sprawls of letters and symbols, others works of art both beautiful and disturbing. I’ve never had the urge to venture into the night with a can of spray paint and have remained largely ignorant of this simultaneously underground and visible world of art, but even I have heard the name of Banksy.
First surfacing as a graffiti artist in 1990 in Bristol, Banksy has risen to a level of fame that few graffiti artists have, challenging the notion that the word ‘graffiti’ even needs to be attached to what he creates. He is an Academy Award nominated documentarian for his film Exit Through the Gift Shop and to have a Banksy piece on your building instantly ups the properties worth and desirability – indeed the exact opposite of happens to most graffitied surfaces. Banksy has an agent, a spokesperson, has given exhibitions of his work, everything a more traditional artist would do. That being said, his real identity remains unknown, since he would be prosecuted for vandalism if ever caught during one of his painting sessions (even though some building owners have granted Banksy permission to use their properties as canvases) and his work has been removed, painted over, and otherwise destroyed by official city bodies.
Is it art or is it vandalism? How does one define art? What are its limits, what does the term ‘art’ exclude or include? To Banksy, the idea that art only physically exists in large, cold museums, or the homes of millionaire private collectors is problematic and wrong. Art, which I think many would agree, is an attempt to capture or convey something universal to the human experience, and shouldn’t belong to an elite few or stand separate from the average person’s life behind velvet ropes and security glass – it should exist were people exist, live in the streets we live in and be accessible to us all, regardless of where we live, what language we speak, and how much money we have.
As a writer, I have perhaps a different perspective on this problem from Banksy. Unlike art, books are widely available for little to no cost, via the internet, electronic devices, and a wide-spread system of public libraries, many of which are connected by interlibrary loan systems that ensures that if one branch doesn’t have what you need in a collection, they can get it for you in a different collection. Text is easily translated and transmuted from one medium to another – quite unlike the art with which Banksy is so concerned. Yet, be that as it may, I have also found myself concerned with this issue of universality and accessibility, though not in the same, physical sense as the graffiti artist. I feel it’s important to make sure that my work does not feel exclusive – that I’m talking about something only one group of people from one time period of one social class could understand. I want anyone, anywhere, at any time to be able to read one of my stories and connect with it in some way. Banksy serves as a good reminder that accessibility can sometimes be a privilege, but should be something all artists strive for.
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